Guide to College Majors in Nutrition & Food Science

Food is an important part of a balanced diet.
--Fran Lebowitz

What is Food Science?

The importance of what we eat is often overlooked in the frenzied rush of everyday life. The CDC reports that a 33.8 percent of American adults and 17% of children were overweight in 2008, leading to a rise in diabetes, heart disease and other life-threatening conditions. Nutrition and food science experts enjoy helping people lead healthier lives through a balanced diet.

Nutrition and food science degrees focus on the chemical and biological components of our food and the ways in which these ingredients affect our health. Nutritionists and dietitians also study the social impacts of the foods we eat, including how they affect our economy, psychology, and culture.

Most graduates of nutrition science programs become nutritionists or dietitians. Both careers involve working closely with individuals or communities to plan and supervise the preparation of healthy meals, whether in the context of an individual practice or a large institution such as a school or hospital.

Dieticians and nutritionists are also concerned with education and awareness. Teaching their patients how their diets affect their health and well-being is a large part of the job. If the patient understands that her current diet is placing her at risk, she is more likely to cooperate in the diet's modification.

Nutritionists can also specialize in a particular discipline within their field. Dietitians often specialize in treating children or patients with kidney problems, critical illnesses or diabetes. Others supervise overweight patients or those with eating disorders. Some clinical nutritionists and dietitians make a career out of managing the food service departments of large institutions, such as hospitals, nursing care facilities, schools, or correctional facilities. These specialists must plan healthy, well-balanced meals for the correct number of individuals, often on a strict budget.

Food scientists analyze food, ingredients, and what causes it to break down or spoil. They are concerned with the safe preservation and processing of food as well as its nutritional value. They can help companies keep tabs on food sanitation, quality control, storage, and marketing.

Due to an increased awareness in recent years of how food directly affects our health, there is a greater demand for professionals trained in nutrition and food science. The general public has begun to realize just how important it is to eat well-balanced meals. This means that the opportunities for a career in nutrition are at an all-time high.

Being a nutritionist, dietitian, or food scientist is about more than just telling people what to eat. There are a wide variety of careers in this field. From advertising to research, if you are interested in health and nutrition, there is a job for you in the vast field of nutrition and food science. Some examples include:

  • Dietitian
  • Nutritionist
  • Pediatric dietitian
  • Clinical nutritionist
  • Dietetic consultant
  • Food service manager
  • Food science researcher
  • Pharmaceutical or food sales

Is a Degree in Nutrition and Food Science Right for You?

Successful nutritionists tend to be well-organized, with good planning skills and self-discipline. In addition, they are sincerely interested in human health and well-being, and compassionate toward those with health problems. Competent math skills are a definite asset.

Once you decide to enter a degree program, make sure to research several schools to find the one that is right for you. For some, a traditional on-campus program is the way to go. But, if you are a working professional or someone who has to take care of a family, you may want to consider one of the many accredited online degree programs in nutrition and food science. These programs provide the highest quality education with the flexibility you need to fulfill your other obligations. These days, there is simply no need to quit your job or take time away from your family to continue your education.

Career Education in Food Science

The programs available in nutrition and food science are as diverse as the career paths that follow. Be sure to research the individual program you are applying to make sure it is a proper fit for you. Bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees in nutrition are all available online and on-campus. Certificate programs also exist for nutrition professionals wishing to specialize in a particular aspect of the field. Think carefully about your desired career, because it will depend heavily on the degree you choose to get.

Certificate Programs in Nutrition

Certificate programs generally serve two types of students: total newcomers to the field, or experienced professionals who want to specialize in a particular area. Working professionals, such as registered nurses or experienced dietitians, may choose to earn a certificate in nutrition and food science to further their careers. These certificate programs are often offered online to accommodate the education without interrupting the individual's career.

New students or career changers might take a general certificate course to familiarize themselves with the field before committing to a full degree program. These certificate programs can also be used as preparatory classes, to make the degree program itself a bit easier.

Bachelor of Science Degrees in Nutrition

The bachelor's degree in nutrition is a basic four-year undergraduate degree. During their course of study, students will move from the basics of food science into the microbiology, processing, and chemistry of food.

