What Does a Food Chemist Do?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A food chemist conducts research into the chemical properties of food. This work can improve the quality, safety, and reliability of food products for commercial and institutional uses. Food chemists work for private companies, government agencies, and research facilities with an interest in quality and safety. Some may choose to specialize in particular topics, like dairy products or starches, to become experts in these areas.

Chemical properties of food are the main concern of a food chemist.
Chemical properties of food are the main concern of a food chemist.

Food chemists test products to learn more about their chemical properties and for activities like accurate nutrition labeling. Their jobs include tasks like quality control to ensure all foods from a facility meet certain standards. This can also be important for public safety, as contamination of foods with chemicals, bacteria, and other unwanted additions can be a cause for concern. Members of the public exposed to contaminated foods could become sick. A food chemist can work to prevent contamination and identify its sources when it does appear.

Food chemists may test pet foods to ensure the foods have all the nutrients that they are claimed to have.
Food chemists may test pet foods to ensure the foods have all the nutrients that they are claimed to have.

Another aspect of this job in the chemistry field can involve determining how best to prepare, package, and stabilize foods for transport. Many products do not perform well under storage in their natural state. This can necessitate some chemical changes during manufacturing to deliver them to consumers in a fresh, tasty, and healthy condition. For example, a food chemist can work with dairy products to pasteurize and homogenize them to create uniform, reliable milk, yogurt, and similar products.

Some food chemists focus their work on dairy products or another food subspecialty.
Some food chemists focus their work on dairy products or another food subspecialty.

Chemists can also be concerned with the improvement of food. They research topics like color and flavor additives that can change the taste and appearance of products to make them more palatable. Their work can include the development of foods to meet specific nutritional needs. Nutrition bars, for example, may involve the input of a food chemist to determine how to add necessary nutrients and keep them stable until the consumer actually eats the bar. This typically requires cooperation with nutritionists, health care providers, and other parties with an interest in the subject.

A food chemist may work to improve the appearance of food.
A food chemist may work to improve the appearance of food.

Some food chemists work for government agencies, testing products prepared for sale and enforcing regulations. They can determine if unsafe ingredients are present, or if foods do not actually match their stated nutritional labels. This includes testing of animal as well as human food; for example, pets can experience dangerous nutritional deficiencies if commercial food labeled as suitable for general feeding lacks key nutrients. A food chemist can test the product to confirm that it contains all the nutrients needed for balanced pet nutrition.

Some food chemists may create additives to alter the taste of food products.
Some food chemists may create additives to alter the taste of food products.
A food chemist may be tasked with sampling and testing each batch of milk for safety and quality before it is processed and bottled.
A food chemist may be tasked with sampling and testing each batch of milk for safety and quality before it is processed and bottled.
A food chemist is concerned with the improvement of food.
A food chemist is concerned with the improvement of food.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Mor

@bythewell - Well, I actually think they haven't done it because there isn't a whole lot of money in it. It would be really difficult to market to different people, because you'd have to make sure they were all taking the right mixture. The amount of calories and so forth that a person who runs three times a week needs compared with the average calories a person who doesn't is going to be different, but their iron needs will be different as well and I'm sure other things too.

It intrigues me, but I also wouldn't be all that interested in eating it full time. I quite like food. I'm happy to just keep on eating it.

bythewell

I read an article recently about a guy who decided he would work out exactly what his body needed in terms of minerals and other substances and then try to get the purest forms of those. So he basically made a mixture with fiber and iron and vitamins and so forth and only ate that for a month. He said, if anything, it made him feel much healthier than he did before and he intended to continue doing it.

It actually makes me wonder why, when we know so much about what kind of nutrition people need, this hasn't been done by food chemists already? I mean, it seems like the obvious next step after making a balanced vitamin pill.

umbra21

My mother was dating a guy who was a food chemist once, although he'd moved into the more clerical side of the job and usually did work on getting grants for his company.

He took us in to see the equipment they used though and that was really interesting. They mostly focused on meat and dairy products and they had all kinds of strange looking machines to process the meat so that they could do other kinds of experiments on it. Unfortunately I wasn't there while the machines were working, although that was probably a good thing because my sister was quite grossed out by the whole business.

It kind of opened my eyes that chemistry isn't always about test tubes and plain white powders being added to colored liquids.

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