150 food science questions answered

An Interview With Bryan Quoc Le – Author of “150 Food Science Questions Answered”

We recently got the chance to talk to Bryan Quoc Le, fellow food scientist and author of 150 Food Science Questions Answered (affiliate link). We had a great conversation about our passions for food science and about Bryan’s journey to first becoming a food scientist and then also a published author!

Bryan and I spoke virtually, in mid-June 2021, which just happened to be the one-year anniversary of his book! Seeing how the past year has been so strange, we of course talked about how Covid had impacted Bryan’s journey, some of which were definitely more positive than negative!

We hope you’ll enjoy learning about one of the many paths food scientists can take. If you want to be featured, or have someone you’d like to see featured in the future let us know in the comments of by sending us a note!

Please note, this article contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org. If you decide to buy Bryan’s book through these links we earn a commission at no additional cost to you. Of course, feel free to purchase the book elsewhere!

Chapter 1: Discovering Food Science

Even though food scientists know all about the existence of food science, there are plenty of other (scientists) who don’t. Bryan is just one of many examples I’ve come across in the past several years who belonged to that group. He only learned about the existence of the food science discipline later in his educational career.

Having always been interested in the sciences Bryan started his post-high school education journey with a bachelor’s degree and an MSc. in chemistry. Thinking he might have a career in pharma or, maybe start teaching, Bryan embarked on his chemistry journey. However, once graduated, he realized that what he had initially envisioned doing after, didn’t suit him any longer.

Organic Chemistry is Emotion?!

While studying chemistry Bryan developed a love for organic chemistry. Organic chemistry is one of those subjects in university that students either seem to love or hate. Bryan clearly fell into the former camp. One of the aspects that excite him is the link between the structure of molecules (which is what you study in organic chemistry) links with its functionality. A slight change in configuration, or switching out a few atoms can greatly impact how molecules work. This again can impact how that molecule might behave in our bodies and thus impact even our emotions!

red cabbage salad - showing the bright purple cabbage colour of raw red cabbage
Organic chemistry in action: the color of red cabbage is determined by a complex molecule. Understanding the structure of this molecule will help you understand why it changes color when the pH changes!

Unsure over what to do next, he embarked on a wholly different journey. One that would eventually, and unknowingly, lead him into the world of food science!

He walked 2000 miles across the USA, an impressive feat for sure. Walking such a distance presents itself with many mental and physical challenges. One of them, of course, being that you still need to eat and drink, preferably something healthy to keep you going. And this proved to be trickier than Bryan had expected. Frustrated by the type of food he could get at the grocery stores he passed by, a new spark started glowing, one that would eventually get him interested in the world of food and food production.

Back ‘home’ he decided to read more about food. Still being a scientist, he came across a scientific journal covering food science. This was when he realized food science is an actual field of study! Intrigued, he decided to put his chemistry knowledge to use in the world of food and he embarked on a new journey, this time to get a Ph.D. in food science!

head of garlic
Bryan’s Ph.D. dissertation was on the health benefits of alliums such as garlic and onions. A field of study where he could apply his chemistry knowledge to food. When studying the health benefits of foods, but also the flavor for instance, chemistry really is the starting point. You first need to know which molecules are present and what they (can) do to then understand their benefits. It’s ‘easy’ to claim something is ‘healthy’, really understanding what makes something ‘healthy’ is often a lot more complicated :-).

Fascinating Food Science – Umami

Another great connection with Bryan’s chemistry background is his passion for umami. Just look at soy sauce for instance. It’s full of umami and really brings together chemistry + biology + sensory!

Umami components are especially interesting, they’re a great example where 1+1 isn’t equal to 2. Instead, 1+1 may equal 10! Adding umami can really elevate a dish to unforeseen heights. Bryan enthusiastically tells about his love for sushi, which is actually a great example of umami science. Combine your sushi with a little soy sauce, or sake, both umami bombs, and it gets elevated to new heights!

Of course, Bryan has written about this on Science Meets Food and the topic is covered in several chapters in his book 150 Food Science Questions Answered (affiliate link).

Chapter 2: Starting to write

Having embarked on his Ph.D. journey, he was surrounded by (food) science and (food) scientists. Whereas he enjoyed doing his Ph.D. and doing his research, he realized something was missing. Maybe a career as a researcher for the rest of his career wouldn’t be the best fit.