Most nutrition and food science bachelor's degree programs begin with two years of general education requirements, such as the basic math, English and science skills necessary to study nutrition and food science in depth. Some introductory food science and nutrition courses are also usually offered, such as:

  • Introductory writing
  • Communications
  • Mathematics courses geared toward those studying the life sciences
  • General psychology and sociology
  • Social studies and history
  • Advanced chemistry
  • Biology, microbiology, and biochemistry
  • Basic physics
  • Economics and agriculture courses
  • Food safety
  • Arts or humanities electives

The junior and senior years of a bachelor's degree program consist of more in-depth study of the food sciences. The student must have a good basic knowledge of the general biology and chemistry involved in the food sciences, or he won't be able to keep up. Applied math, such as statistics and agricultural marketing principles, are also usually covered during this time. Coupled with more intensive laboratory study in food technology and agricultural processes, these last two years can be very demanding indeed.

Examples of upper-division bachelor's courses include:

  • Microbiology of food (with labs)
  • Statistics
  • Agricultural marketing
  • Food processing (with labs)
  • Food technology (with labs)
  • Food chemistry (with labs)
  • Seminar in food science and nutrition
  • Advanced nutrition
  • Food product development
  • Food analysis

All this training produces a professional who is capable of creating high quality, safe, and nutritious foods from natural materials. She knows how to plan, produce, market, and distribute these products, all with a keen eye toward safety and nutrition.

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What Can You Do With a College Degree in Food Science?

Nutritionists and dietitians work in a variety of environments, including private practices, public health clinics, public and private schools, universities and colleges, hospitals, correctional facilities, and nursing care facilities. Also, more private corporations are hiring dietitians to supervise and plan the menus for their company cafeterias, to help maintain the health of their staff. These companies offer the competitive wages and benefits that many public sector jobs lack.

As a dietitian, you can choose to work in an office at the administrative or managerial level, or right in the heart of the kitchen, supervising the preparation of food on the ground level. Be aware, however, that most career-track jobs in this industry require at least a bachelor's degree. Some of the jobs available to individuals with a degree in nutrition and food sciences include:

  • Clinical dietitians usually work for an institution, such as a company, school, nursing care facility, or correctional facility. These dietitians create and manage meal programs for individuals and groups, based on their nutritional needs. They also report their findings to the management, and discuss possible courses of action with other healthcare professionals. Many clinical dietitians will specialize in dealing with a specific type of patient, such as those with renal (kidney) problems, diabetes, or weight control issues.
  • Usually found in community and public health clinics, community dietitians focus on educating their constituents about how diet affects health. They counsel families on planning nutritional meals, and tailoring meals to specific health needs. This includes everything form planning the grocery list to how the food itself is prepared to maximize nutritional value.
  • Food processors work in food processing plants to ensure that the food that reaches the grocery stores and restaurants we frequent each day is safe as possible. They also address efficiency problems, as well as marketing problems, within the context of their company.
  • Nutritional consultants work with individuals and companies, recommending certain courses of dietary action to promote health through the absorption of nutrients by the body. Most consultants are self-employed, freelancing their consulting services out or bidding on consulting contracts.
  • Focusing on the dietary and nutritional needs of children, pediatric dietitians can be self-employed or work for a school or children's hospital. If working out of a private practice, pediatric dietitians work with parents to develop dietary programs for their children to promote health and fight disease, particularly in children with diabetes or renal disorders. Pediatric dietitians working for a school or children's hospital create general and individual meal plans for students or patients, depending on the needs of the institution. They may also supervise the preparation of the food, as well as oversee the entire food service department of the institution.

As you can see, the careers available for individuals holding a degree in nutrition and food science are varied and numerous. Obtaining a degree in nutrition and food science, whether it is from a traditional on-campus program or through an accredited online or distance learning program, can help you get in on the ground floor of a diverse, exciting, and ever-growing industry.

Certification and Licensure

While licensure varies from state to state, it is helpful to register and be licensed by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), part of the ADA (American Dietetic Association). This certification helps insure that you are a competent practitioner, and can be necessary or even essential when attempting to obtain state licensure.

Some schools, those approved by the CADE (Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education), include certification and licensure within their own states as part of their degree programs. Make sure you know whether the school you are applying for is CADE certified.

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