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Cooking, chemistry mix in food science lab at UNL

Cooking, chemistry mix in food science lab at UNL

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Editor's note: This is part of a regular series about the courses being taught at Nebraska's colleges and universities, as well as the instructors and students involved in them.

Portioning units with precision, combining them over heat and measuring the outcome of the reaction through careful observation might sound familiar to anyone who has ever taken a chemistry class.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve been in a chemistry lab, think about it this way:

Measure oats, almonds, sugar, honey and oil, stir them together into a bowl, spread evenly on a cooking sheet and pop the mixture into the oven at 300 degrees for 15 minutes, letting it cool before eating.

What is cooking if not basic chemistry?

For students in the Food Chemistry Lab, or FDST 449 in the Food Science and Technology Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, chemistry and cooking are one and the same as this week was focused on measuring the oxidation of oil and fats using both methods.

The straight chemistry route required extracting oil and various reagents into a test tube with a micro-liter pipette and putting it into a spectrophotometer, which gives a measurement based on the amount of light that can pass through the tube.

The standard kitchen method used the soybean oils stored in varying temperatures for varying durations in a salad dressing and granola recipe, requiring students to record sensory information — a rancid taste, high viscosity, or slightly darker color — at the experiment’s end.

The core course in the Food Science and Technology Department, now headquartered at Nebraska Innovation Campus, built on a lecture about lipid oxidation, a common problem in oils and fats caused by improper storage, said Deniz Ciftci, a food engineer and assistant professor of practice.

“When the oils in the food product are oxidized, or an oxidized oil is used in the preparation of a food product, the sensory properties of that food product will be affected negatively,” Ciftci said. “The taste and smell of the food product will be bad. Moreover, oxidized oils are not safe to consume.”

But because FDST 449 is a class for seniors and graduate-level students, the future food scientists and engineers need to be able to demonstrate the why and how.

At one of about a dozen cooking stations in a lab inside the new Food Innovation Center, Ben Sidner, a senior from Lincoln, weighs dry ingredients using a digital scale.

The dry mustard, onion and garlic powder, salt and pepper will be mixed with one of three unlabeled oils — two were stored at high temperatures for different durations, the third was left at room temperature — as well as honey and balsamic vinegar to make a salad dressing.

Sidner said he originally intended to be a pre-med student at UNL before he took an introductory food science class, eventually becoming a food science major to stand out during future medical school interviews.

A summer internship has him thinking about staying in the food science field after he graduates next spring, however.

Ciftci said most food science majors go on to work with food processing firms, government agencies, or in educational institutions doing research, product development, quality assurance, marketing and sales, or education and extension.

According to a 2017 Institute of Food Technologists survey, the median salary for food scientists shortly after graduating college is $60,000. Overall, the median salary for occupations in food science is about $93,000 in the Great Plains.

For now, though, Sidner and lab partner, Quan Gin, one of more than 50 Chinese students enrolled in the department, wait for their dressing to set before finding it tasted fine, meaning it was made with the least oxidized soybean oil.

At the next station, Cade Svoboda’s finished salad dressing illustrates how different levels of lipid oxidation will manifest in a finished product.

“You can really tell the difference just looking at it,” said Svoboda, a senior from Ord, as a carrot pulls a glob of it out of the dish.

It has a rancid taste, too, which is the result of the oil being improperly exposed to high temperatures for several weeks.

Sidner said while the class learns concepts behind determining the oxidation level of lipids in lectures as well as the processes, the discussion at the end of labs like Wednesday's often reinforces his understanding.

"That's when it really comes together for me," he said.

Like Sidner, Svoboda said he enrolled in food science because he sees multiple pathways to a rewarding career.

There are opportunities at small companies like Scratchtown Brewery in his hometown, where he worked alongside his older brother brewing beer over the summer.

Or there are jobs in product development at large firms like ConAgra. Svoboda said he's keeping his options open, but is confident he'll be able to find a position in what he called "a wide-open market."

"Everybody's got to eat, so there's always a need for someone to make new products," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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