COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Welcome to chocolate class. Or better yet, beer and wine 101.
Ohio State University's Department of Food Science and Technology has plenty of standing-room-only courses to whet the appetite of students who, truth be told, may be looking for what they think will be an easy class to help make their semester coursework go down a little easier.
"Students might take Chocolate Science or some of our other courses because they think they will be fun," said Sheryl Barringer, who originated Chocolate Science at Ohio State in 2007 and who currently serves as interim chair for the department, which is part of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
"But we hope to get them interested in the field of food science, not necessarily to recruit new students, but so they'll graduate as consumers who know more about broader concepts -- how food works, what products are made of, a bit of the chemistry. For example, in Chocolate Science, we talk about what makes it a safe food -- properties like its very low water activity, and basic science regarding food processing."
The Chocolate Science course drew Rachel Weiler, who graduated from Ohio State in June 2012.
"I had a rule about taking one fun class per quarter, and one time I took Chocolate Science as that class," she said. She also took The Science of Food course, and the two combined were enough to get her hungering for more. She chose food science as her major and never looked back.
"What I was really drawn to was that you could pair science and creativity together in developing new food products," said Weiler, who eventually became a teaching assistant for the Chocolate Science class. She now works as a food scientist at Nature's One in Lewis Center, Ohio.
Besides Chocolate Science and The Science of Food, department courses that tend to attract students from across campus include Culinary Science, Brewing Science, Alcohol and Society, Wine and Beer in Western Culture, and Food and Health Controversies in the 21st Century.
And, Barringer said, expectations are high for the newest such course, Kitchen Science, which will be offered for the first time in fall 2013.
In addition, this academic year, the department has begun offering Culinary Science as a major. That's in answer to industry demand for professionals who are familiar with both food science and a chef's culinary training.
"A company might have a chef who develops a great product, and then the food scientist is supposed to take that to a mass-market level.
"There's an increasing awareness that these people often don't speak the same language, and so there's a desire for someone with culinary training who also understands the issues of taking a new product through to commercial production." Although the major is brand new, the Sandridge Food Corporation has already established a scholarship for students who major in Culinary Science.
"There is so much more of an interest in food now than there was 10 or 15 years ago," Barringer said. "Now, everyone on the street is concerned with whether a food is organic, is it all natural, is it local, is it low-fat, does it have preservatives, is it fresh -- all of those are hot issues and have been for a number of years."
The growing interest in food mirrors student interest in food science: the department has increased its number of undergraduates from about 50 five years ago to 220 today.
A few morsels from faculty teaching the popular classes:
• Chocolate Science. Lecturer Mary Kay Pohlschnieder has been teaching Chocolate Science since 2008. "I think a lot of students think it will be a course about how to make chocolate at home, but the course is designed to make them a professional consumer -- what is the science behind the making of a chocolate bar? We talk about the farmers and the food scientists behind chocolate, and what it takes to make high-quality chocolate -- from the flavor to the texture to the snap, and then discuss the marketing of the final product. We discuss fair trade and why people see that as a benefit."
In addition, students work in teams to develop new chocolate products as part of a virtual company and present their creations to the class. Plus, each class begins with a taste test of chocolate samples, for which students must evaluate their appearance, aroma, texture and flavor.
• Wine and Beer in Western Culture. Currently taught by graduate student Sonny Pittman, the course has attracted 130 students this semester. In addition, professor emeritus Mike Mangino offers the course online, drawing nearly 600 students.
"Students have told me that they didn't realize there would be so much science in the class, but they found it extremely interesting," Pittman said. "I hope they all come away with an understanding of how the processing is done, and why different flavors are added to the fermentation process. Why does Africa use sorghum and we use barley?"
Mangino also hopes students gain an understanding of how alcohol is metabolized in the body: "The idea is to get more educated about what alcohol is, and we always get the responsibility angle in there, too."
The course has been offered for many years, and Pittman said each instructor puts his or her own stamp on it. "I'm also a chef, so I bring that into the classroom experience as well." Pittman also is developing the Kitchen Science course to be offered this fall.
• Culinary Science. Taught by lecturer Kirsten Dangaran, the class has been offered once per academic year since 2009. It's capped at 30 to allow more hands-on activity during the class.
"It's not just a cooking class," she said. "We go over the chemistry and function of the four major components -- the sugars, the proteins, the fats, the water. Then we see the chemistry in action -- we make some of the French sauces, see the starch gelatinize and thicken. We also spend time covering regional cuisine flavors, back into the history. Many don't realize, for example, that the core of the Mediterranean flavors originate in India with the spice route. A lot of American cuisine started in Africa."
