Life of a Food Scientist – Interview with Helen Mitchell

Using your understanding of respiration of vegetables to improve their shelf life, making a better cheese by knowing how casein proteins work, or coming up with a new way to bake bread. These are all things food scientists know and do, but there’s a lot more to it.

Today, I got the chance to have an (e-mail) interview with another food scientist, Dr. Helen Mitchell. If you’re considering a career in the world of food science, already work in the field of food science but want to know more about being a consultant, this should help you tremendously. Helen has a wealth of experience in the industry and is now consultant. She will tell us about her journey how she got there as well as what the life of a food scientist really is like.

Food Science education

Nowadays, there are plenty of universities that offer courses in the field of food science and technology. For anyone with an interest in food as well as chemistry, biology and physics it’s a very suitable choice. However, until only a few decades ago this wasn’t yet the case. A career as a food scientist was still pretty new, but highly rewarding. as Helen tells.

You’ve studied food science at Reading University. What made you decide to study food science at the time?
Helen
Dr. Helen Mitchell

I have always been interested in science and I developed a curiosity about the link between the food I was preparing during my domestic science lessons at school and human nutrition that I was learning in biology classes. I decided it would be a good idea to try to combine both interests and study Food Science at university. 40 years ago there were very few universities that had food science and/or technology courses and my school was not able to assist in finding appropriate places. I discovered however that United Biscuits were prepared to sponsor students through the BSc Food Technology course at the National College of Food Technology (affiliated to University of Reading).   I applied for sponsorship and was accepted by United Biscuits and thus my fate was set.

After your study you decided to pursue a PhD degree, what would you say was the main thing you learned during your time as a PhD student? How has it helped you in your further career?

My original career plan was to move straight into the food industry and to follow a more conventional career path through food product development and/or research and development. Fortunately I was offered the opportunity to study for a PhD at Reading and after careful consideration decided that this would be a marvelous opportunity to develop research skills among the UK’s most knowledgeable food science academics. However I found the transition from BSc to PhD to be quite stressful and harder than I had anticipated. I probably spent the first year wondering if I had made the right choice.  In the long run, it turned out that apart from the development of an ability to use new research techniques and methods and problem solve in a logical and scientifically robust manner, my time as a PhD student was more important to me as a time of self-discovery.

In terms of how a PhD has helped me in my career – I would say that it has given me confidence in my own ability and has certainly “opened doors” that would not have been available with just a BSc. In real terms this means that I have traveled the world and been part of some very important projects based on significant public health issues including sugar and salt reduction and improvements in digestive health through pro- and pre-biotics.

Would you have any advice for aspiring food scientists, whether still in school or already in another career?

The food industry does not seem on the face of things to be the most ”sexy” option for a career either in terms of image or salary. However despite the image, a career in the food industry, can be very satisfying and rewarding. What you need to remember is that the food and drink industry is a core element of the developed world’s manufacturing economy and in the UK represents over 15% of manufacturing turnover and employment.  Through a recession it is the sector that reduces its output the least and has returned to pre-recession output levels the fastest.  It is a highly competitive industry with over thousands of new products introduced each year.  Starting salaries are good and Food Scientists are in very high demand. Food Scientists and Technologists can make a real difference to a company’s fortunes and to population health.  The food industry is a global business so the opportunities for travel and working internationally are vast and varied.

If you have an interest in food, nutrition and life science topics and you have sound scientific qualifications I would recommend a career in Food Science or Technology.

As a potential undergraduate consider what part of the Food Science spectrum you wish to be part of – nutrition, engineering or product development – and find the most appropriate courses e.g. Food Science can often be combined with technology, nutrition or business management. A Food Science or Technology course that offers some working experience is useful as it is possible to gain practical insights.

If you are hoping to change careers to work in the food industry build up transferable skills and become involved with professional food organizations. Key abilities for staff working in this multidisciplinary environment would include being able to demonstrate that you have some working knowledge of the food industry and effective food ingredients with a strong scientific foundation. It is always advisable to be aware of the latest nutrition and health research and to be able to demonstrate that you can distinguish between consumer fads and trends.

cranberry apple pie close up
As a food scientist you shouldnt just know how your favorite apple pie is made. If a client wants one with less sugar, less fat or maybe more apples, you adjust and make it work. Other limitations can be the costs, or the ways it has to be transported, all aspects that you as a food scientist will take into account.

