How to study and become a Certified Food Scientist (CFS). Exam prep for the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) credential program for food scientists.
From a young age, I knew that I loved culinary as I saw the joy on everyone’s faces during family gatherings. I thought it was my destiny to become a restaurant chef but after high school, I decided to take my college education down a more scientific path.
During my undergraduate studies, I learned about food from a new interesting perspective; science, technology, sustainability, and safety. I must admit that I had no idea one could become a professional food scientist. Average people don’t realize what an important role in the development of food products we play in the global market.
The plethora of disciplines in the food industry is vast and fascinating! Typical products that you purchase each day have been researched, designed and scrutinized by a team of food industry professionals.
As a Food Scientist, we make sure that what you buy is consistent in quality and most importantly, safe to eat! I want to share my journey of becoming a food scientist with you, and my experience on obtaining my Certified Food Scientist credentials through the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).
What is food science?
Food science is the study of the physical, biological, and chemical makeup of food. It draws from many disciplines in an attempt to better understand food processes and ultimately improve food products for the general public. Food technology applies food science principles for the selection, preservation, processing, packaging, distribution, and use of safe food.
Food science disciplines
- Food chemistry – the molecular composition of food and the involvement of these molecules in chemical reactions
- Food engineering – the industrial processes used to manufacture food
- Food microbiology – the positive and negative interactions between micro-organisms and foods
- Food packaging – the study of how packaging is used to preserve food after it has been processed and contain it through distribution
- Food preservation – the causes and prevention of quality degradation
- Food safety – the causes, prevention, and communication dealing food-borne illness
- Food technology – the technological aspects
- Molecular gastronomy – the scientific investigation of processes in cooking, social and artistic gastronomical phenomena
- New product development – the invention of new food products
- Sensory analysis – the study of how consumers’ senses perceive food
What is a food scientist?
A Food Scientist uses science and engineering skills to research and develop food products and ensure the safety of our food supply. By applying their findings, they are responsible for developing safe and nutritious foods, while incorporating innovative packaging that lines the supermarket shelves.
Food products that are available in the market are the result of extensive food research; a systematic investigation into a variety of food properties and compositions. After the initial stages of research and development comes the mass production of food products using principles of food technology. All of these interrelated fields contribute to the food industry – the largest manufacturing sector in the United States.
Becoming a food scientist
Numerous universities offer food science degrees in the United States and internationally. There are many resources online to find schools and details on their program offerings. I recommend you request information and tour the school campuses if you can. If you know someone in the food science industry, then pick their brain and find out what schools they recommend.
Here is my education path:
- California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, CA- Bachelor of Science, Food Science and Nutrition
- California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, CA- Master of Science, Agriculture Specialization in Dairy Products Technology- Dairy Products Technology Center
- The Art Institute of California, Orange County, CA- Associate of Science, Culinary Arts
Becoming a “Certified” food scientist
The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) is an international, non-profit professional organization for the advancement of food science and technology, and is the largest food science organization in the world. For over 70 years, IFT has strived to “feed the minds that feed the world”, growing a food science-based community and global forum to connect, share and learn. IFT is a visionary organization actively advocating and ensuring safe and abundant food supply for people around the world.
In 2012, The Institute of Food Technologists announced they would be offering a Certified Food Scientist (CFS) credential. Through this program, the food science profession provided a formal certification program to recognize the applied scientific knowledge and skills of food scientists.
About the Certification program
CFS is a globally recognized certification program designed to meet the International Standards Organization (ISO) 17024 standard for personnel certification programs and is a way for food scientists to demonstrate their expertise and commitment to the profession. The International Food Science Certification Commission (IFSCC) was established to oversee the governance and policy-making for credentialing activities.
To obtain & maintain a food science credential
- Meet the eligibility based on the degree(s) earned and work experience in food science (see chart below).
- Complete the application ($550-750 fee to take the exam)
- Take the CFS examination (Computer-based exam, 120 questions)- Results available in approximately six weeks from the last day of the exam testing window.
- Maintain your certification– A recertification cycle occurs five years from the date of certification and completion of 75 contact hours over five years ($300-425).
Certified food scientist eligibility
To become a Certified Food Scientist, you must first meet the minimum requirements before taking the exam:
Image Source: Institute of Food Technologists
Now if you have complied with the requirements, it’s time to prepare for the exam!
Certified food science exam prep
IFT provides a Certified Food Scientist Candidate Handbook, which is meant to guide you during your study preparations for the test. It contains detailed information on the exam content outline, testing windows and exam delivery information.
I felt that the content was very broad, especially if your career path has been more specialized and focused. However, the test is meant to cover the basic breadth of food science and current laws and regulations, specifically testing the applied scientific knowledge and skills of food scientists. You may not be an expert in each area, however in your career, you have likely had exposure and experiences; therefore, your basic understanding and awareness are what is important.
The certified food scientist candidate handbook provides the following competency areas on the Exam and percentage of questions asked in these areas:
- Product development (34%)
- Quality Assurance and Control (17%)
- Food Chemistry and Food Analysis (10%)
- Regulatory (10%)
- Food Microbiology (9%)
- Food Safety (9%)
- Food Engineering (6%)
- Sensory Evaluation & Consumer Testing (5%)
The first exam was administered in the winter of 2013 and to date, the inaugural class consisted of 1,441 food scientists from 54 countries across the world! The number of food scientists will undoubtedly continue to climb over the years, and I am elated to be part of the growing number of professionals who will receive their certification! Here is great video celebrating the first inaugural class of Certified Food Scientists and the benefit of the credential!
Taking the CFS exam
The exam is offered three times per year and may be taken within approximately a 3-week testing window. The exam is a 3-hour computer-based test.
