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Test tube food? Food science professor says field is growing

In his more than 30 years as a professor of food science, Richard W. Hartel has never seen a more idealistic group of undergraduates than the current crop at the University of Wisconsin. Few bachelor’s degrees can offer the job opportunities of food science. But will high-minded ideals hold back the next wave of newcomers?

A combination of engineering, chemistry and physics, food science is changing the way we eat, professor Richard W. Hartel says. A combination of engineering, chemistry and physics, food science is changing the way we eat, professor Richard W. Hartel says.

In his more than 30 years as a professor of food science, Richard W. Hartel has never seen a more idealistic group of undergraduates than the current crop at the University of Wisconsin. Few bachelor’s degrees can offer the job opportunities of food science. But will high-minded ideals hold back the next wave of newcomers?

What kind of jobs are your students typically aiming for?
Product development — coming up with new products that appear on grocery store shelves. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of products that get released every year by the major companies that are developed by food scientists.

Why are those jobs so coveted?
People feel a real personal fulfillment when they go to the grocery store and see their products on the shelves. Plus, it tends to be the highest-paid salary for people with degrees in food science.

There seems to be some cultural backlash against your industry at the moment.
There’s a big portion of the population that believes the food industry has led to unhealthy eating. In some respects, I agree. The industry has certainly gone overboard in some instances. People do interesting things when there’s money to be made.

How has this affected your students?
I’m noticing something unique — new to my 25 years in academia. Students are coming in that not only want to do food science, they want to change the way people eat. They want to change the way companies make foods. If they have a strict view on foods, that might limit where they can work. But I would never say don’t do it. I think it’s a great change.

Is there really rocket fuel in a Twinkie, or is that an urban legend?
Now that’s sensationalist journalism! [Laughs] There’s a compound called methylcellulose that controls water in the cream filling. It’s also used as a thickener in rocket fuel, but, no, it’s not rocket fuel.

By the numbers:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 13,360 people are employed as food scientists in the U.S. The mean annual wage is $64,140. Food scientists must have an advanced knowledge of chemistry, engineering and physics.

 
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