Working as a food scientist

A degree is really just the start of your food scientist journey. Once you start working in the industry, there’s a lot more to it than just chemical reactions and physical phenomena. For instance, when you’re developing a new cookie, the cookie shouldn’t just taste good and look pretty. Instead, it will also have to meet quality standards and legislation, maybe your factory is nut free, so you can’t use nuts. Also, the equipment in the factory should be able to make your cookie and the cookie shouldn’t be too expensive either. Also, trends and legislation change, so you have stay up to date.

Helen points these out as well, once we started discussing the type of work she does as a food scientist.

You’ve been working in the food industry ever since. It’s not always easy for people to understand what food scientists do. Could you explain what type of work a food scientist does?

Food Science is the scientific understanding of the composition of food under various conditions. It is a complex multidisciplinary subject involving a combination of sciences and a knowledge of the composition of food materials and their physical, biological and biochemical behavior. Food Technology is the application of food science to market, manufacture and provide safe food products to the consumer.

Food Scientists and Technologists do a variety of jobs in the food industry – everything from food production, quality control, product development, food safety, regulatory affairs, consumer research through to public communications and relations.

Could you give some examples of food science projects that you’ve been involved in that you found particularly interesting and satisfying?

Development of Sugar Free Chewing Gum using 100% Xylitol

What I found interesting and satisfying:

  • Using xylitol for potential public health improvement by reducing caries in young children.
  • Working across the disciplines of food technology, food science and nutrition and health.
  • Optimizing formulations and production processes.

Technical Portfolio Development of a Salt Replacer based on Magnesium

What I found interesting and satisfying:

  • Working with a number of leading academics in the field of salt replacement
  • Learning more about the effects of hypertension on health and the positive effects of minerals such as magnesium and potassium
  • Helping to launch a successful product in the UK through evidence-led science and practical new technologies
By now you’ve gathered a lot of experience in the food industry. What would you say is the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry in the past 30 years?

The biggest changes in the food industry from my viewpoint have been:

  • Increase in regulation, audited and risk management processes
  • Increased consumer interest in health and nutrition
  • Increased interest in “food as medicine”
  • Development of new technologies such as genomics and nano-technologies improving our understanding of the impact of nutrition on health outcomes
  • Consumer interest in natural ingredients and alternative diets
  • Consumer interest in “free-from” alternatives

heart with white powder imitating heart beat

Becoming a food science consultant

Helen clearly has a passion for her work, with an interest in the improvement of nutritional quality of foods. Over the years she has fullfilled a variety of roles within the food industry. She’s worked for various major companies such as Danisco and Pfizer. Nowadays however, Helen has become a consultant for a wider variety of food businesses.

You’ve become a food science consultant. What made you decide to become an independent consultant? What is your current expertise area?

As for many people, company changes and restructuring along with personal commitments made me decide to become a Consultant as it has given me some flexibility in my working hours and travelling commitments.

How do you find new clients to work with?

Most of my clients have come from existing contacts – but I have used networking activities through seminars, conferences and exhibitions to promote my activities

You’ve also found projects through Kolabtree, which is an online platform for connecting food scientists. What type of projects did you find on Kolabtree and how did they help your own business?

The majority of the projects I have been connected with on Kolabtree are small-scale food technology products for enthusiastic start-ups. The Kolabtree platform has allowed me to support small businesses who often do not know where to find the most relevant expertise to support their product development.

If you’d like to get an impression of the types of projects that can be found through Kolabtree, have a look at their success stories. There are several examples of food scientist’s involvement. One of them is the development for a gluten free bread, which was executed by Helen as well.

Wrapping up

Helen, again another warm thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and giving us a look in the life of a food scientist. Of course, food scientists all have their own expertise, interest and background. There is a wide variety of people and opportunities out there, as Helen also mentioned. Some specialize in quality control of factories, making sure factories meet all relevant standards. Others find their passion in development of new products or processes. It’s a broad field of work but I hope this interview with Helen Mitchell has given you a sneak peek at just one of the many possible career paths.

If you want to learn more about Helen Mitchell and the services she offers to the food industry, you can find her online on her website.

For further information on Kolabtree, visit their website. Please note that Kolabtree helped to bring me into contact with Helen Mitchell for this interview. However, they have had no control on the content of this article, nor have I been compensated for the article in any way.

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