Fortunately, over the years, he had met a lot of people (including his now wife!) who inspired him to look into other fields as well, one of those being writing. He had dipped his toe into this world after writing about his 2,000-mile journey through the US. The great connections he made through the stories he wrote about his journey surprised him. There was clearly something there to unpeel further.

During his Ph.D. these two interests: food science + writing came together, eventually leading him to write a book!

Finding ways to write more, preferably about food science, he started contributing to the Science Meets Food blog. This great food science blog (we’re a fan as well 🙂 ) is written and managed by students. A group of students to be exact, from different universities and backgrounds. Whereas doing research can be a lonely affair, contributing to the blog gave Bryan a chance to connect and chat with other people within the field. Connecting with his fellow authors, as well as readers, energized him immensely. Over the years Bryan contributed a wide range of articles!

Favorite Science Meets Food Article – Vanilla’s history

It’s hard to choose, but his favorite article on Science Meets Food, is probably an article he wrote on vanilla. The combination of history, culture and technology that shaped the story of vanilla fascinated him. In his research he learned just how we humans have used technology to make and improve our food for centuries. In the case of vanilla, we humans looked for ways to create the same flavor profile, without the high costs, resulting in the development of artificial vanillin in the early 20th century.

vanilla beans

Over time Bryan even became the editor of the blog and VP of Digital and Social Media of the IFT’s Student Association. That position probably helped catapult him into the next stage of his writing journey: writing and publishing a book!

Chapter 3: A book deal offer

Having grown a lot more comfortable writing and specifically writing about food science, Bryan had (unknowingly) prepared himself for the next step in his food science writing journey.

In late 2019 a publisher reached out to see whether he was interested in writing a book about 150 Food Science Questions. Deadlines were tight. But even though Bryan was also trying to finish his Ph.D. dissertation at the same time, he decided to take the opportunity nevertheless and jump in.

This kicked off a whirlwind journey to write the book. Having an initial proposed list of about 75 questions to cover in the book Bryan still had to identify the other 75. Also, he had to group and tweak some to ensure had to identify the other 75 in a matter of months. Luckily, being a food science student, he had plenty of others around him to advise and brainstorm on topics. This is how a chapter on food safety came to be for instance.

Most Surprising Fact

Of course, writing a book attempting to answer 150 Food Science Questions, requires a lot of research. Bryan could dig into his own knowledge and expertise, but also learned a lot himself. His favorite ‘surprising’ fact? The science of gluten. Again, it highlights his interest for understanding how people’s emotions and likings can be linked to chemical phenomena, a recurring theme. Gluten is a major reason as to why we people like bread so much and just how that gluten forms is all due to oxidation

Thanks to an amazing editor, the support of his wife, and a lot of hard work, Bryan finished the book, covering a wide range of fascinating food science topics!

The book has now been out for a year. Thanks to online book reviews, Bryan has learned that the book has been used by a lot of parents to teach their kids about food science. Whereas he hadn’t initially expected this to be the main audience, it’s been exciting. The book might have just inspired a next generation of food scientists!

Chapter 4: Graduating & Finding a job

Finishing a Ph.D. thesis is no easy feat, doing so while writing a book is even more daunting. But Bryan managed to finish both and then had to consider what was next. And that happened to be just around the time that Covid started to break out in the US.

Having finished a book, and having discovered his passion for writing about food science, Bryan decided to take the leap and continue this path. Instead of finding a ‘conventional’ job, he set out to create his own ideal work: writing about food science and helping out (small) businesses.

Getting started wasn’t easy, as it almost never is, and involved a lot of cold calling and sending (a lot of) emails. You need ‘proof’ to get jobs, but you need jobs to get ‘proof’. Luckily, by then Bryan had written a wide range of articles and had his published book which helped him get his first few assignments. Things sort of snowballed from there. By now, about a year later, he has enough work to earn a full-time income and has people reaching out to him instead of the other way around!

Interestingly, despite having to start out during Covid, in hindsight this might have actually helped him. Companies had to switch to remote work and had to reprioritize work. Writing remotely fit well into that scheme of things!

Nowadays, Bryan is able to combine his passions for food science & writing in his daily work. He writes for a variety of companies, ‘translating’ technical food science topics in ways that are understandable for consumers, but also potential investors and non-technical people within the companies he works for.

