As part of my new weekly video interview series, I met with Chicago food scientist, Gwen Graff. We had such a lively conversation before I turned the camera on I was worried that we had used up all of our good words and energy. (Hi, I’m an introvert.) But no, after I turned the camera on, we had a similar, but equally great conversation! Only the video file was corrupt, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Because Gwen is awesome, despite previous conversations, she took time to answer these questions (again!) via email.
Gwen Graff, Food Scientist and Gumologist
What is your background?
I have two science degrees from North Central College (Biology & Chemistry). Throughout my undergrad, I felt like it was assumed that a career in science meant you would work in a lab, with a lab coat and goggles, which I did for the first few years out of school. My first “real” job was working in an analytical lab analyzing hazardous waste samples to determine how they could be used, recycled, or disposed of.
After a few years, my family was moving, and I ended up getting a job in the food industry. I went from working in a lab where you protected yourself from everything you touched, and no food was allowed to a lab where you ate everything you made! It was a real eye-opener; I had no idea at the time how many science opportunities there were in the food industry – and I loved that the science was easily applicable to everyday life.
That sounds like fun! And when you say you eat your work, it’s not like my kids chowing down a meal or snarfing down candy. You have a deep understanding of, and appreciation for, how we taste.
Yes, tasting would be a better description than “eating” – and because I have to create new recipes for candy and gum, I had to really understand how we (humans) perceive what we eat. Most people talk about what their food ‘tastes’ like, but the five basic tastes (sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami) are only a piece of it. Those tastes play biological roles in helping us survive and they get detected through the taste buds on the tongue, but the sensory system is more complex than that. Smell actually plays a huge role in what we perceive and how we describe our food. Flavors are smelled, not tasted.
Generally, people would describe a red piece of candy as tasting like ‘strawberry’ or ‘cherry,’ but really, the item tastes sweet and smells like strawberry or cherry. I actually call flavors food perfume because that’s how they actually function.
Beyond taste and smell, another aspect of how we experience food is through our trigeminal system – a nerve that detects ‘feeling factors’ like hot (spicy) or cooling sensations – people don’t generally even talk about these sensations.
A few years ago, I put together an interactive presentation to show people how each of these tastes, smells and feeling factors play a role in what we perceive as part of some training classes I do. It turned out to be well-received, and people outside of the food industry have asked me to deliver it at some pretty interesting conferences. It’s been fun to see people in other fields get so interested in understanding how we taste.
So in addition to science skills, your communication skills are important to your success?
Yes, a lot of my job these days is helping to translate what our science group is working on into applications (making real prototypes) or context (storytelling) so that the rest of the business understands why the work is important. Most of that is through a lot of work considering what the consumer wants/needs.
I have spent a decent amount of my career doing consumer research, really. Watching consumers, and then considering what products could serve their needs. It takes a lot of ideation/brainstorming and creative/design work. That is an area I have always played in – in fact, one of my titles was Creativity Fellow – which was daunting at first, because that seems like it has lofty expectations, and sometimes I think that seems counter to being a scientist.
You are a very creative person. Very much a Maker. Were you influenced by your childhood?
I am always being told how creative I am, and finally, I had to breakdown what that meant …..creativity – it really means – to create/Make things! Yep – I am a Maker. And when I connected that – I was like “Yep, that’s true – I do make a lot of things.” I have a lot of hobbies and make things in lots of different media. Today, Maker seems to be mostly associated with electronics, or digital tools, but my favorite media is fabric – I sew….clothes, and interior design work, like curtains, and upholstery. I love how a flat material can contour into different planes, as long as you understand the right way to cut the shape/attach it to another shape or where tension needs to be. Even as a food scientist, it is really making with a deep understanding of what the function of each ingredient/component/process is.
Growing up, my dad was an artist, and anything that broke, we would take apart and figure out how to fix it. We always made everything – even our house. On Saturday mornings, we would all sit around and look at/draw sketches of floor plans for how we were going to redesign whatever room we were going to remodel – you had to be able to envision and make an argument for why you thought it should be one way or the other.
Any advice for aspiring food scientists?
This is silly, but watch Good Eats! Alton Brown does a great job of not only showing how different foods/recipes are made, but also does a great job theatrically demonstrating why a given ingredient is in the recipe and what ‘job’ it does. In consumer products, we often talk about how consumers don’t buy products – they hire them to do a job. When you know what job a material/ingredient/product needs to do – you can go about considering “What is the best candidate for that job?” On some level, it all comes down to deep understanding of how things work, and that is really what I think scientists are always trying to get to.