Food Science Focus Evolves as Enrollment Thrives

In the 1980s, the microwave oven prompted the creation of new food products, and in the 1990s and early 2000s, consumers’ desire to prepare their food in seconds prompted the creation of off-the-shelf, ready-to-eat products. These trends demonstrate how food science has been influenced by the times.

So it is only natural that the recent spotlight on food—a number of food recalls and food safety issues in the news, the added popularity of the Food Network, and society’s generally piqued interest in food—would lead to a greater interest in the area of food science and increased enrollment in food science education programs across the country.

“Food in general is getting a lot more attention today than it did 10 or 15 years ago,” John Floros, PhD, head of the food science program at Penn State University, told Food Quality. “People are talking about their food in a way that I never heard people talk about food before.”

According to Dr. Floros and other food science department heads across the country, the last three to four years have seen an increase in food science enrollment, partially attributable to society’s increased interest in food.

We still have lab classes, we still teach hands-on food processing, but what we have done very mindfully is shift toward ensuring our students are prepared for problem- solving, for thinking through questions, for critical interpretation of information.

—Kathryn Boor, PhD, Cornell University

Not long ago, however, Dr. Floros and one of his colleagues at Penn State, Naveen Chikthimmah, PhD, published an article in Food Technology that revealed declining enrollment in food science programs. In 2007, Drs. Floros and Chikthimmah conducted a survey among 47 undergraduate food science programs in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, all of which offered curricula and options approved by the Institute of Food Technologists’ (IFT) Committee on Higher Education. From 1990 to 2005, Drs. Floros and Chikthimmah reported, IFT-approved programs granted an average of 11.5 undergraduate degrees annually. The average number of graduates increased to 14.4 in 2000 but decreased to 9.6 in 2004 and 10.7 in 2005. In total, 488 students graduated with bachelor’s degrees in food science in 2000; this number decreased to 326 in 2004 and 365 in 2005.

Enrollment Increasing

The 2009 Cornell University Food Science Club. The chair of the food science department said the program’s enrollment “just keeps going up.”

The 2009 Cornell University Food Science Club. The chair of the food science department said the program’s enrollment “just keeps going up.”

No official enrollment numbers are currently available, but Dr. Floros and others see a trend toward increased numbers. At Cornell University, for example, “the applicant pool for food science, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, just keeps growing each year,” Kathryn Boor, PhD, chair of the food science department at Cornell, told Food Quality. “We actually had record application numbers both at the graduate and undergraduate levels this past year for fall admission, and we had record applicant submissions for the spring semester for our graduate program. We think this is incredibly exciting.”

The increased numbers are welcome, according to Faye Dong, PhD, head of the food science department at the University of Illinois. “There have never been enough food scientists to fill all the positions in the food industry,” she said. Because of this, the industry has hired students from other disciplines, including chemistry, biology, nutrition, physics, and engineering, and trained them to work in food science—a trend that food science department heads want to end.

But Moira McGrath, president and founder of OPUS International Inc., an executive search firm specializing in food science, told Food Quality she has not seen this trend. “I find that the major food manufacturers either hire the best, someone with a food science degree, or the position stays open until they find the best,” McGrath said. “We see a few companies consider candidates with degrees in chemical engineering, but not microbiology, biology, or other sciences, especially not right out of school.”

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