150 food science questions answered

What’s next?

Bryan has no plans for sitting still. Instead, he hopes to write a second book someday. This time, he’d like to write about food and history and dig a little deeper. Food has played such a crucial role in a variety of historical events, he’d love to highlight that more. Two topics that easily come to mind are the role of salt in world history, or the development of pasteurization technology. But he has plenty of other ideas he’d like to explore! Again, his interest for chemistry + biology + emotion + history comes up. It’s clear that he has found a sweet spot where he’s able to combine his different passions and interests into one! A great food scientist’s journey for sure!

References

You can read more about Bryan on his personal website (bryanquocle.com) and you can find more of his writing on Medium.

The Science Meets Food blog from IFT’s student association.

Bryan Quoc Le, How vanilla conquered the world, Science Meets Food, link

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11 Comments

  1. Could you make a new type of cheese ?

    • Hey Samuel. Thanks for your question. There’s several new cheeses being produced on the market, especially plant-based cheeses. Startup companies in this space, like Miyoko’s, have done a great job producing cheeses from cashews. There’s a lot of new opportunities to create new cheeses that have never been created before. Several cheeses were developed in the last couple of decades at my alma mater, University of Wisconsin-Madison, by changing fat, protein, and sugar content of milk. Since we have a lot more control over the composition of milk, as well as plant-based milk, the possibilities are endless. With the rise of synthetic biology, there may even be an opportunity to create new milk cheese proteins that have different textures, flavors, and characteristics.

  2. Great interview! Something I have been wondering lately – we all know onions make us weepy. I have noticed that shallots make me even more weepy though, they’re so strong! Is there any particular difference between them and, say, a yellow onion, that causes us to have a stronger reaction to them?

    • Hey Lauren! Thanks for your question. So the big thing with alliums in general (garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, etc.) is that they all have this one enzyme called alliinase that breaks down an amino acid found only in alliums into the sulfur compounds that give these vegetables their taste. Onions and shallots also have another set of enzymes called lachrymatory factor synthase (LFS) that converts these sulfur compounds into the tear-inducing molecules we all know and love. Depending on the type of the vegetable and how the vegetable is bred, they can have more of each type of enzyme or the amino acids that give rise to the molecules that cause us to cry. Also, sometimes if the vegetable has been kept in cold storage or dried after harvest, the levels are lower. Shallots tend to have less water than onions since they’re dried, so their levels of tear-causing molecules could be more concentrated.

  3. I enjoy making my own bacon at home. What is the function of the Pink Curing Salt?

    • Hey Kelly, great question! Pink Curing Salt is salt that contains sodium nitrite and is dyed pink so as not to confuse people with regular salt. Normally, when meat is salted, it turns into an unattractive brown-gray color. The sodium nitrite reacts with the meat myoglobin, an iron-containing protein that gives fresh meat its red color, and transforms it into nitrosohemochrome, a compound with a pink color. This molecule gives cured meats a more reddish, attractive color.

  4. How do enzymes in foods, esp. fruits and vegetables, affect body metabolism?

  5. That’s a very inspiring journey and a great interview! I am always curious how and why different microbes (yeast and bacteria) can alter the characteristics of food and result in a ‘new food’. For example, how milk is fermented into cheese, yogurt, etc. Let alone the endless varieties in one type of fermented food, such as cheese.

    • Hi Rosa, yes absolutely. Fermentation is such a fascinating world in of itself. A lot of how these microbes do it is through the transformation of sugars into byproducts like acids These acids cause the proteins in foods, like milk, to change their texture, solubility, and taste. Microorganisms also release enzymes that slowly break down proteins into smaller peptides and amino acids, which create very new and exciting flavors. That’s because we humans have a particular desire for a specific amino acid known as glutamic acid, which gives foods a strong, savory flavor. A lot of the flavors designed in the food industry are based around the use of these microbial enzymes and transform proteins from many different sources (chicken, beef, soy, dairy, yeast) into these richer, mouth-watering flavors.

  6. Does adding salt to water when bringing it to boil make it boil faster, or is that just an ‘old wives tale’ and the only benefit of the salt is for flavor?

  7. Amazing interview! It’s really encouraging to hear stories about people who can bring together different passions to create something new. I was wondering, when milk boils, why does it tend to foam and bubble out? Why doesn’t it act like water?

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