Lauren Grosskopf eats food for a living.
Well, that’s just one part of her job. There’s actually a lot more to being a food scientist than taste testing all day. But she admits that this is the part that attracted her to the profession.
We recently spoke to Grosskopf, a senior food scientist at Kraft who previously worked as a product development technician at Mars Chocolate, to learn what food scientists really do all day.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
BUSINESS INSIDER: First, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Lauren Grosskopf: I am 28, originally from Orland Park, Illinois, but I’ve lived in Downtown Chicago for the past five years. For my undergrad I went to University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and pursued a BS in Food Science with a minor in Chemistry, and graduated in 2008. After Illinois, I attended Kendall College for Culinary, and graduated with my Professional Cookery Certificate in 2009. I currently work for Kraft in their Naturals category and am looking at programs to pursue a Masters in Nutrition next. Besides food, my biggest hobbies are running, yoga, cooking, and laughing.
BI: How did you decide you wanted to be a food scientist?
LG: My sister and I were going through majors, and she had asked me what I liked. Easy: food. So I decided to pursue my greatest passion by majoring in Food Science. I did talk to a few friends before choosing the major that told me about relatives working in the food industry and making new foods, so I definitely felt like I made the right decision.
BI: What exactly is a food scientist?
LG: A food scientist is a person who further analyses the properties of food: biological, physical, or chemical. We’ll get a product and dissect it from the outside in — really understanding the chemical makeup of the food and then exploring from there.
BI: What do most people think your job entails? Are there a lot of common misconceptions about food science?
LG: A lot people think we that stand around in a kitchen and just taste test foods all day, maybe wear a lab coat. But for the most part, I’m not sure that people know what to think when I tell them what I do. I think when I’ve talked about food brands that I work on, most people think that there’s not a lot of science beyond the surface.
BI: What type of education and training is required to become a food scientist?
LG: Typically I work with a mix of Food Science and Chemical Engineer majors. I believe that those would be most preferred; however, I have seen other professionals with Biology, Chemistry, or Science backgrounds. Typical schooling required would be your Bachelors — so four years. Any additional schooling would depend on how specialised you would like to get in your field. Some positions do require a Masters of Science, depending on the company you’re working for.
BI: Tell me about your current job, and any previous jobs you enjoyed.
LG: I currently work at Kraft Foods in Glenview, Illinois. I recently just switched categories from working on Velveeta and Grated Italian Cheese to our Naturals Category. I’ve worked mostly on innovation and NPD (new product development). Before Kraft, I worked for Mars Chocolate North America. I did Product Development for several years working on their ice cream brands (Dove, Snickers, Twix, M&Ms, etc.), KUDOS, and Combos.
BI: Can you run me though a typical day at work?
LG: Well, my days definitely vary based on where I am in a project. But on a typical day, I wake up, get ready, and drive up to Glenview. I have my coffee (a must) and breakfast and catch up on emails. Then my meetings will start. Normally I’ll meet with our cross functional team (Marketing, Finance, Operations, Quality, Consumer Insights, Culinary, etc.) to discuss my current project, where we are in the project, and what are the current risks that would cause us not to meet the launch timing.
Typical project work throughout the day normally involves reviewing or finalising recipes. For instance, I often work with Micro and Food Safety to discuss recipe analytics or micro requirements.
I may also work with our Quality group throughout the day to make sure we are meeting all quality procedures in place for this current project.
I’ll also work with our Operations group to talk through the best way to engineer the recipe and execute this project in a plant trial: what the risks are, what we need to prepare for, and so on.
After this, I may have a team tasting either in one of our kitchens or the lab to evaluate the formula for recipe performance or overall comparison to our gold standard product. I sometimes do some work in the lab testing or possibly running additional recipes in our pilot plant and evaluating based on the feedback from our team tasting.
Then my day is normally done. I pack up and drive to back downtown for yoga then make dinner and just relax for the rest of the night.
BI: What’s the best part of your job?
LG: Hands down, innovation. It’s so fun to play in the kitchens and find new ways for the consumers to use your products. We’ve had innovation days and ideation sessions and those are always my favourite days. Playing around in the lab and making benchtop prototypes or even making prototypes in the pilot plant, those are also fun and challenging days, because they really allow you to be creative.
BI: What’s the worst part of your job?
LG: The travelling. There are times when you travel for weeks at a time and you don’t always get to go to the most glamorous locations. This is typically when you are starting up a new project at a plant or your have some intensive trials that you need to get done. The travelling can weigh on you, but luckily it comes in waves.
BI: What would surprise people most about your job?
LG: The amount of work it takes to get new products to the shelves. It’s mind-boggling. You run through multiple iterations of recipes, then you put recipes through consumer testing and possibly tweak them, and then there may be formulation issues that can pop up over shelf life. There’s a lot of start, stop, start over. This can be frustrating especially when you’re working on innovation, but well worth it if your product finally hits the shelves. So we always prepare for the worst, but expect the best.
BI: What’s the coolest thing you’ve done in your career, or a product you’re particularly proud of?
LG: Culinary School was a big step in a direction that most people weren’t expecting from me. In college, my favourite course was this methods of food class. After we reviewed the science then we had a lab in the kitchens where we could draw a greater understanding of how the two linked. So exploring further into the culinary world always interested me.
Culinary school opened doors beyond what a Bachelors of Science could do. This was much less of taking tests and going to your different chemistry labs. These classes helped you tap into a skillset that you probably didn’t have before. It has definitely added value to my career — something that is looked highly upon at both Mars and Kraft.
But as far as projects go, this would actually go back to my days when I worked for Mars. By far one of the projects that I’m most proud of would be our Dove Pint renovation. I had just finished up at Kendall College and we were trying to develop new and exciting flavours. I had worked on probably 10 or 15 different flavour combinations and we wound up launching Chocolate Cherry Amaretto, Chocolate Dulce de Leche, and Chocolate Peanut Butter pints. They were amazing and so fresh and innovative. I will always look back on that project and be particularly proud.
BI: What’s the most common question you get after telling someone what you do for a living?
LG: “You’re a scientist?!” Then it will probably get followed up with, “That is SO cool.” I think people hear food and they are like, game on.
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