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When it comes to the betterment of the human race, food scientists make it look like Tesla invented the paper clip. Once upon a time, we dedicated our time to searching for food; today, we're drowning in the stuff. We're even eating pizza in space! (Thanks to anti-gravity pizza dough, astronauts can now enjoy a slice where crumbs don't float off into the craft.) With food being one of the only industries not to suffer massive layoffs during the global economic downturn, demand for food scientists will remain strong as we search for healthier, more efficient, and ecologically sound ways to feed a growing planet.
Professor Gary Sandberg, the source of that tasty pizza anecdote, spent 17 years in the research and development department of Lipton before becoming the head of the Food Technology Diploma Program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. He spent his days devising foods like chicken soup, making sure they were the right colour, flavour, and consistency for consumers. Sandberg says trends in restaurant culture drive what people look for on the shelves. But research and development is just one aspect of food science'food safety and preservation are equally as important, which ensures we have enough food that's safe to eat. As Napoleon famously said: "An army marches on its stomach."
At the diploma level, (Sandberg's course), you're going to be getting a taste of everything, and you can enter the field with a diploma or bachelor's degree. But if you want to get to the top, you need to have a master's or even a PhD.  Depending on the company you work for, you may end up specializing in one of the three areas, or you could do it all. "For people who are interested in the business side, you have people doing food science degrees and moving into marketing, sales, technical sales, for example," says Sandberg.
That's the case for Lynn Pinto, technical manager of foods at Unilever Canada. She's not just challenged to bring foods to market with "the right sensory profile," she's also got big environmental and social issues to manage, with which food production is heavily intertwined. "Our plan commits us to three significant outcomes by 2020, she says, to help more than one billion people take action to improve their health and well-being; to halve the environmental footprint of the making and use of our products; and to source 100 per cent of our agricultural raw materials sustainably."
Pinto's love of food came when she was young, as a new Canadian exposed to brand-new foods. "This fostered a love of shopping, cooking, and eating different foods. That, in combination with some skill in math and sciences, had me investigating career choices ... that blended well with my passion for food."
Getting to work with other foodies who love discussing the latest chefs, recipes, and restaurants is also a bonus. Pinto admits, "we eat a lot because we are frequently conducting sensory testing on new product prototypes, production samples, and competitor products."
Food scientists in the making should know that employment prospects for the role are just as delicious: food manufacturing employed 219,000 people in 2007, according to Statistics Canada.  "People always have to eat, so you're always going to have a job," says Sandberg. Pinto adds, "As the food supply becomes more global, it's important to have food science professionals in Canada who understand Canadian consumers, customers, and regulations."
Reena Mistry, who just graduated with a master's in food science, had already found a job at a cheese company an entire year-and-a-half before graduation. Her advice to those interested in a food science career is to network. "Go out there, meet people, and find out what kinds of opportunities there are, because this industry is very big and diverse in terms of what you can do," she says.
Pinto advises to think holistically. "To be successful in food science, you need to blend consumer understanding, science, manufacturing, and creativity. It all has to come together."
Photo: Vlad Teodor/Thinkstock