Food scientists help cater to the global food industry’s insatiable appetite for innovation

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

To celebrate National Science Week, 12 August – 20 August, EducationDaily is publishing a series of STEM-focused articles featuring inspiring and innovative ideas.

Dr Alison Jones is an education-focused academic in the School of Chemical Engineering, University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney.

She teaches courses in Food Science and Technology, including Sensory Evaluation of Food, Food Microbiology, Food Safety and Food Preservation.

But before she completed her own degree in 2000, worked in the industry as a food developer and then transitioned into an academic career almost ten years ago, Dr Jones was a secondary student with a passion for food and dining, and a love of chemistry.

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When a friend told her these interests could come together in a food science degree – an area of study Dr Jones says is at the core of one of our most fundamental survival needs – she was intrigued, and says that the ongoing evolution of food production ensures it is a sector ripe with opportunities.

“It is a fascinating field – and a necessary one,” Dr Jones told EducationDaily. “People have to eat.”

And just what (and how) they eat, in so many ways, is driven by the work of food science graduates.

Although the field of food science continues to evolve to meet the changing demands (and tastes) of today’s multicultural communities, Dr Jones says “the fundamentals of the course have always been there”. 

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“A food technologist needs to understand the physical, chemical, and microbiological components of food,” she told The Bursar. “Another stream of study is to understand how to package it and market it.”

Finding ways to reduce packaging waste and how to increase production efficiency have, Dr Jones says, always been important. 

“But now the students are driving an even stronger interest in it,” she says.

When it comes to adhering to the 17 sustainable development goals outlined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the exciting thing about studying food science, says Dr Jones, is that it is “one of those disciplines that can actively tackle all 17”.

Sustainable food production solutions

Changing tastes in food reflect our search for greater sustainability and better health, and, says Dr Jones, food scientists help ensure that food production companies are “very good at filling those gaps to meet demand”.

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“Why are low-carb and plant-based foods on the market? Because the public wants that – and the food scientists help figure out the best ways to cater to that market,” she says.

Although domestic enrolment numbers don’t currently reflect an increasing take-up in the field of food science, it is growing across international tertiary institutions as more people appreciate the critical importance of the sector.

And for those attracted by what Dr Jones calls “the sexier side of food production” – think Heston Blumenthal’s colourful test-tubes of fine dining flavours known as molecular cuisine, or his scientific approach to kitchen basics – a food science degree can also dish up an impressive menu of possible career options, both locally and internationally.

“Food science can lead you to work as a nutritionist, a quality assurance specialist, in food safety, or as a flavourist – magical stuff,” says Dr Jones. 

Growing population demands innovation

As global cheese consumption is expected to increase, food scientists can even help cheesemakers keep up with our cravings.

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One of Dr Jones’ colleagues within the UNSW School of Chemical Engineering is Associate Professor Jian Zhao, whose specialised research includes bioactive food components, fermented foods and beverages, biotransformation of foods and ingredients, and innovative food processing technologies.

He believes that the future sustainability of cheese production could be reliant on our oceans, with the food microbiologist describing the marine ecosystem as “a vast untapped resource for obtaining food ingredients”.

recent study by Associate Professor Zhao and a team of UNSW researchers identified a seaweed species with sufficient caseinolytic activity – milk-clotting ability – to produce cheese.

“We tested seven different seaweed-derived proteases on their milk-clotting potential and found one was able to help make real fresh cheese in a lab environment,” Associate Professor Zhao said of the quest to find a more sustainable alternative to traditional rennet (a substance derived from young calf’s stomachs that is in relatively short supply). “But this is only a small fraction of the hundreds of different seaweed species in our oceans, so there is a lot more scope to find something out there that could be even more effective.”

But would the cheese be edible? With seaweed coagulant already widely used as a food gelling agent, thanks to the discoveries of food scientists, more research is needed, but the potential is enormous.

“Considering that over 70 per cent of the world’s surface is covered by oceans, it’s a tremendous untapped resource for food components, including the types of things we need to sustain cheese production as consumption continues to grow,” Associate Professor Zhao said in a recent article.

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Creating the menus of the future

With the future of food set to include some very different menu options, due to an evolution in food production caused by increased population and the impact of climate change, the work of food scientists is set to be a vital ingredient for our sustainable, healthy future.

According to the university’s own description of its food science-related studies, the UNSW School of Chemical Engineering “teaches students to look at the essence of the products we use every day, with the aim of reimagining and improving their manufacture and use”.

This may include learning “to combine problem-solving with design-thinking” and includes the chance to do more than work with food flavours and, instead, use scientific insights to ensure that food lasts, while still maintaining its freshness and nutritional value.

The breadth of the sector is, Dr Jones says, extensive and means that food scientists can explore careers within laboratories, commercial food manufacturers, the agricultural sector, “and so much more”.

“Thinking about ways to preserve food for longer and create packaging that is more sustainable and efficient, or how to let consumers know when food is going to spoil, are other areas of food science”, Dr Jones told EducationDaily.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]