The Science Behind Food

March 5, 2014

The Science Behind Food

Bryan Scherer, a food scientist and Vice President of Research and Development at Penford Food Ingredients shares the inside information of the development of gluten-free food.

Ever wonder how gluten-free food is made? Who determines which ingredients will make a gluten-free alternative even better than its gluten-containing counter parts? The NFCA team went right to the source! We talked to Bryan Scherer, a food scientist and Vice President of Research and Development at Penford Foods Ingredients in Denver, CO.

Question 1

What does a food scientist do?

Food scientists are individuals who have a shared passion for creativity, science and food. They have dedicated their scientific and technical expertise to the study and understanding of food products and their manufacturing processes. They utilize chemistry, physics and culinary art to understand the composition of foods and employ principles of engineering, mathematics and biochemistry to understand what happens to foods when they are produced, cooked, stored and consumed. Some food scientists use their skills to develop new food products and ingredients such as gluten-free foods while others develop the manufacturing equipment and processes to produce these products. The overall goal of a food scientist is to ensure a high quality, safe and sustainable food supply for the general population.

Question 2

What are the major differences between studying and developing gluten-free foods vs. gluten-containing foods?

In order to develop a gluten-free alternative to a food product that naturally contains gluten, a food scientist must fully understand the chemical and physical functionality that gluten contributes to the food. In bread for example, gluten naturally has three distinct functions that must be compensated for with other ingredients which include: dough elasticity, network for trapping gas bubbles and a solid structure for cell formation. In raw bread dough, gluten is responsible for the elasticity or “workability” of the dough during the kneading process and forming the network that holds the gas bubbles produced by yeast during the proofing or rising step. As the bread bakes, the gluten denatures or “hardens” to form the structural backbone of the bread and the light cellular structure and texture. In order to match these functions, the food scientist must identify other functional ingredients like potato or tapioca starches, natural gums or hydrocolloids and gluten-free flours such as rice or sorghum flour in order to get a final product that looks and tastes like full-gluten bread. Developing a great gluten-free alternative marries technical know-how with culinary art.

Question 3

Does a food scientist play a role in developing all packaged foods or just certain kinds?

Food scientists can be involved in the development of virtually any packaged food. They can be responsible for the gluten-free product composition or formula, the manufacturing, distribution, storage processes and the selection of the best final packaging. In addition, sensory scientists are a specialized group of food scientists who try to understand and optimize consumer acceptability of a product in terms of its appearance, flavor, aroma and texture.

Question 4

How does food science impact consumer choice at the super market?

Food scientists will tailor their work to meet specific demands of the consumer. This can range from developing specialized foods such as gluten-free products, clean label products and non-GMO products for specific consumer preferences or needs. It can also involve making foods more nutritious and affordable, improving freshness and shelf life or making the product convenient to prepare such as microwaveable foods or dry mixes.

Question 5

What are you working on now?

Penford is involved in many areas of food development especially in the health and wellness category. This includes developing ingredients and products that may be gluten-free, non-allergenic, non-GMO and/or clean label. In terms of improving food products nutritional profile, Penford works to lower the fat, sugar and calories using healthier ingredients. In addition, the company focuses on adding back nutrition via dietary fiber and/or vegetable-based proteins.

Question 6

How long does it take for advances in the lab to be available on store shelves?

Depending on the complexity of the project, it can take as little as three months or as long as two or more years to introduce a new product or technology to the consuming public.

Question 7

What else would you like to share with NFCA’s gluten-free community about food science or your work at Penford?

There is a common misconception that food scientists spend all of their time trying to substitute chemicals and artificial ingredients for natural or “real” food. This could not be further from the truth. Penford individuals are not only skilled scientists and technologists, but also, talented chefs and culinary artists. Most importantly, they too are consumers who want to purchase and eat wholesome, healthy food products just like everyone else. We strive to ensure that we develop products that are healthy, wholesome and sustainable for an ever-growing and diverse population and meet the needs of a variety of consumers.