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Food Science Focus Evolves as Enrollment Thrives
Food science departments see an increase in applications
by Tina DiMarcantonio
In the 1980s, the microwave oven prompted the creation of new food products, and in the 1990s and early 2000s, consumers’ desire to prepare their food in seconds prompted the creation of off-the-shelf, ready-to-eat products. These trends demonstrate how food science has been influenced by the times.
So it is only natural that the recent spotlight on food—a number of food recalls and food safety issues in the news, the added popularity of the Food Network, and society’s generally piqued interest in food—would lead to a greater interest in the area of food science and increased enrollment in food science education programs across the country.
“Food in general is getting a lot more attention today than it did 10 or 15 years ago,” John Floros, PhD, head of the food science program at Penn State University, told Food Quality. “People are talking about their food in a way that I never heard people talk about food before.”
According to Dr. Floros and other food science department heads across the country, the last three to four years have seen an increase in food science enrollment, partially attributable to society’s increased interest in food.
—Kathryn Boor, PhD, Cornell University
We still have lab classes, we still teach hands-on food processing, but what we have done very mindfully is shift toward ensuring our students are prepared for problem- solving, for thinking through questions, for critical interpretation of information.
Not long ago, however, Dr. Floros and one of his colleagues at Penn State, Naveen Chikthimmah, PhD, published an article in Food Technology that revealed declining enrollment in food science programs. In 2007, Drs. Floros and Chikthimmah conducted a survey among 47 undergraduate food science programs in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, all of which offered curricula and options approved by the Institute of Food Technologists’ (IFT) Committee on Higher Education. From 1990 to 2005, Drs. Floros and Chikthimmah reported, IFT-approved programs granted an average of 11.5 undergraduate degrees annually. The average number of graduates increased to 14.4 in 2000 but decreased to 9.6 in 2004 and 10.7 in 2005. In total, 488 students graduated with bachelor’s degrees in food science in 2000; this number decreased to 326 in 2004 and 365 in 2005.
No official enrollment numbers are currently available, but Dr. Floros and others see a trend toward increased numbers. At Cornell University, for example, “the applicant pool for food science, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, just keeps growing each year,” Kathryn Boor, PhD, chair of the food science department at Cornell, told Food Quality. “We actually had record application numbers both at the graduate and undergraduate levels this past year for fall admission, and we had record applicant submissions for the spring semester for our graduate program. We think this is incredibly exciting.”
The increased numbers are welcome, according to Faye Dong, PhD, head of the food science department at the University of Illinois. “There have never been enough food scientists to fill all the positions in the food industry,” she said. Because of this, the industry has hired students from other disciplines, including chemistry, biology, nutrition, physics, and engineering, and trained them to work in food science—a trend that food science department heads want to end.
But Moira McGrath, president and founder of OPUS International Inc., an executive search firm specializing in food science, told Food Quality she has not seen this trend. “I find that the major food manufacturers either hire the best, someone with a food science degree, or the position stays open until they find the best,” McGrath said. “We see a few companies consider candidates with degrees in chemical engineering, but not microbiology, biology, or other sciences, especially not right out of school.”
Purnendu Vasavada, PhD, professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, said the cyclical enrollment in food science programs has to do with students’ decisions to enter majors such as computer science or biotechnology in the 1990s and early 2000s. “But the realization hit that all of these things lead to the processing and safety of food,” said Dr. Vasavada, who is a member of the Food Quality editorial advisory board. “People who are, for example, chemistry majors, microbiology majors, biotechnology majors, end up taking courses in food science or changing their major to food science. Many times, the trend is that food science enrollment increases after the junior and senior years rather than people starting at their freshman year.”
Dr. Floros attributes the increased enrollment to a combination of several factors. As mentioned, increased attention to food in the media, television programs, and books has brought food science to the forefront. Dr. Dong said exposure through the media, such as programs on the Food Network, has helped to highlight the field and recruit more students.
Dr. Boor agreed, based on conversations she has had with prospective undergraduate students, that the Food Network has played a role. “Also, a lot in the press about local foods and increased interest among certain segments of the population on improved health have also brought people toward the field of food and understanding how it gets from the field to the marketplace,” Dr. Boor said.
Recruiting efforts—by individual universities and by the IFT—have also played a large part. At Penn State, for example, Dr. Floros said the department now has dedicated staff for program recruitment. He added that food scientists across industry, academia, and government have joined in recruiting efforts by speaking at high schools to educate students and increase awareness of the field.
The IFT’s recruitment efforts have involved partnering with the Discovery Channel to develop a new career guidance program and the creation of a 30-minute food science education program, both of which launched in 2006, according to the IFT website.
Jeff Culbertson, PhD, professor of food science at Ohio State University and chair of the IFT Education Division, told Food Quality that the IFT is increasing contact with high school students and teachers by developing labs within high school chemistry and biology.
Most recently, the IFT launched its “Food Geek” campaign. In a statement to Food Quality, an IFT representative described the program “Are You a Food Geek?” as “an innovative and fun recruitment campaign designed to introduce students, and prospective food science majors, to the exciting possibilities our field offers and showcase how IFT can advance their career paths.”