The class culminates with team projects focused on developing recipes from a set batch of ingredients.
Dangaran confessed that as an undergraduate at Ohio State, she majored in chemistry. "Back then I had no idea food science existed," she said. She was introduced to the profession during her first job after college at Ross Labs, and went on to earn her doctorate -- in food science -- at the University of California-Davis.
• The Science of Food. This course fulfills a university general science requirement and is taught by Mike Mangino, professor emeritus who originally helped develop the class decades ago, and instructor Karen Elekes. It's offered both as a traditional class, capped at 200, and also online, capped at 600.
"It's primarily for students who are not science-oriented," Mangino said. "So we make it as relevant and useful as we possibly can."
Elekes said she believes students don't quite expect the broad range of food and nutrition topics the class covers, everything including nutrition, weight control and eating disorders; food safety and food poisoning; the diet's relation to cancer; immunity and food allergens; biotechnology's role in food production; and basics including food preservation, nutrition supplements and labeling laws.
With so many topics being addressed, students are bound to encounter something that hits home, she said -- often on a personal level: "After every single semester, I get an email from someone who says that they have an eating disorder and are glad we covered the topic. And many students appreciate what we teach about food poisoning -- they get a lot out of that."
• Brewing Science. Offered every semester, Dangaran teaches this class of 80 to 90 students. "I think students were surprised at how much science is in this class, especially the first few times it was offered," she said. "Now, I think word has gotten around. We go into a lot of chemistry, the microbiology, the engineering, so they get a pretty good overview of the whole actual modern brewing process."
Beer tasting isn't included, especially considering many students are younger than the legal drinking age, "but we do taste some of the ingredients. For example, there are hundreds of toasted malts you can pick and choose from, so we taste some of the coffee flavors or caramel flavors you can get. We smell the hops -- some have a lot of florals, or a lot of pine. We even do a day on water, what minerals are naturally in a region's water. You can actually taste the differences. So we do interact with ingredients, but not with alcohol."
She hopes they learn enough to demystify the brewing process and learn enough to critically assess whether they like a beer or not, and to have an intelligent conversation with a brewmaster if they ever come across one at a microbrewery.
• Alcohol and Society. This class, taught by professor and former department chair Ken Lee, is designed as a cross-disciplinary capstone course to allow students nearing graduation to synthesize knowledge they've learned in previous coursework. It's capped at 60 students to allow productive discussion.
"Apparently, it's a popular class," Lee said. "We max out on enrollment every year, and I get a lot of students who want to add it." The course examines both the historic and current roles of alcohol in society and asks students to evaluate the positive and negative consequences of alcohol use.
"I have students in this class from agriculture, business, sociology, philosophy, pre-med, social work, security and intelligence -- a really interesting distribution of different majors. The course is structured so the students have a lot of interaction."
Bringing such diverse students together for such classes is the direction the entire university is heading, Lee said. "We're far better off teaching students on contemporary issues from a multidisciplinary perspective.
"It's critically important. It's where breakthrough discoveries come from in research, and it's also true in the instructional arena. We see a lot of 'eureka' moments."
• Food and Health Controversies in the 21st Century. This class, taught by Pohlschneider, is another capstone class offered by the department.
"We start the course off talking about bias and sensationalism, and where to get scientific, accurate information," Pohlschneider said. "I want students to leave the course knowing how to investigate topics, understand where they're getting information from, and to make informed decisions based on good, solid information.
"It's my favorite class. I really see the students developing, thinking through information and learning from each other as well."
Barringer said the popularity of the courses -- and the increase in food science and technology majors -- reflect the growing interest in food among the general population.
"The food industry still has the same fundamental challenges: how do I make it safe, how do I make it cheap, how do I make it desirable? That third category is what changes. When I was growing up, preservatives in food wasn't a big issue -- nobody cared. But then people started caring, and food scientists had to reformulate foods without preservatives. Then organics came around. Trans fat was a big issue. Today people are interested in fresh, local foods, with organics continuing to be a focus.
"But it always comes back to, it has to be safe, tasty and cheap. And that last one is frequently the hardest to achieve."
For more about the Department of Food Science and Technology, see http://fst.osu.edu or contact the department at 614-292-6281.
Mary Kay Pohlschneider