Return to Blog October 20, 2023

The Sweet Science: Food Chemistry’s Contribution to Quality Products


Food chemistry is one of the respected and important subsets of the food sciences. The field requires multidisciplinary expertise, including a deep understanding of both traditional and engineering food components.

From feeding the world’s growing population to overcoming serious supply chain challenges, food chemistry advances have consistently risen to meet emerging challenges.

What Is Food Chemistry?

Food chemists work with the core components of food products at the chemical level in a laboratory environment. Engineers assess the chemical and biochemical reaction of carbohydrates, proteins, water, enzymes and other inputs before, during and after the product process. Every component added to a food impacts one or more existing compounds, potentially changing the texture, flavor, nutritional value and shelf-life of the product.

Food chemistry experiments are designed to gauge chemical reactions and qualify products before further development. Most ingredient suppliers rely on in-house or third-party engineers to conduct rigorous testing before making formulation changes, such as substituting existing ingredients with an alternative.

Basic Food Chemistry 101

As complex as food science and technology has become, the most important components of food design are elemental.

Water in Food Chemistry

Water – or the lack thereof – is a key in many food products. Moisture content primarily affects texture, especially in foods that require a specific crunch or consumer expectation. Water content is also important in meat products, with considerable attention invested in retaining adequate moisture to keep meat and poultry tender.

Managing moisture levels is also a safety consideration. Even low water content in a product can allow microbial growth, such as bacteria or mold. This risk is usually addressed by keeping water activity below 0.95% or by introducing salt or sugar.


Carbohydrates represent the most common component of food. Many cultural diets are built on a foundation of carbs – think rice, wheat and other cereals. Commodity staples like these are crucial for feeding the world. In developing countries, carbohydrates represent 67% of the diet, 14 points higher than in developed countries. In both agricultural and food chemistry, carbohydrates are a core element of all engineering efforts.

Lipids and Fats

Lipids are essential macronutrients that, under their more commonly used name, get a bad rap. Fat improves the flavor, texture and color of food products, though can negatively impact shelf life. As lipids naturally oxidize, they degrade (lipid autoxidation) or impact bound or adjacent enzymes (enzymatic-catalyzed oxidation). Both forms of degradation are often addressed with the introduction of salt or sugar ingredients.

Protein in Food Chemistry

Proteins are made from and defined by the numerous combinations of amino acids. As amino acids bond, they achieve distinct characteristics, which are then categorized as peptides. Food chemists must account for subtle variations in peptides and aim to achieve the complete protein balance needed to support cellular growth.

Related: How Are Artificial Flavors Made?

Current Trends in Food and Flavor Chemistry

As is so often the case on the cutting edge of science, the most influential food chemistry trends are built on the basics. Alternative chemistry, sometimes referred to simply as alternatives, explores safer, healthier input components while acknowledging the economic, processing and performance of those ingredients as compared to the traditional ingredient.

The most pressing applications for innovation, among many, are focused on packaging and rebalancing sweeteners and sodium in food applications.

Indirect Additives in Packaging

Efforts to lower material costs and better utilize packaging as a marketing medium have introduced new risks to consumers. Indirect additives encompass a range of potential contaminants that migrate from paper, plastic and other packaging materials into food or beverage products.

The primary concern, of course, is the health risks associated with introducing an untested and unanticipated chemical into the food system. Guidance and ongoing research from organizations like the FDA continue to find new sources of potential contamination, including per-and-polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

Alternative chemistry seeks to develop packaging materials and coatings that not only reduce waste and mimic the performance of existing materials but accomplish both goals without the risk of chemical migration to food products.

Rebalancing Salt and Sugar Content

You may have noticed that salt and sugar are often used to influence the characteristics of food’s three macronutrients. As a result, the Western diet relies heavily on natural and processed forms of sugar and salt. The average American takes in roughly 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, nearly 50% more than the recommended amount. Sugar intake is similarly overrepresented, contributing to higher rates of hypertension, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and other lifestyle diseases.

Reducing sugar content and implementing new systems to meet changing consumer demands has put alternative chemistry to the test. While progress has been made, food chemists continue to develop low-sugar components without sacrificing food flavor, texture or visual appeal.

Mobilize All Your Resources

Internal, third-party and other food engineering resources have helped manufacturers push the leading edge of food science for over a century. The most impactful work leverages full-system resources and expertise, putting suppliers, distributors and manufacturers in the same room and on the same page.

At Tilley Distribution, we bring everyone together with our technical support and product development teams to streamline projects and deliver actionable results.

Why Tilley Distribution?

Our in-house Technical Fellows bring decades of expertise to specialized industries. Our deep experience in specialty ingredients, like hydrocolloids, positions us as a unique partner. See what our expansive catalog and technical prowess can do for your organization. Speak with a Tilley representative today to get started!