Q&A with a food scientist: Enzymes, birthday cake and curiosity

Q&A with a food scientist: Enzymes, birthday cake and curiosity

Forget immaculately plated dishes on crisp, white dinnerware… it’s all about the perfect puree in Jennifer Jensen’s lab at the Eurofins Nutrition Analysis Center in Des Moines. Jensen, an associate scientist, tests foods for their nutritional content — a job that’s always interesting but not always pretty, she says.

SCI sat down with Jensen to learn more about life as a food scientist, and in honor of our 10th Downtown Birthday Party this Saturday, we couldn’t pass up the chance to ask an expert about the chemistry of birthday cake.

SCI: Can you describe your work as a food scientist at Eurofins?

JJ: We do nutritional testing. We test for anything that’s on a nutrition label. We test for fat content, as well as how many calories are in a certain food. We test for vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and more. There’s always something different happening. I work specifically in the enzymes department, so my department primarily tests animal food. We test how much of a certain enzyme is in the food, so an animal can digest it more easily.

SCI: Why it important to have basic knowledge of food science?

JJ: Your body is a machine, and you want to make sure your machine is running as well as it can. You want to make sure you’re putting things into your body that help it to run well. You want to look at the label and look what’s in the food you’re eating, so your body has a good balance.

SCI: We’re serving birthday cake at our 10th Downtown Birthday Party on Saturday, May 16. What can you tell us about the chemistry behind the perfect birthday cake?

JJ: Baking is a bit different than cooking in general. When you’re cooking a stew, for example, everything has a role. Each ingredient contributes a flavor. When you’re baking, you have to be a lot more careful about measuring. Every single thing you add has a specific job to do. You have to be careful that everything is in the right ratio, or your cake won’t rise correctly. Or, it could rise correctly, but if you add too much baking soda or powder, it could fall. It could rise really pretty and then all the bubbles could rise to the top, and it will fall flat like a pancake. If you use the wrong kind of flour, your cake could be too hard like a hockey puck. You have to be a little more careful when you’re baking than when you’re cooking because every ingredient has a specific role.

SCI: What are some common misconceptions you’ve experienced as a food scientist?

JJ: I get a lot of funny looks because I’m a woman. It’s not usually the first job people think that I would have. When people come through the lab, though, they’ll see quite a few women who work as chemists and food scientists. Another thing is that food science isn’t always pretty work. On a lot of TV shows, chemistry is portrayed as really clean and pretty. While it’s interesting, it’s not always all that pretty. You think about a food, and you have to mash it all up together before you can test it. When people send us food to test, we have to mix it all up so we can get accurate results from the testing. It’s interesting but not always all that pretty.

SCI: Do you have any advice for young women who are considering STEM careers?

JJ: Just do it. If you’re interested in something, go for it. Don’t let other people dampen your curiosity. Science isn’t a field that you should be afraid of or worried about. Just do it. There’s a lot of people who will help you along the way, and there’s always people you can talk to if you’re interested in it, and we’ll help you out.

Category: General SCI