Brianna Hughes of New Gloucester wants everyone to eat better, so she’s working with local food companies to help make products that are safer and more nutritious for consumers.
To that end, she is pursuing a doctorate in food science at the University of Maine, where such hands-on work is part of the curriculum.
At a time when enrollment at Maine is down overall, a record number of students are enrolling in the university’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.
Food science students learn about technologies that allow for foods to be processed in ways that retain more nutrients, increase shelf life and improve safety. Human nutrition students study the role that food and nutrients play in human health.
The department has 190 undergraduates and 40 graduate students this year, said Jimmy Jung, the university’s vice president for enrollment management. That’s up from 165 undergraduate students in each of the past two years.
The only other majors at the university that are gaining enrollment are chemical engineering, which grew to 143 undergraduates last year from 75 students in 2007, and zoology, which increased to 77 undergraduates in 2011 from 42 in 2007.
“Both in nutrition and in food science, enrollments are up,” said Mary Ellen Camire, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. “We have the only approved food science program in northern New England and the only approved (four-year) undergraduate dietetics curriculum in Maine.”
The students in Orono are following a national trend. According to Ryan O’Malley, spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the number of college graduates in the nutrition field increased 84 percent from 2004 to 2011, from 3,122 to 5,732 nationwide.
They’re also bucking a trend at UMaine, whose enrollment is projected to be down 1 to 2 percent — 100 to 200 students — from last year, with a total of about 11,100.
Southern Maine Community College in South Portland offers a two-year dietetics technology program. College spokesman Matt Wickenheiser said the major has been at its capacity of 48 students for the past five years. He said about double that number would enroll in the program if the college had available spots.
University of Maine students cite the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition’s active role in research as one of its selling points.
“What attracted me when I visited the campus was how involved all the professors are in research and helping Maine companies,” said Hughes, who got her undergraduate degree in food science and agricultural chemistry at McGill University in Montreal, then worked for a year in quality control at Oakhurst Dairy in Portland.
Much of what the department’s professors and students do in food science involves working with Maine companies to develop and improve products.
One example is the work that Camire has done with Eldertide Farm in Dresden to investigate the antioxidant potential of elderberries. Eldertide Farm grows organic elderberries, and produces a health-promoting syrup from the berries under the Anthoimmune label.
In the past, Hughes worked with Seal Cove Farm in Lamoine to develop an artisan goat cheese fortified with omega-3 fatty acids. “I don’t believe (the farm) has commercialized it yet,” Hughes said.
Hughes, whose doctoral focus is seafood, is working with undergraduates and the university’s Aquaculture Research Institute to develop a land-based abalone aquaculture industry in Maine.
Rachel Wilkinson, a junior nutrition major from South Portland, said the active role that research and product development plays in the department has made her very satisfied with her choice of major.
“It surpasses my expectations,” Wilkinson said. “I haven’t had a professor yet that hasn’t interested me. They all have interesting research they’ve done on their own.”
The healthy generation
The increase in college-level students choosing food science and/or nutrition as a career path is fueled by the millennial generation, the 20- to 35-year-olds who now dominate college campuses and have a greater awareness of and appreciation for food and health-related issues.
According to “The Generational Consumer Trend Report,” issued earlier this year by the food industry market research firm Technomic, “more millennials say it is important to eat healthfully” than generation X’ers or baby boomers.
“They want things that are fresh and natural,” said Sara Monnette, director of consumer research for Chicago-based Technomic. “Personal health and wellness is really big (among Millennials), but it’s also about the childhood obesity epidemic.”
Students in Maine share those concerns.
“A lot of students want to be proactive in promoting health rather than treating disease,” Camire said. “A lot of people go into food science because they want to make tasty, healthy food that’s not laden with fat, salt and sugar.”
“I’ve always focused on trying to be healthy,” she said. “And with the population getting so much more obese and the population getting older, there’s so much need for nutritional guidance. I was also attracted to how many jobs there would be.”
Rodney Bushway, chairman of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, agreed that the job market is ripe for students who graduate from the department’s programs.
“It’s a hot topic right now, and it’s generating a lot of interest,” said Bushway, who has taught in the department for 34 years and chaired it for 14.
Students who graduate with food science degrees typically go on to work for food companies or government agencies in food safety and product development.
Those who graduate with nutrition degrees often pursue certification as registered dieticians, which requires an internship and a national exam, or enroll in graduate programs in the medical, nursing or allied health fields.
According to a salary survey by the Institute of Food Technologists in 2011, respondents age 20 to 29 had a mean annual salary of $55,000, and the national average salary for food scientists with bachelor’s degrees was $87,000.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that the median starting salary for registered dietitians was $24 per hour in 2011.
Wilkinson said she’s not surprised that the department’s enrollment has reached record levels, because people in her generation tend to be aware of the links between diet and health.
Such awareness means these Maine students could someday help reverse a host of skyrocketing and expensive health issues, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
“We’ve got to figure out how to get people to eat right,” Bushway said. “Nowadays, with all the knowledge in the food science areas, it should help people eat healthier. That could reduce medical costs.”