What it's really like to be a food scientist at a big company like Kraft Heinz

Emily Kimmins.
Courtesy Kraft Heinz

For most of human history, people ate what was available: Root vegetables that could easily be collected, wild game that could easily be trapped or hunted, livestock that was easily domesticated and bred. Even if you were to go grocery shopping 150 years ago, your options would have been limited to products like beans and dried meat.

These days, a walk through a grocery store is like a jaunt through Willy Wonka's chocolate factory — at least compared to the past. Almost anything you could want is readily available, and it's often quite affordable. Products that were unimaginable a century ago are now commonplace, like Cocoa Puffs cereal, Hot Pockets, and Fruit by the Foot.

That's in part because of people like Emily Kimmins.

Inside the consumer science lab

Kimmins, 43, is the senior manager of sensory and consumer science at Kraft Heinz sensory testing labs in Glenview, Illinois. Kimmins makes six figures working with marketing insights specialists at Kraft Heinz. She's been there since 2018, taking cues from interviews and roundtables with consumers (some of whom are professional taste-testers), and turning those ideas into marketable products.

Her job is to literally come up with new foods.

Kraft Heinz.
Courtesy Kraft Heinz

A typical day might include brainstorming new ideas, taking feedback from the company's product marketing professionals, and directing product development teams who devise and design new recipes and product names by turning those ideas into reality. "Our role is to help the product development teams understand how to make the best product ... to help them understand the target consumer — what they're looking for," says Kimmins.

A large part of that is putting yourself in the consumer's shoes and thinking about a product's physical dimensions and what it looks, tastes, and smells like. Her team usually juggles several projects at once.

One recent example: Kimmins and her team set out to create a fast, healthy, and hot breakfast product that people could make in a few minutes. They decided on ingredients (eggs and veggies), and a way to package and cook it. The result is Just Crack an Egg, a refrigerated bowl of potatoes, vegetables, and cheese that a consumer adds an egg to and then microwaves. The result is a hot breakfast scramble in a bowl that requires minimal effort.

From idea to shelf, Just Crack an Egg took two years. "That [product] went through the whole process," Kimmins says. "We had an idea that we wanted to give people a fresh breakfast — we tried a lot of different options, and that's the one that ended up going to market." Some products, though, take as little as six months.

How creating flavors became 'a really good playground'

Though Kimmins has been working at Kraft Heinz for only a couple of years, she's worked in the industry for more than 18 years.

An Illinois native, she moved to Ohio with her family as a young teenager and attended the University of Toledo, where she earned a biology degree. She loved science and decided to build a career earning six figures as a scientist.

But food wasn't at the forefront of her mind — in fact, she didn't know what she wanted to do, so she signed up with a temp agency, figuring she could try out various science-based jobs to see what she liked best. The first position she got was at a four-week stint at Procter & Gamble lab in Cincinnati working on dentures.

"I had to make really strong coffee and tea to try and stain the dentures, and try to keep the panelists entertained," she says. That gave her a taste of how product developers work with consumers, though, and she took a job at Givaudan, a Swiss company that creates flavors and fragrances for food manufacturers, where she worked for eight years.

Kraft Heinz.
Courtesy Kraft Heinz

While at Givaudan, she worked on a team creating beverage flavors and "fell in love with it," she says. "It was a really good playground for me. A place to play and learn about this whole industry that I was not aware of, but still utilize all the kind of basic science lab skills that I had."

She eventually moved on to other companies, working for Dr Pepper Snapple in Dallas and at Nestle in Ohio. She also went back to school and earned a certification in sensory evaluation from the University of California, Davis, in 2003.

Over the years, Kimmins has been able to pivot into an interesting and rewarding career. Another perk: Her family gets to participate in it, as well, at least to a degree.

Her kids — a 13-year-old son and twin 6-year-old daughters — sometimes serve as guinea pigs. Kimmins will bring products in development home to get their feedback, allowing them to get a sneak peek at the next generation of kid-friendly snacks and drinks coming to market. They do, however, have to fill out questionnaires and give feedback.

"They think that what I do is exciting — the whole idea of making food and all that," she says. "They really love all of it."

And as for what Kimmins and her team are going to roll out next, the kids, and hungry consumers, will have to wait and see — but probably not for long. "Considering the number of brands we have? There are lots and lots of projects ongoing at any one time," she says. "We have a lot of irons in the fire."

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