Can you explain the career?
Traditionally, food and science and technology don’t exactly go hand-in-hand. But the combination comes naturally for Supriya Varma, the senior scientist at Frito-Lay. Varma uses science and technology on a daily basis to help develop processed food products like southwest enchilada black bean dip.
Many people think the job is “like home ec,” Varma says, which is a misconception. In addition to seeing products through from conception to execution, food scientists are responsible for ensuring that astronauts get the required amount of nutrition in the most compact way possible. (Every gram sent into space costs $10,000!)
What did you study?
After moving to the U.S. from India where she did her Master’s (MSc) in Food Technology at University of Mysore, to complete her Ph.D. in Food Science at Rutgers University, Varma pursued a career in food chemistry, a field offering much growth. As she points out, people love to eat – so the industry is very stable. Here, Varma discusses reducing enzyme activity to preserve a product’s shelf life, her views on genetically modified munchies, and her love of plain old Lay’s potato chips.
What was your previous job?
Formulated health drinks at GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals Limited in India
In a sentence or two, what do you do all day?
I generate ideas for new products, build prototypes, and work with consumer insights to get a sense of what customers want. I’m involved from design to execution of new products.
All different dips. We launched a Southwest Enchilada Black Bean Dip a few years ago, and recently launched a spicy nacho cheese one. We also do single-serve dips to go.
Emerging trends in the food industry:
Ethnic flavors and hot, spicy products – like Mexican and Latin flavors. Lots of consumers nowadays like those flavors in the form of snacks and drinks, which is a change from what we’ve seen in the past. Consumers used to be very intimidated by new flavors.
Advances you hope to see in the field:
While consumers are experimenting with new flavors, it’s still not in a big way. For example, they want to see all different kinds of ice cream, but in the end, they still lean toward the vanilla or strawberry.
So creating innovative new products is a big risk for sizeable companies like Frito-Lay.
Yes. Sometimes, we’ll see products come and go, and it took a huge amount of time and effort to have it hit the market in the first place. But there’s hope; many years ago, people barely knew about sushi, and now you see tons of sushi places across all cities, and even in grocery stores.
True, but much of that sushi is not true to form.
That’s another thing that concerns me about the food industry: it’s important that products stick to their true roots and are not diluted too far away. You want to give an authentic experience to consumers.
Misconception you’d like to change:
People think all processed food is unhealthy, but it’s not.
How do people respond when you tell them what you do?
Some say, “Oh, I was never sure how we were getting tomato ketchup on the shelves.” People in my field are the ones making sure astronauts get the required amount of nutrition in a compact way, since every gram you send to space costs $10,000.
Best part of your job:
I get to eat all day, but that’s good and bad. [Laughs.] You’re ahead of trends and get to see products in their entirety, ideas coming to life. It’s very gratifying to go to a store and see something you’ve been working on for the last year.
Something people don’t know about your job:
A lot of people think being a food scientist is home ec[onomics] or learning how to cook, but it’s not. It’s looking at food in a scientific way, and making sure the eating experience is the same whether you buy a product at a 7-Eleven on the road or at a large grocery store.
How to you apply science in your job?
It helps us understand how the products are impacted over time – in other words, its shelf life. If ingredients have lots of enzymes that can degrade the product, we figure out how to limit the activity of those enzymes. We work very closely with engineers and packaging folks.
Your required reading:
Food Chemistry by Owen Fennema. It’s the bible for food chemistry.
Views on genetically modified food:
It’s tricky. You want to make sure that the good attributes of food products are maintained and that they don’t have harmful effects. You see things like onions that don’t make you cry and huge cloves of garlic, but it’s important that the overall attributes – flavor, texture, and appearance – remain the same.
Do you have any weird eating habits?
I enjoy new cuisines and lots of quick, easy cooking – like frozen veggies, meats, and instant meals. I use them as building blocks and then customize those frozen products. I don’t have time to make elaborate meals.
How have advancements in technology changed your job?
We’re now able to store perishable crops without them getting damaged, which in turn makes raw material more readily available. Ingredients that were previously just seasonal are now available throughout the whole year.
Favorite Frito-Lay product: Traditional Lay’s chips.
Dream job in college:
I love animals, so probably working as a vet or at a shelter.
I don’t really have one. I do like The Food Network’s Alton Brown, though. He demystifies our industry and bridges the gap between culinary and food science.
Supriya Varma offers advice for aspiring food chemists:
Put in the time to understand the basic science behind the job; you need to like getting your hands dirty. A science background is highly recommended, if not required, since the job ultimately boils down to chemistry and what’s happening to products as they’re getting processed.