Foodie Friday: The Food Chemist

"It's so gratifying to go into a grocery store and see something you’ve been working on for the last year," says Supriya Varma, a senior scientist at Frito-Lay.

Traditionally, food and science and technology don’t exactly go hand-in-hand. But the combination comes naturally for Supriya Varma, the senior scientist at Frito-Lay. Varma uses science and technology on a daily basis to help develop processed food products like southwest enchilada black bean dip.

Many people think the job is “like home ec,” Varma says, which is a misconception. In addition to seeing products through from conception to execution, food scientists are responsible for ensuring that astronauts get the required amount of nutrition in the most compact way possible. (Every gram sent into space costs $10,000!)

After moving to the U.S. from India to complete her Ph.D., Varma pursued a career in food chemistry, a field offering much growth. As she points out, people love to eat – so the industry is very stable. Here, Varma discusses reducing enzyme activity to preserve a product’s shelf life, her views on genetically modified munchies, and her love of plain old Lay’s potato chips.

Age: 33
Graduated from: Rutgers University with a Ph.D.
Has held the position for: 3 years
Previous jobs: Formulated health drinks at GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals Limited in India

In a sentence or two, what do you do all day? I generate ideas for new products, build prototypes, and work with consumer insights to get a sense of what customers want. I’m involved from design to execution of new products.

Frito-Lay Southwest Enchilada Black Bean Dip. Photo: fritolay.com

What products? All different dips. We launched a Southwest Enchilada Black Bean Dip a few years ago, and recently launched a spicy nacho cheese one. We also do single-serve dips to go.

Emerging trends in the food industry: Ethnic flavors and hot, spicy products – like Mexican and Latin flavors. Lots of consumers nowadays like those flavors in the form of snacks and drinks, which is a change from what we’ve seen in the past. Consumers used to be very intimidated by new flavors.

Advances you hope to see in the field: While consumers are experimenting with new flavors, it’s still not in a big way. For example, they want to see all different kinds of ice cream, but in the end, they still lean toward the vanilla or strawberry.

So creating innovative new products is a big risk for sizeable companies like Frito-Lay. Yes. Sometimes, we’ll see products come and go, and it took a huge amount of time and effort to have it hit the market in the first place. But there’s hope; many years ago, people barely knew about sushi, and now you see tons of sushi places across all cities, and even in grocery stores.

True, but much of that sushi is not true to form. That’s another thing that concerns me about the food industry: it’s important that products stick to their true roots and are not diluted too far away. You want to give an authentic experience to consumers.

Misconception you’d like to change: People think all processed food is unhealthy, but it’s not.

How do people respond when you tell them what you do? Some say, “Oh, I was never sure how we were getting tomato ketchup on the shelves.” People in my field are the ones making sure astronauts get the required amount of nutrition in a compact way, since every gram you send to space costs $10,000.

Best part of your job: I get to eat all day, but that’s good and bad. [Laughs.] You’re ahead of trends and get to see products in their entirety, ideas coming to life. It’s very gratifying to go to a store and see something you’ve been working on for the last year.

Photo: accessexcellence.org

Something people don’t know about your job: A lot of people think being a food scientist is home ec[onomics] or learning how to cook, but it’s not. It’s looking at food in a scientific way, and making sure the eating experience is the same whether you buy a product at a 7-Eleven on the road or at a large grocery store.

How to you apply science in your job? It helps us understand how the products are impacted over time – in other words, its shelf life. If ingredients have lots of enzymes that can degrade the product, we figure out how to limit the activity of those enzymes. We work very closely with engineers and packaging folks.

Your required reading: Food Chemistry by Owen Fennema. It’s the bible for food chemistry.

Views on genetically modified food: It’s tricky. You want to make sure that the good attributes of food products are maintained and that they don’t have harmful effects. You see things like onions that don’t make you cry and huge cloves of garlic, but it’s important that the overall attributes – flavor, texture, and appearance – remain the same.

Do you have any weird eating habits? I enjoy new cuisines and lots of quick, easy cooking – like frozen veggies, meats, and instant meals. I use them as building blocks and then customize those frozen products. I don’t have time to make elaborate meals.

How have advancements in technology changed your job? We’re now able to store perishable crops without them getting damaged, which in turn makes raw material more readily available. Ingredients that were previously just seasonal are now available throughout the whole year.

Lay's classic potato chips. Photo: fritolay.com

Favorite Frito-Lay product: Traditional Lay’s chips.

Dream job in college: I love animals, so probably working as a vet or at a shelter.

Foodie idol: I don’t really have one. I do like The Food Network’s Alton Brown, though. He demystifies our industry and bridges the gap between culinary and food science.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Supriya Varma offers advice for aspiring food chemists: Put in the time to understand the basic science behind the job; you need to like getting your hands dirty. A science background is highly recommended, if not required, since the job ultimately boils down to chemistry and what’s happening to products as they’re getting processed.

Hungry for more? Click here for more Foodie Fridays on No Joe Schmo, including a pizza chef and kimchi taco truck worker.

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The Trash Talker: TerraCycle’s VP of Media Relations

"Every day is Earth Day at TerraCycle," Zakes says.

Albe Zakes is constantly surrounded by a shrine to garbage. The desks in his office are made from old doors, the walls from soda bottles, and the front showroom covered in recycled Astroturf. The desk dividers are made from vinyl records, and graffiti covers every wall.

