Flavor chemistry: The science of deliciousness
Profile: Bethany Hausch, chemist, food scientist and technologist at Kerry Ingredients and Flavours
We are quickly approaching the holidays and it only seems appropriate that I blog about food, since it’s such a crucial component of the season.
More specifically, this blog post is about food science, and about how a good friend of mine, Bethany Hausch, took her chemistry skills into the world of flavor science. We met when Bethany was studying at the University of Illinois, and I’m so happy that I get to blog about her journey!
Bethany is a technologist at Kerry Ingredients and Flavours in Beloit, WI. She works in the Analytical Lab at Kerry where she uses various instrumentation to analyze flavors and study the composition of foods.
“Each day is different and depends on the tests requested from R&D scientists,” Bethany says. “Most days I work on three or four projects. This could include identifying the source of an off-flavor in rejected product or comparing the flavor of samples in a storage study. I might also spend part of my day determining the sugar profile of anything from coffee syrups to baby cereal.”
In undergrad, Bethany majored in chemistry (B.S., 2008), but when she looked at the traditional career options available to chemists, none seemed to be the right fit. Food science seemed to have more direct applications to everyday life, so she went on to earn her Master’s degree in Food Science & Human Nutrition from the University of Illinois in 2010 and immediately landed her job at Kerry.
What Bethany loves most about her job is the element of discovery and the fact that she’s learning new things all the time. Since the Analytical Lab provides support to all divisions of the company, Bethany learns about a lot of different types of foods and about the compounds that give them their flavor.
“I enjoy this field because I see the beauty of science while working on projects that are practical and have direct consumer applications,” she says.
However, the job also comes with a bit of routineness, which Bethany says she could do without. Also, making the switch from academic research to industry work was a bit of a transition. In her Master’s research, Bethany enjoyed taking a project from start to finish and grasping the big picture of the projects she worked on. However, in her industry job, her analytical work is one piece of a big puzzle that she doesn’t always get to learn all the details about.
Bethany often receives a blank stare when she tells people she went to school for food science, because most people don’t realize it’s a legit field of science. But she has been discovering more and more how broad the field really is.
Bethany says the skills needed to succeed as a food scientist are similar to those needed for other scientific disciplines: curiosity, attention to detail, good observation skills, and the ability to think critically and evaluate data.
To undergrads exploring the possibility of a career in food science, Bethany recommends getting an undergraduate degree in a core science, such as chemistry, biology or physics, followed by a Master’s in food science. Some universities offer degrees in food science at the undergrad level as well.
Also, she adds: “Explore as many career options and internships as possible before you graduate.”
Reason being the food industry is diverse— Bethany identifies three areas of food science that interested students should explore:
- Companies who own the brands we know and enjoy, such as General Mills, Kraft and Kellogg’s.
- Companies who supply ingredients or flavors to these well-known companies, such as Kerry. Even though Kerry is not a food company most households would recognize, their ingredients are integral parts of many of the products on store shelves.
- Independent research companies that partner with food companies to do basic food science research.
Something else Bethany recommends doing when researching potential future employers: “Spend time exploring their values. Identify your own values. Certainly you want a job where you are using your skills and enjoy your work; at the same time, it is very valuable to have the same mindset as your company.”
And last but not least, Bethany says it’s important to remember that there is flexibility to move around within the field, and “the career you choose in your twenties does not have to be what you continue to do until you’re 65.”
Bethany hopes to spend her professional life studying flavor, or more specifically, “to understand the reactions and interactions of flavor compounds with each other and the food system and how processing parameters affect the final flavor.”
However, all the details of her dream job, including which specific field of food science she’ll focus in on, are yet to be determined— Good luck, Bethany!
To everyone else, while you’re enjoying your delicious meals this holiday season, think of all the chemists and food scientists out there who labor to get the flavors all balanced just right for you to enjoy.
Also, check out this recent post written by See Ar Oh if you’re in the mood for a holiday flick with a food science twist. What timing– we totally didn’t plan that.