Feast or Famine: The Role of Food Scientists

November 4, 2014

In honor of Thanksgiving, we thought we would take a look at where our food comes from. Yes, chickens lay eggs, cows give us milk, vegetables are grown in a garden, fruits are grown in orchards, but how do we get them? Most of us do not run out to the barn for eggs or milk, nor do we pick vegetables from our own garden or fruit from a tree in the backyard. We buy our groceries from the store. But, how does food stay fresh through harvest, packaging, shipping, shelf life, and make it to our homes still looking good and safe for us to eat?

Food Scientists are the stewards of the field. They have the important role of preserving foods, testing the quality of the food, providing us with nutritional values, helping provide convenience of preparation, preventing disease, implementing waste management practices, and ensuring food safety. Food Scientists do this by studying the physical, microbiological and chemical makeup of food and applying their findings, providing us with safe, nutritious foods and innovative packaging that we see on our grocery shelves. Without food science, there would be no way to keep food fresh, nutrition would be a guessing game, food would look and taste bad plus cost a lot more, dinner would take all day to prepare, and there would not be enough food to feed everyone in the world.

While doing research for this issue of Science Scene Update, we came across a website for the Institute of Food Technologists. IFT explains how food science fits into STEM education by showing the importance of food science through articles and videos. There are also sections of the website dedicated to lesson plans for middle school that meet national standards for math, science, and social studies, plus chemistry and biology experiments for middle school and high school levels.

“Food science is the study of the physical, biological, and chemical makeup of food and the concepts underlying food processing.”

The chemistry experiments demonstrate the composition and properties of food components and the chemical changes they undergo during handling, processing and storage. The well-rounded experiment categories include Food Chemistry Experiments, Enzymes in Food Systems Experiments, and the Mini Experiments in Food Science series. The biology experiments deal with Botany, Zoology, Physiology, Microbiology, and Biotechnology & Food, including Microbiology in Food Systems experiments and Experiments in Food Science.

The IFT has also partnered with Disney Consumer Products to raise the visibility of food science careers and the innovative potential of the profession to develop healthy and nutritious foods. An informative video, A Day in the Life of a Food Scientist at Disney Consumer Products, may help to spike interest in this career for your students. Visit the IFT website for more information.

Turn to colleges and universities for expertise in food science studies.

Another source of information for food science is a university in your area which may offer degrees in food science. The Dairy Plant at Mississippi State University (MSU) in Starkville, Mississippi, is where we went to observe the making of their famous, and quite delicious, Edam cheese.

The Dairy Plant at Mississippi State University

Did you know that it takes 10 pounds of raw milk to make 1 pound of cheese? Imagine the millions of pounds of raw milk it takes to produce a year’s worth of dairy products just for MSU. And that’s a small number compared to the raw milk it takes to make cheese to feed the world!

The milk used to make cheese at MSU comes from 145 of their own award-winning Jersey and Holstein cows. These cows are milked twice daily and closely monitored for fluctuations in weight and overall health. Ensuring the most humane and comfortable environment for the herd is very important because happy, healthy cows produce higher volumes of premium, quality milk.

Six days a week, MSU transports milk from their farm in 2,000 gallon transport trucks to the Dairy Plant. Before the milk is taken out of the transport truck, it must go through several quality control measures: the driver smells the milk for any odors, the driver fills a sterile 6 oz. sample bag to send to the lab for extended testing, and the driver makes sure the milk is at the proper temperature and free of any antibiotics.

Once milk enters the Dairy Plant, it is put in the pasteurizer and heated to 161°F within the machine’s spiral holding tubes. All milk must be pasteurized in order to kill enzymes and/or bacteria that could affect quality and food safety. Once the temperature reaches 161°F, that temperature is maintained for 15 seconds. After that, the milk is ready to use and is pumped into one of their 7,000 pound cheese vats.

Making MSU's classic Edam cheese “cannonballs”

Making Edam cheese takes approximately 5-6 hours. Once the milk is in the vat, workers add an acid-rich starter bacteria to the milk. This bacteria produces the all-around flavor of the cheese. Next, Rennet is added as a coagulating enzyme that causes the milk to thicken to a gelatin-like solid. Annatto, a natural-coloring agent, is also added to give the cheese its familiar yellow/orange appearance. Using Annatto to color cheese originated in England many years ago as a way to standardize the color of cheese because a cow’s diet changes throughout the year, and the white color of milk produced changes with a cow’s diet. Manufacturers started using Annatto to dye the cheese to make it a standard color and to convey a high level of quality.

Agitators are used to constantly stir the milk for approximately a half hour as the milk begins to cook. When making Edam cheese, the milk starts cooking at 90°F and is raised 2°F every 5 minutes to a maximum heat of 102°F. At which point, the milk is allowed to cook approximately an hour and 15 minutes longer. The Whey (liquid) is then drained from the vat, leaving only the curd (solid). Special knives are used to slice the curd back and forth in a criss-crossing method. After the curd is cut, it is weighed, put in rounded, 3-pound hoops, and placed on the press. The press is used to press excess whey out, leaving the curds to form the shape of the hoops that are rounded on top and bottom, creating the round Edam ball shape.

After the whey has been pressed out, the cheese is taken out of the hoops and the top is trimmed with a cheese knife to complete the rounded ball shape. Then, the cheese balls are tossed into a brine solution (salt water). After being in the brine solution for 2 days, the cheese balls are taken out to dry before dipping in wax and shrink-wrapping for the aging process. Law requires cheese to be aged 60 days, but MSU prefers to wait 90 days which gives the cheese a better flavor.

Edam cheese was introduced at MSU in 1938 by Professor F.H. Herzer, prior to him serving as head of the Dairy Science Department from 1947-1958. Professor Herzer wanted to manufacture a cheese that would draw attention to MSU like the football team. And so, the 3-pound cannon ball Edam cheese came to be. Food Science students have played an important part in the success of the Edam cheese program. From 1946, when students made nine Edams per day until today when 400 Edams per day are made, Food Science students have participated in Edam cheese development. The Edam operation provides a self-supporting, commercial laboratory for teaching and research. In addition, the dairy processing plant manufactures all the fluid milk products, ice cream, and butter that are used on the MSU campus and continues to serve as one of Mississippi State University’s unique public relations productions.

As you can see, the food science industry is varied with many different jobs. By keeping food healthy from harvest to packaging to the grocery shelf, food scientists are responsible for feeding our world. Exploring this field can be a lot of fun for you and your students, and it may even spark an interest in some of them as they learn how wide-reaching this scientific field really is.

Stephanie Miller

With over 25 years experience, Stephanie serves as a senior copywriter, social media director, and senior editor for Science Scene. Stephanie is always on the lookout for new educational and STEM-related opportunities and technology.