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Food Science? That’s a Major?

By Ashley Gifford, Oklahoma State University Food Science Undergraduate Student – As a college student, it is expected for friends and family to ask you, “so what is your major?” Many will say education or engineering or business, but mine’s food science. Food science? I’ve never heard of that! What is it? For as easy of a question it may seem, I’m always stumped for an answer. Well … it’s the study of the biological, physical and chemical makeup of food products, and I learn about concepts that underlie the food processing procedures. But how do you study food science?

By Ashley Gifford, Oklahoma State University Food Science Undergraduate Student

As a college student, it is expected for friends and family to ask you, “so what is your major?” Many will say education or engineering or business, but mine’s food science. Food science? I’ve never heard of that! What is it?

For as easy of a question it may seem, I’m always stumped for an answer. Well … it’s the study of the biological, physical and chemical makeup of food products, and I learn about concepts that underlie the food processing procedures.

But how do you study food science?

The food science program at Oklahoma State University is a combination of studies within the vast areas of chemistry, microbiology, safety, meat harvesting and processing, and animal science. Various topics are discussed, from the creation of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, or HACCP, safety plans to the prevention of spoilage in jams or the understanding of acidity levels in wine to the best curing agents that can be used in processed meat products, like as salami and sausage. The areas of food production that we discuss in the classroom covers a vast list: beverages, fruits, vegetables, meats, spices, breads, dairy, and the list goes on.

I never thought, at any point of my life, I would become a food scientist. Through my high school years in Upstate New York, I was heavily involved in agriculture both inside and outside of the classroom. As I took these courses, I contemplated becoming a teacher, a veterinarian or even a cattle geneticist, but definitely not a food scientist. When I was planning to transfer to OSU, I was given the humbling opportunity to meet with Dr. Clint Rusk, head of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences.

We discussed degree opportunities within the animal science program, but then Dr. Rusk started to talk about a newly evolving food science degree program. Looking puzzled and silently wondering why in the world this man was randomly talking about a “foreign food science” program, he started to discuss what the program entailed and the opportunities it offered OSU students.

After our meeting, I took the time to look into food science. I researched what job opportunities would be available to degree recipients, and I soon discovered the vast opportunities the food science program could provide me. During my research, I learned about the value of food science and the promising success of this degree. I decided to give the program a chance and applied.

My concentration is meat science within the food science program. A typical classroom schedule for me includes a food safety class, a food microbiology or chemistry class and a few food production classes (whether they are about meat or non-meat products).

OSU’s food science program is unique, as the classes are integrated with nationally recognized certifications. These include the HACCP certificate, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) training certificate, the Safe Quality Food (SQF) certificate and the Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) training certificate.

The classroom provides students the distinctive opportunity to express their knowledge with food industry leaders, as well as with the public, through participation in the Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center Research Symposium and Food Product Innovation Competition and the Food Science and Meat Science Quiz Bowl.

Students can become a member of organizations such as the Food Science Club and the Meat Science Association, as well as competitive teams like the Meat Judging Team and the Meat Animal Evaluation Team.

Outside of the classroom, undergraduate students are given the opportunity to conduct year-long research projects of their own. I was able to conduct a research program with fellow meat science students to learn about the various effects packaging can have on the color of chicken. Some of the projects my classmates have conducted were determining the cause and effects of meat discoloration, understanding how meat discoloration can be prevented through different types of packaging or the use between natural and artificial additives, and how to prolong the shelf-life of meat products.

FAPC has provided me many job opportunities while studying at OSU, I was able to work as a marketing and research analyst intern with Andrea Graves. I researched and developed fact sheets that covered various food trends, one particularly discussing the manufacturing boom of craft beers within Oklahoma. I also developed a “welcome” handbook for the Made In Oklahoma Coalition, discussing the opportunities and services that are available for newly joint members. While working as an intern, I had the opportunity to meet several industry individuals and visit their facilities to discuss and create marketing plans that were specific to their businesses.

Currently, I am working with the communications team at FAPC with Mandy Gross, where I have been able to work on projects involving both social and digital media, promoting the various programs and services that are available through the state-of-the-art facility. One of my tasks has been to write news releases and feature articles. I have had the opportunity to conduct personal interviews with students, faculty and industry leaders about programs and certifications that are available through FAPC and create promotional videos that are distributed using FAPC social media accounts to entice future food industry participation. I’ve also been given the opportunity to enhance my photography and photo editing skills as well as my graphic design skills.

Now quickly approaching my graduation in May, I can confidently say the food science program is everything and more, of what Dr. Rusk and the OSU food science faculty promised. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many honorable individuals within the food industry while pursuing my degree. I’ve been given numerous hands-on experiences working within the meat laboratories, on the meat harvesting floor and processing floor, and working personally with industry leaders outside of the classroom.

Prior to becoming a food science student, I did not realize the importance of food safety, as well as the amount of research and precautionary measures taken to ensure food being consumed is produced to its best quality and is produced safely. I hope in the near future, the study of food science and the understanding of its importance will be imported into school classrooms prior to the collegiate level. I believe the knowledge of food science is a valuable learning aspect that will forever continue to be a necessity for society.