But considering his job, the workplace makes sense: he’s in charge of media relations for TerraCycle Inc., which sells consumer products made from recycled waste. The company launched in 2001, selling worm poop as fertilizer to retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Now, TerraCycle recycles items like Frito-Lay chip bags, Clif Bar wrappers, and Capri Sun pouches to create tote bags, iPhone cases, and MP3 speakers.

Zakes first planted his environmental roots at the University of Colorado, where he worked for Hip Hop Congress, a group spreading social and political awareness through art, music, and poetry. Below, he talks about eating worm poop, a surefire way to get hired, and the grossest thing he’s ever made from trash.

Title: Global Vice President of Media Relations, TerraCycle, Inc.
Age: 26
Graduated from: University of Colorado Boulder, degree in literature and psychology
Based out of: Trenton, N.J.
TerraCycle’s annual revenue: $18 to 20 million projected for this year
Previous jobs: There aren’t any. I began interning at TerraCycle right out of college.

In your own words, what is TerraCycle? It began as a way to reduce garbage output. We collected waste and fed it to worms, then sold the worm poop to farmers in soda bottles, which gave us market distinction in the early years. Since we couldn’t make money just from the fertilizer, we expanded our product base. We try to challenge the way people think.

The Capri Sun lunchbox is made from Capri Sun wrappers sewn together.

How you got the job: Right after I graduated in 2006, [TerraCycle CEO and founder] Tom Szaky was on the cover of Inc. Magazine. I read about what the company stood for, and it called to me – so I applied for a job, and ended up with an internship that turned full-time.

How did you shape the PR department? Initially, we were required to make 50 pitch phone calls a day. I eventually convinced Tom that we needed to research people and contact them slowly, to develop relationships. I never allowed email blasts. I also make sure we treat everyone the same way, from a mommy blogger in Montana to the executive editor of Businessweek.

How did your activism in college affect your job choice? I felt that the environmental movement and people around me [at University of Colorado] were short-sighted and thought small; the resistance against working with big corporations felt like spinning our wheels in the mud. Then I read Tom’s interview about the “belly of the beast” – if you want to change the way things are done, you need to do it from the inside. You need to work with them, not against them.

What have you learned at your job that nobody else knows? What worm poop tastes like.

And it tastes like? Dirt. It’s high-nutrient, organic-rich dirt.

The walls of the TerraCycle office are covered with graffiti.

Why the location choice of Trenton, N.J. for your headquarters? I have to confess, it is the seventh most dangerous city in the country based on homicide per capita. But Tom, a Princeton dropout, needed to buy cheap factory space, and Trenton offered that. He bought out an abandoned space that was once used for The New York Times printing distribution.

Are you planning on moving anytime soon? We’re absolutely staying here.

What are your hiring requirements? We’re a second-chance employer, which means we’ll hire people regardless of who they were become they came to us – regardless of criminal records. That has definitely backfired; we once had U.S. marshals on our factory floor, and almost-knife fights. But then again, we have people who have been working for us for years.

Biggest setback: Being tossed into a managerial job at a young age with almost no training. Hiring people is so difficult – some people look good on paper and do well in an interview, but then can’t deliver. It’s hard to figure out what’s bullshit.

How did you overcome that? With time. I set up weekly reports and meetings, and became more organized.

TerraCycle’s best-selling product: Historically, we’ve sold the most of worm poop. But another huge win was our line of back-to-school products for Target in 2009, which we sold hundreds of thousands of in one season.

Coolest product: Portable MP3 speakers made from recycled paper and various wrappers. [Sold at Urban Outfitters, Zumiez, Five Below, and elsewhere.]

Grossest thing you’ve ever recycled from trash: We’re working on using cigarette butts, feminine hygiene products, and dirty diapers. So one of my jobs was going around and collecting cigarette butts.

Watch TerraCycle on Oprah, NBC, CNN, and more:

What’s the process of using chip bags and cookie wrappers to create new products? There are two ways. With upcycling, the wrappers maintain their branded look – you can still see the logo. We use heat presses to fuse the wrappers together, put on bolts, and cut and sew the material together like you’d do with regular fabric.

And the other way? It’s closer to regular recycling. The wrappers and containers are shredded and melted down into plastic pellets and can be used for garden paving stones and garbage cans.

How many chip bags are used to make one garbage can? A 32-gallon outdoor trash can with a lid takes 1,500 chip bags.

Inside TerraCycle's offices, where the rugs are made from other rug remnants.

What does your office look like? It’s a shrine to garbage. The desks are made from old doors, the walls from soda bottles, the front showroom covered in recycled Astroturf with a mini putt-putt golf course. The desk dividers are made from vinyl records, and there’s graffiti on every wall – big, beautiful graffiti. The rugs are created from all different rug remnants, which can be a little nauseating.

What’s up next for TerraCycle? We’re moving to Australia and New Zealand, and then to Japan, India, and China next year.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Zakes suggests how to turn a green passion into a sustainable career.
1. Combine a degree in business with environmental studies or biology. Those business skills will always help – you need to be able to sell yourself and sell your company.

2. Instead of walking into a room and telling a potential employer what you could do, show them. Build your idea, and then walk in with a portfolio and present the materials and assets. Say, here’s what I would bring to the table on day one. If someone did that to me, they’d walk out of my office with a job.

3. Be willing to sweep the floors first if you really want to work somewhere.

Follow Terracycle on Twitter at @Terracycle and on its Facebook page. You can also find out more about how the company helps the environment. All photos courtesy of TerraCycle.net.

Check out more eco-friendly posts on No Joe Schmo >> Elizabeth Olsen, founder of Olsenhaus, makes vegan shoes from purely recycled materials.