Commodity vs. Science
In addition to changes in enrollment, food science has undergone a change in its focus. While the discipline used to be commodity driven, focusing on fruits and vegetables, post-harvest physiology, meats, or dairy products, food science education is now driven more by science, according to Dr. Floros. The four major areas are now food chemistry, food microbiology, processing, and engineering and nutrition.
“The basic parts of the education we provide haven’t really changed significantly. We’re still a very science-driven curriculum, and we have to have students who understand chemistry, biochemistry, biology, microbiology, physics, math, engineering, and nutrition. Then we put it all together and teach them how to apply the sciences to study food,” Dr. Floros said. “We’ve taken that one step further, and we’re now giving students an overall perspective of how they should use all those tools and what sort of issues and problems they will encounter in the real world.”
Dr. Dong explained that this change in focus may be related to changes in the food industry itself. “The foods we buy off the shelf include a lot more prepared foods with a lot of different commodities in them,” Dr. Dong said. “At the same time, universities have become less commodity oriented, and the undergraduate curriculum has moved away from commodity orientation and more to general principles of food science.”
Dr. Boor believes the discipline has also moved away from teaching technology and has shifted more toward teaching the theory and true science of food. Students are also more likely to gain a hands-on experience through internships and other opportunities, she said.
“We still have lab classes, we still teach hands-on food processing, but what we have done very mindfully is shift toward ensuring our students are prepared for problem-solving, for thinking through questions, for critical interpretation of information … It really is to provide students with truly a lifelong skill set as opposed to teaching them a technology that will be gone in five years,” Dr. Boor said.
Professional and interpersonal skills are also part of today’s food science curriculum, according to Dr. Dong. “At IFT, those have been the two big changes: moving toward outcomes-based assessment and incorporation of the professional and interpersonal skills in the expectations,” she said.
The incorporation of minimum standards to be granted IFT approval has also led to a general uniformity in the skills sets and knowledge sets of graduating students across programs at various universities, according to Dr. Boor. The IFT’s executive committee is currently working to revise the standards for 2011. “The names of the courses may differ from place to place, but if you look at that curriculum in total, you’ll see very similar outcomes in terms of students’ complete education,” Dr. Boor said.
The IFT approval process has evolved from a check-box type of system, where universities indicated whether or not they offered a specific course, to more of an outcomes-based assessment system, assessing whether students are fulfilling specific learning objectives.
Dr. Culbertson said food science education continues to focus on adapting new technology to improve the quality and safety of food. “We are constantly researching new applications, such as high-pressure processing or ohmic heating of foods, to improve their sensory properties and safety. We have also taken a leading role in the search for phytochemicals that have positive impacts on our health, as well as studying the toxicology of both natural and environmental toxicants.”
Increased Interest in Nutrition, Food Safety
Current food science education also focuses more on how food consumption and food in general affect health and wellness, an issue that drives educational goals in some respects, according to Dr. Floros. “Food science students have become more aware of what happens to food after it’s consumed and its effect to people’s health and wellness, which is something that wasn’t happening to a great extent 15 or 20 years ago,” he said.
Dr. Boor agreed, saying that students are now more interested in promoting healthy eating and production of healthy food. “We’re seeing an increased demand among our students for courses in nutrition, courses at the interface of nutrition and food science, and courses in the areas of food components that are health promoting,” she said.
—John Floros, PhD, Penn State University
The basic parts of the education we provide haven’t really changed significantly … We’ve taken that one step further, and we’re now giving students an overall perspective of how they should use all those tools and what sort of issues and problems they will encounter in the real world.
Another trend Dr. Boor has seen is an increased interest in food preparation and presentation and an understanding of food chemistry from the perspective of the person preparing the food. “This is really taking the science of food to the point of the interface with the consuming public,” she said.
With society’s increased focus on food safety and an increase in food recalls, food regulation and food law courses are being added to the curriculum, according to Dr. Vasavada. The topic of recall management was also added to food quality assurance classes.
Along those same lines, Dr. Boor said, “There is more emphasis on food safety in all of our classes and a clear integration between the need to understand biological properties of food and the chemical food safety as well.”
Food science has become more complex than ever before, and students must study more broadly and deeply in several disciplines, a factor that may have contributed to the decline in enrollment, according to Dr. Floros. “Food science is being called upon now to respond to changing technology and, more importantly, to what is happening socially,” he said.
“People’s interest in their food goes beyond just the food’s taste, convenience, and price, or what cheese goes with what wine, so to speak,” Dr. Floros said. “It’s an interest that now spans the continuum from personal health to planetary health, an interest that goes beyond sustenance and food safety, and links food to climate change and environmental sustainability, energy production and use, chronic disease prevention and consumer wellness, an interest that permeates just about every activity we do as humans. This change in people’s minds has affected their decision-making process and what choices they make about food, and, therefore, we as food scientists have to respond.” ■
Di Marcantonio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.