Expert Q&A with Application Scientist, Erika James

With a strong passion for everything food, Application Scientist, Erika James has been in the food industry for 11 years, working with customers to develop outstanding products. In her interview, she shares a glimpse into her day-to-day and love for solving customer challenges.

Q: What is a food scientist?

A: A food scientist applies science to the creation of food. The field tends to break into two categories broadly speaking:

  • QA/Food Safety – They make sure that food is being produced safely and that it looks, tastes, smells and performs as intended.
  • R&D/Product Development – We develop new ingredients and food products. This can take the form of developing a new product, adapting an existing one to remove an unwanted ingredient, extending shelf-life or helping to scale up a home recipe or back-of-house foodservice recipe.

Q: Describe how food science is seen as an art form.

A: Food science requires creativity and science put together. You need to be able to come up with flavor profiles that work together and advance the category you are developing in. You can’t math your way to something that tastes good because flavor can be so subjective. It’s an art to create something that matches exactly what the customer is expecting or something so new and innovative it makes someone’s face light up when they try it.

Q: What are some challenges that come with becoming a food scientist that most people wouldn’t know?

A: There are a lot of challenges that come with scaling up a food item. At home or in a restaurant, you can cook a sauce for hours to develop flavor. That’s not feasible on an industrial scale so you need other means to develop flavor. Additionally, a sauce or dressing can be one viscosity when you make it on the benchtop but when you take it to the plant and it has to run though lots of piping, it may come out thinner. That’s why I think it is valuable experience for every food scientist to spend at least part of their career in a production plant. That’s where the real magic happens!

Q: What does your day-to-day work look like? What types of projects do you work on?

A: My days are a balance of bench work, tastings and meetings. I also spend a fair amount of time working with our customers, which I love. I work on proactive applications to help show our customers how different Sensient products can help them develop outstanding products.

Q: What are the most common issues/challenges/projects that you help customers with?

A: Helping to mask acidity is a big challenge since acid is used to keep products microbiologically stable. Enhancing flavors is also a common challenge since there are flavors that are just not coming through strong enough. Currently a common challenge we have been seeing in the industry is reducing sodium. Salt makes everything taste better! How can we reduce sodium but still make products people love taste good? That’s something we help our customers with often.

Q: What are the most exciting projects that you’ve worked on?

A: I really like projects that involve a big challenge like making a plant-based version of mac and cheese or gravy. I also like when we can run wild creatively. We are currently trying a savory cotton candy, fingers crossed it works!

Q: What aspects of your work do you find the most fulfilling?

A: I love feeding people. Food is such a bonding experience. I love pouring work into something and then seeing it come to life when others get to taste it.

Q: What advice would you give future food scientists

A: Stay hungry, literally and metaphorically. Keep seeking inspiration. Engage in as many different food experiences as you can. It’s all “for science.”