- 120 multiple-choice questions (100 that will be scored, the remaining to be used in possible future exams).
- You are given an erasable note board or a small notebook to use. There is also a scientific calculator available on the computer.
- You can add comments for each question, providing additional justification if needed for your answers for the exam reviewers. I recommend not spending too much time with comments, answer all of the questions you can do with confidence first.
- You can electronically mark any questions you are unsure about, go back, and review at the end of the exam before you submit your answers. This helps to pinpoint exactly what questions need more thought.
My tips for PASSING the CFS exam:
PREP COURSE – Attend the Certified Food Scientist Preparatory Course, offered by IFT- This course was designed to review each competency area in the certified food scientist candidate handbook. This is accomplished with excellent expert lecturers, printed lectures, practice questions, quizzes, follow-up webinars, review sessions and sharing tips.
- In-Person Course: Learn and review face-to-face with industry experts and other CFS candidates. The course lasts two days with a cost of $755 (IFT members) and $920 (non-members).
- Online Course: Learn on the go at your convenience! It has similar learning modules and practice exams. This allows you the flexibility to go back anytime and review sections. They did not have this when I took the first exam, so this is a fantastic option for busy schedules and international applicants. The cost is $595 (IFT members) and $760 (non-members).
- Wondering if you should take the course? The prep course is recommended but is not essential for you to pass. For being the first class to ever take the CFS exam I thought the course was very helpful in passing. During the course, you can gain valuable perspectives from other industry professionals. A nice perk is an access to numerous practice questions modeled after the content in the exam. This helped to get a feel for how questions were structured, an advantage if you are willing to pay the cost.
STUDY GUIDE – I used the certified food science handbook as a study guide outline and conducted more research on sections that I did not have as strong competency. I also heavily reviewed the lecture information I received from the CFS preparatory course.
NOTE CARDS – For some of the detailed information and concepts, I created note cards to review and quiz myself. I used this method throughout my education; however, it is laborious, so it may not be for everyone. I just tend to remember small chunks of information best if I break them down.
CHARTS – I created a chart or matrix in Microsoft Excel (or word) for a study area like the sensory evaluation section so that I could easily see each method/technique when it was used, why, and how the results were interpreted. This is how I best organize lots of information in one subject area to gain clarity. Information can get overwhelming and confusing, so my brain likes visual tools to compartmentalize the info.
Connect with people
Create a CFS Study Group: Do you know of anyone else taking the exam? I found that one of the best ways to talk through some of the broadest areas was to connect with others taking the test. This doesn’t have to be in person, even through email or maybe Google Hangouts or Skype. You can talk through any challenging topics, especially if it’s not your area of expertise and you can gain insight on each other’s experiences. Perhaps commit to a weekly call to discuss certain areas of the exam, and just chat!
Work and Industry Colleagues: Another way to study is to reach out to your colleges at work or friends in the industry. If you need help in understanding QA testing and release of products, reach out someone who has a better understanding that may deal with this on a day to day basis. Maybe take them out to coffee, or lunch, have some set questions in mind and have a conversation. I’m sure they would be more than happy to help you, especially sharing their personal real-life insights.
Websites and books
The USDA, FDA, Code of Federal Regulations and WHO Codex Alimentarius government websites are great resources to find food safety and current laws and regulations on food. I did not buy any of the books on the recommended resource list because I had many similar books from college. However, if you would like to purchase some reference materials.
I recommend these books:
- Food Science: Fifth Edition – Food Science remains the most popular and reliable text for introductory courses in food science and technology.
- Food Safety for the 21st Century – This book is an essential resource for all scientists and managers in the food industry (manufacturing and foodservice); regulators and educators in the field of food safety; and students of food science and technology.
- Food Processing Technology – Introduces a range of processing techniques that are used in food manufacturing and explains the key principles of each process, including the equipment used and the effects of processing on micro-organisms that contaminate foods.
- Sensory Evaluation Techniques – Covers all phases of sensory evaluation and details all sensory tests currently in use, to promote the effective employment of these tests, and to describe major sensory evaluation practices.
Give yourself time
I gave myself, at least, three months to study and prepare for the exam. Attending the CFS preparatory course was an excellent way to kick start the studying. Luckily the exam was offered between 2-3 months after the course.
I created a workable schedule and made a point to study at least 2 hours each night during the week, and longer hours on the weekend. It was certainly a challenging time, reminding me of those late night cram sessions in college! If you are not taking the CFS preparatory course, you may want to give yourself a few extra months to study.
Benefits of food scientist Certification
The Institute of Food Technologists highlights the numerous advantages of the CFS certification. The CFS examination focuses on the practical applied knowledge that food scientists need to be competent professionals. The exam was developed by evaluating the global practice of food science and is firmly grounded in the established fundamental knowledge and skills Food Scientists apply in all aspects of their jobs. The purpose of the CFS certification is to:
- Demonstrate the professions’ commitment to safe and quality foods for consumers
- Reinforce IFT’s commitment to ensuring a robust talent pipeline to meet the scientific needs of the food science & technology community
- Promote lifelong learning that complements both academic knowledge and work experience
- Provide food scientists with a way to demonstrate their applied professional skills and knowledge through a third party, independent assessment tool
- Build a foundation for ethical standards moving forward that will benefit the entire profession
- Help employers and practitioners identify individuals with particular knowledge and skills
- Raise the visibility and credibility of the food science profession through a certification program
I could never have dreamed up all the opportunities & experiences that I received since the start of my Food Science education. Through both my professional career and starting my food blog, I have been able to apply my creativity, love for the sensory aspect of food and scientific knowledge to research and develop new food products.