Food Science & Technology

Abstract

Why do we need food scientists & technologists?

Food scientists have, from time to time, been labelled as 'meddlers' in food, of creating 'unnatural foods' that are the antithesis of the 'grow your own' movement. In short, the bad boys of food!

Yet, the reality of the work of food scientists and technologists in today's world could not be farther from the truth, which may explain why we are in demand

The health and well-being of the nation depends on the ready availability of good quality food. How to feed 60 million people and ensure the safety and quality of the food products that they eat? That's partly the work of the food scientist. How does the food we eat impact on our health, for better or worse? That's our work too. How can food companies develop new products linked to optimal nutrition? And perhaps, most importantly, who is advising Government about food security and the role that the UK will have to play in the future security and sustainability of the world's food supply.

Traditionally, food processing has been largely concerned with preserving the safety and nutritious properties of food whilst allowing distribution to consumers. Canning was, for instance developed by Nicholas Appert during the Napoleonic wars as a means of preserving food for the French Army. He used glass jars which were replaced by metal cans in early canning processes such as that of Donkin Hall and Gamble in Bermondsey. Canned products were originally for the army and navy but consumer products rapidly followed. Other significant developments include the development of the quick-freezing process in 1932 by Clarence Birdseye which laid the foundation of the frozen food industry.

PROCESSED FOOD

To some people the terms "food processing" and "processed food" are synonymous with ready meals laden with fat and salt. This is, however, a very misleading picture of food processing. At its simplest, the harvest, packing, transport and storage of fresh produce is a food process. The processed food industry currently covers many sectors such as dairy (fresh milk, UHT milk, yoghurts, ice cream), baking (sliced bread, bread rolls, cakes, home bake products, biscuits), cereals (breakfast cereal products, mueslis, cereal bars), snack foods (crisps and snacks, nuts), confectionary (chocolate and sweets), eggs, prepared vegetables (washed and cut vegetables, mixed salad leaves in bags), canned products, frozen foods, tea and coffee, soft drinks, wine and beer and fresh produce (vegetables, meat and fish). In short, the food that makes up a vast proportion of our weekly shop.

FOOD SECURITY

Food security does not end at the farm gate - there is more to ensuring food security than simply growing more food. The food supply chain leads from farm to fork and food scientists and technologists play a key role in converting raw farm produce into food products ready for consumption. The goal must be to convert as much produce as possible into good wholesome products with a minimum of energy consumption and waste throughout processing, packaging and distribution.

HEALTH

While there is an increasing demand for convenience foods such as ready meals and bags of salad to fit in with our busy lives, we are all more aware of the risks of too high consumption of salt and saturated and trans fats. Food scientists are needed to find that difficult balance between reformulating food products to reduce levels of salt, saturated fats and trans fats while ensuring their functional roles within food products are not lost. Trans fats, for instance, play an important role in maintaining an acceptable texture in food products, but in recent years the food industry in Europe has reduced the content of trans fats in foods due to concerns about the nutritional effects of trans fats in the diet. Alternative formulations, which include some increases in saturated fat content and alternative processing, are needed to achieve the desired texture. The food industry is trying to reduce salt levels in food products. Apart from taste, however, salt is used to lower water activity and prevent spoilage. In bread, salt increases dough stability.

There is always a lot of consumer and media interest in the impact of food products on health. Scientists are gaining increasing understanding of the impact of specific food components on health. This is leading to new product innovation in the area of functional foods. Examples of such developments include probiotic bacteria targeted at boosting immunity, prebiotic carbohydrates to selectively feed healthy bacteria in the gut and dairy peptides to help reduce blood pressure. There is a commercial pressure to sell such products but food and nutritional scientists are needed to ensure that the underpinning evidence is sound.

Obesity is an increasing problem for society affecting nearly a quarter of adults and a fifth of children. Tackling this problem will involve food and nutritional scientists and technologists. Research is giving us increased understanding of how food products impact on satiety and the physiology of the gut, hopefully allowing the formulation of food products with reduced potential for contributing to obesity.

FOOD CHOICE

Producing healthy foods and functional foods is of little benefit if consumers do not choose to eat them. Understanding how to make a product palatable to consumers is the job of sensory analysis. This branch of food science aims to understand how we taste and smell foods.

CONCLUSION

We will need 45,000 skilled food scientists over the next decade to respond to these challenges. These men and women will have food science and food technology degrees and will be the foot soldiers in ensuring we produce enough of the right stuff to keep us alive!

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