Please tell us about yourself

Starting this December, youll be able to find Wrigleys spicy and sweet Sweet Heat Skittles and Starburst flavors on store shelves everywhere—but of course these curious flavor combinations didnt come out of nowhere.

Most candy concepts go through rigorous testing before theyre even considered, and food scientists play a massive role in making those concepts a real thing you can buy at the store. 26-year-old Chrissy Jilek is one such food scientist, and she was the lead product developer on the upcoming hot treats.

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We actually chatted with Chrissy all about her role at Wrigley, what it means to be a food scientist and what makes Sweet Heat so special. She even told us how you might be able to get a job in food science someday.

Sweety High: How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Chrissy Jilek: Like every kid, I grew up loving candy and sweet foods, but I never really thought about how they were made or where they came from. I never could have imagined this would be my future and Id be the one making the candy when I grew up.

In high school, I really liked chemistry, math and science, but I wasnt really sure what careers I could go into with that sort of background. But my brother-in-law was at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and discovered the food science program there. He knew I liked science and food a lot and thought it would be an interesting opportunity for me to check out.

When I looked into it, I couldnt believe it was a real career and that I might actually be able to make food for a living. I knew it was what I wanted to do. Thats how I wound up in the University of Wisconsin, Madisons food science program. I got a lot of hands-on experience working in the food application lab and doing product development projects. We worked with food every day, eating food in basically every class. For a foodie like me, it was an awesome college experience.

My advisor there introduced me to an internship at Wrigley, so while I was in my undergrad I spent two summers at Wrigley working in the R&D, or the research and development program. Luckily for me, I landed a full-time job at Wrigley working in R&D.

SH: What exactly is food science?

CJ: Its a mix of engineering, chemistry, nutrition and creativity, all thrown together. The creators behind pretty much any food product you pick up off the shelf were probably food scientists. Its a prevalent job, but one thats not thought about too often.

While earning my degree in food science, I took a bunch of hands-on courses geared around food. If you were a regular science major, you might take chemistry, but as food scientists, we took chemistry as well as food chemistry, geared around whats happening in your food as youre preparing it. As youre cooking, blending, chopping, or mixing and mashing up different ingredients together to cook or bake, were learning whats happening in the food during those processes.

I also took food engineering courses. Once youve got an idea and you know how to make the product at a small scale, we have to scale it all the way up to the factory. We learn the different processes and techniques the factory will use to make all the products you see on the shelves from food companies all around the world.

CJ: What does your day-to-day at Wrigley entail?

CJ: Im currently a product development scientist. I get to be the hands and the voice behind the product we put out on the shelves. My role starts with an idea that comes down through marketing. If they have, say, an idea for a new Skittles pack, they hand it off to me and I put on my hairnet and lab coat, go into the lab and start playing with flavors and new shapes and colors, creating the physical form of the new candy or product.

From there, we bring in consumers and ask them about the flavors— whether they like them and theyre something theyd eat—and when we eventually get the results back that they love it, its my job to take that product to the factory, figuring out how to make it on a large scale so we can fulfill lots of orders and get those Skittles out on the shelves.

I get to create these treats that so many people enjoy. I never thought Id get to give people the excitement and the joy they get when they eat something fun and fruity like a Skittles or a Starburst.

SH: What was it like to help develop the upcoming spicy Skittles and Starburst candies?

CJ: I had the amazing opportunity to work as the lead product developer on the new Sweet Heat Skittles and Starburst. It was my first week on the job as a product developer and my boss handed me the project and told me we needed to make spicy Skittles. That was a pretty great surprise for me. We didnt know what it was going to look like or what spicy Skittles would even be, but it was fun to go into the lab to play with all these different fruit and spicy flavors to discover what mixes well and what we can do with that interesting combination of flavors, since theres not much on the market now thats already in that territory. We did a lot of exploration within that space to pave the way for how a fruity, spicy candy should taste.

It was a great opportunity and I got to learn very fast. Id be nowhere without the help of my amazing team. I had a great mentor with me the whole way, not only teaching me the best way to do the project and how to be a product developer, but also giving me the freedom to use my own ideas, exploring the flavors to create something based on my intuition. It was really great to play a part in developing a new candy that people will hopefully really enjoy.

SH: What advice do you have for an aspiring food scientist?

Get out there and try things, and always network as much as you can. Im here thanks to all the connections Ive made along my career path. Its all about who you know, so make strong connections as early as you can. You never know when you might talk to the person thats going to help you develop the rest of your career.

Also, if you feel that you have a passion for something, try it and do it. If youre passionate about it, its going to show through and youre going to do really great.