Very few careers are truly cross-functional, deriving knowledge from multiple subjects like Biology/Chemistry as well as skills from multiple domains, whether it is for creating new seasonings, developing health foods or investigating harmful ingredients.

Our next pathbreaker, Niketha, talks about the fine balance of creative, sensory and analytical skills that she brings to her role as Food Technologist.

Niketha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from the Interview Portal about being inspired by the need to create sustainable food that led her to be a food technologist

Niketha, tell us about your background

I belong to a small village, Pozhuthana located in Wayanad District of Kerala. I am the only child of my parents. I studied in two schools, Montessori school –where I completed my elementary studies and NSSHSS, where I completed my secondary studies. Like most of the students, I initially aspired to be a doctor but later developed interest in pursuing something new & emerging, especially related to biology. I hence ended up choosing Biotechnology for under graduation and then did  Masters of Science in Food Science & Technology from CFTRI. 

I have seen lots of parent’s struggle taking loan and other debts for education. I never wanted my parents to spend a lot of money for my education and wanted to be independent too. This determination made me work hard  to gain admission into CSIR institute for my Masters degree.  

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Growing up as a single child I spent a lot of time alone, which allowed me to develop my observation skills. This helped me explore lots of ideas & opportunities during my undergraduation. I held office in the college union as Biotechnology Association Secretary. I also received an award as “Best Talent Zoology Student” in Kannur University.

Being from an agricultural family, I was always keen to know the science behind food served on a plate, and my father, a coffee planter, who always influenced me with his simple life, made me understand the value of sustainable food. Knowing my background and interest in food related topics my HOD at college told me about the MSc (Food science & technology) Programme at CFTRI. 

As an adult and single child, I worried about my parents being alone in my absence.  So I decided to do postgraduation in and around my home town. CFTRI is three and half hours’ drive from my home, which helped me spend quality time with my parents. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

CFTRI is a pioneer institute in Food Technology. The institute has excellent infrastructure to carry out any kind of food research under prominent scientists. Coming from a non-food technology background, it was a little difficult to understand the concepts initially. I always tried to spend more time understanding the basics and utilized CFTRI library to the maximum. CFTRI syllabus more or less covers all food technology related topics. We are supposed to do a dissertation and investigation within the campus under a CFTRI Scientist. I received the “Best Investigation Award for Academic project at CFTRI”. 

My investigation topic was “Detection of gluten using Molecular techniques”. Gluten is a predominant allergen in wheat. The wide prevalence of Gluten related disorders has led to an increase in demand for Gluten free foods. I developed Real time PCR method which can be used as a supplementary tool in analysis of gluten-free and naturally gluten-free foods. Safety of gluten free foods can be only ensured by providing reliable methods of gluten detection and quantification. I received the award for developing this methodology which assure the safety of food. Also I received appreciation for my presentation skill from judges. 

We also had industrial visits twice in the academic period, which helped us understand the applications of food science & technology in the industry. We are supposed to choose an elective subject in 3rd semester. I chose spices and plantation products, which helped me a lot during my interview with VKL Seasonings, a well-established and top food Company in India.

The interview process at VKL was pretty different from other companies who approached us during campus placement. I was shortlisted based on my resume and took the interview at Cochin. In the first round we are questioned on basic food science and technology and then we are tested for our sensory quality where we have to taste and smell seasonings and spice extract respectively. I performed well and they selected me. VKL always given ample of opportunities to learn and explore new things. 

How did you get your first break?

At VKL I am handling the snacks category. After one year of my joining, my team member resigned, due to which i took extra responsibility to support my category. It was a transition period for me from a fresher to a senior employee. I was able to handle projects independently & got various opportunities to meet big clients. When you realize your department head believes in your strengths and hands over projects to you to handle independently, nothing inspires me more. At VKL we always had freedom to explore other categories. This helped me to learn other segments like Convenience food, Quick service restaurants, Horeca segments etc.

What were the challenges? how did you address them?

Completing any work on time is an important quality. Initially I was struggling to develop seasonings in a short span of time due to lack of experience. At that time i felt that I can give my best if I got more time. Later I learned to manage time by properly planning my schedule. I used to spend extra time in the lab to understand various ingredients, perform multiple trials of seasonings, taste and understand as many seasonings as i could. I also tried to taste different cuisines at restaurants, new products launched in the market and make new recipes at home, which helped me understand how wet recipes can be changed into seasonings. I always believe hard work pays off. This statement came true when i received “Emerging Star” award during my second year at office.

Where do you work now? 

Right now I work as an Assistant Manager at VKL, a Research & New product development Dept.for a FMCG Company, Kochi . I joined as a trainee here via Campus placement.

In a Seasoning Development Company the most important skill is good sensory knowledge. We can learn it only by continuous practice of sensory analysis. A typical day of mine at VKL involves developing a seasoning formula based on the enquiry from client and should take application trials. I have to coordinate with other departments and customers for constant inputs, taking care of product quality and ingredient studies as well. The best part of the job is understanding physical & chemical transformation of ingredients. This results in  tasty seasonings. The real happiness is when you see your product at some shops or stores.

 How does your work benefit the society? 

Our food system has evolved over time. The commitment of food science & technology professionals is to ensure safe & abundant food supply and ensure healthier people everywhere. There is a lot of  misinformation about processed food in the society. But the advancement in food technology always helps to ensure constant food supply & saves cooking time. For example, making biriyani using fresh ingredients needs lots of time & effort whereas you can enjoy the same taste in half the time by using biriyani seasoning. This will help serve food to a large group in less time with less effort as well as assure food safety. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Most memorable work I did was when i developed an  economical range of seasoning, which was an all time challenge. Understanding the market and working is most important. I was able to create low cost seasonings for trending flavors in the market. I also created a standard portfolio of products for snack range items. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Observe & Listen …Always observe and listen to even small things in your life. This will help you learn new things and move with a certain pace in life. Make right choices when it comes to your career. Try to speak to experienced people and decide. Being in the 21st century there is nothing you can’t get on the internet, so wisely utilize this and explore all the best opportunities as per your interests. Before making decisions in life, always remember to have a satisfactory answer for the question why? and do proper homework before executing your plans.

If you’re interested in learning about Food Science & Technology there are lot of opportunities available globally. 

Future Plans

I love to continue as a food technologist. Food is the primary need of man, love to be an integral part of it and help the society overcome hunger as well as improve the safety & nutrition of food.