Please tell us about yourself
Starting this December, you‘ll be able to find Wrigley‘s spicy and sweet “Sweet Heat“ Skittles and Starburst flavors on store shelves everywhere—but of course these curious flavor combinations didn‘t come out of nowhere.
Most candy concepts go through rigorous testing before they‘re 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.
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 I‘d be the one making the candy when I grew up.
In high school, I really liked chemistry, math and science, but I wasn‘t really sure what careers I could go into with that sort of background. But my brother-in-law, who was my sister‘s boyfriend at the time, 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 couldn‘t 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. That‘s how I wound up in the University of Wisconsin, Madison‘s 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: It‘s 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. It‘s a prevalent job, but one that‘s 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 what‘s happening in your food as you‘re preparing it. As you‘re cooking, blending, chopping, or mixing and mashing up different ingredients together to cook or bake, we‘re learning what‘s happening in the food during those processes.
I also took food engineering courses. Once you‘ve 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: I‘m 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 they‘re something they‘d eat—and when we eventually get the results back that they love it, it‘s 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 I‘d 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 didn‘t 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 there‘s not much on the market now that‘s 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. I‘d 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. I‘m here thanks to all the connections I‘ve made along my career path. It‘s all about who you know, so make strong connections as early as you can. You never know when you might talk to the person that‘s 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 you‘re passionate about it, it‘s going to show through and you‘re going to do really great.