Texas A&M instructs the next generation of food engineers
Professor Rosana G. Moreira discusses how Texas A&M's Food Engineering/Food Technology program trains the industry's next generation of engineers.
The Food Engineering/Food Technology program offered through the Biological and Agricultural department at Texas A&M, College Station, TX, provides instruction on a range of core principles, practices and processes critical to food manufacturing.
Rosana G. Moreira, professor of food engineering and assistant department head at BAEN-TAMU talks to Food Engineering about the program in an exclusive interview.
Food Engineering: Do you agree with the statement that many engineers end up in food and beverage plants but don't necessarily get the training?
Dr. Moreira: Yes. As a professor, I have had the opportunity to teach and advise many graduates who end up working for a wide range of food and beverage companies. My contacts with different companies have expressed the need for a training program for their incoming/junior engineers.
Many of the engineers hired by food companies have little or no food engineering knowledge. Therefore, they develop their own internal training programs to help accelerate the new hires’ food engineering skills.
Even their current food engineers require additional education to improve their knowledge to develop their critical thinking skills and remain current with the latest technological developments. A quality control manager of a food company recently told me he wants its employees to get an advanced degree to strengthen their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.
Food Engineering: Is there a gap between the high demand from food and beverage companies and a lack of qualified food engineers?
Dr. Moreira: In my opinion, yes, at least in the US. The companies cannot find food engineers in the market so they end up hiring chemical and mechanical engineers and training them in house. Most of the time, the big companies offer them courses in food chemistry and engineering properties of foods.
Unlike Europe and Latin America, for example, the US does not offer an undergraduate degree in food engineering. The engineers who have some knowledge in food engineering graduate with ABET accredited degrees from biological and agricultural engineering departments around the country such as Purdue, Ohio, Davis, Michigan, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M, etc.
At Texas A&M University, for example, the biological and agricultural engineering degree offers different emphasis areas, one being in food engineering. The undergraduate students take elective courses related to unit operations in food processing, food packaging, food microbiology, food chemistry and some process technology courses for meat, baked goods, fresh produce and so on.
Additionally, some of the core courses like heat and mass transfer, properties of biological materials and thermodynamics include many examples related to food. We also encourage students who are interested in food engineering to take a minor in food science to really understand how food materials behave during processing and storage. Without a formal training in food engineering, the newly hired engineers will take at least three to five years to become experts in some aspects of food engineering.
Food Engineering: What type of engineering background goes best with food engineering training and why?
Dr. Moreira: As I mentioned before, the biological and agricultural engineers who were trained in food engineering are preferred. These engineers also tend to have more hands-on experience than the other engineering disciplines. Chemical engineers are the second-best because they have a good background on processing [heat and mass transfer, thermodynamics, unit operations]; however, they are very limited on the knowledge of food science and technology. Also, they have no knowledge of food chemistry and physical, thermal and rheological properties to allow them to apply engineering principles to manufacture food products. That is why they need more training. In general, the learning curve for biological and agricultural engineers is less steep than for engineers from other disciplines.
A master of engineering degree in food engineering is another option to help engineers become more familiar with the science and engineering behind food processing and technology. I have had chemical, electrical and industrial engineers as graduate students who end up working in many food companies with great success.
Food Engineering: What aspects of the process, equipment, products and basic food safety do the Texas A&M courses cover?
Dr. Moreira: They cover a myriad of topics, which include:
(1) Fundamentals of food processing (heat and mass transfer in foods, thermodynamics refrigeration systems and psychrometics, food rheology, food properties), quality aspects of food (kinetics of food nutrients degradation, shelf-life extension), food safety (kinetics of microorganism death, thermal and non-thermal processes);
(2) Food processing applications: pipe-line design and pump selection for Newtonian and non-Newtonian fluid foods, food extrusion, food freezing, food dehydration, microwave principles, thermal and non-thermal processing, food storage, deep-fat frying;
(3) Engineering aspects of food packaging;
(4) Advances in food engineering: nanotechnology applied to food processing, engineering aspects of food irradiation, modeling food processing, microorganism growth, Monte Carlo simulation;
(5) Electives which cover food chemistry and food microbiology.
Food Engineering: The food education program at Texas A&M includes certificate and master-level courses offered as distance learning and onsite programs, is this correct? How do they differ from each other?
Dr. Moreira: We offer two master programs:
Master of engineering in biological and agricultural engineering (MEng in BAEN with emphasis in food engineering), which requires a bachelor’s degree in engineering, 30 credit hours of coursework and a final project. The emphasis is on the applications of engineering principles to the manufacturing of food products.
Master of science in agricultural systems management (MS in AGSM with emphasis in food process technology), which requires a bachelor’s degree in food science, AGSM or another related field. The student must take 36 credit hours of courses. This degree is not designed for engineers, and the emphasis is on the application of food science and management to food processing technology.
We also offer certificates for students who want to obtain expertise in a specific area. They require at least three courses for certification in food processing engineering, for example. A course that earns students continuing education units is available as well.
Food Engineering: How many students have come through the program, and how many are working as food engineers currently?
Dr. Moreira: The Distance Education degree is still very new. We have one M.Eng. student working full-time in the industry who is graduating in December 2013. Another is set to start in spring 2014. One engineer who is working full time took two courses online. We have had many inquiries about the program and are very positive about its potential for growth.
We also have a traditional (non-distance) master and PhD food engineering program at the BAEN Department, from which more than 60 students have graduated since 1990.
Food Engineering: What are some of the more recent or significant advances in technology in the food industry?
Dr. Moreira: In the past 15 to 25 years, several alternative preservation technologies have been developed for application to food products with the objective of meeting consumers’ demands for fresh-like, highly nutritious and safe foods.
These technologies include (1) novel thermal processes such as microwave and ohmic heating, which are much faster than the current canning method to produce shelf-stable foods; (2) non-thermal processes that do not use heat to inactivate microorganisms in foods, such as ultra-high pressure (UHP), pulsed electric fields, ultrasonic waves, high-intensity pulsed light, ionizing radiation and others; (3) new processing technologies like vacuum frying and microwave frying and drying; and (4) new packaging materials such as active packaging or smart packaging that help extend shelf life, monitor freshness, display information on quality, improve safety and improve convenience.
Food Engineering: Are the advances in specific areas such as food chemistry, food microbiology and food irradiation, or in specific processes such as freezing or pasteurization?
Dr. Moreira: All of the above. Advances in food processing technology require multidisciplinary contributions from food science and engineering areas. Development or improvement of a processing technology needs a full understanding of what affects the product, how and why, so the process can be optimized. The science and engineering aspects of food processing technologies cannot be separated. A microbiologist may have an idea for a new sensor for pathogen detection, but most of the time he or she will work with chemists and engineers to develop a prototype and then the final product. Therefore, technology advances can be discipline-driven or process-driven, say, optimization of an irradiation process for high-oil content foods such as nuts.
Food Engineering: How do the distance learning courses differ from the onsite courses?
Dr. Moreira: The distance education students take the same course with the same rigor as the local students. They earn exactly the same degree they would earn if they studied on our campus in College Station, TX. The standards for admission, coursework and graduation are the same, and their diploma is the same as for students who come to campus to study.
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