Story and photo by Lee Sherman | Terra | Posted July 11, 2012
When Rachel Miller was shadowing a pie scientist in her hometown of Spokane, Washington, no one — not her teachers, not her parents, and certainly not she herself — could have predicted that her high school job shadow would lead to possibly the coolest summer internship in the universe: tasting ice cream in France.
OK, so let’s back up a minute. A pie scientist? Really? The year was 2008, and transfats were the newest boogeyman in the food industry. The scientist Miller shadowed at Cyrus O’Leary’s Pies was reformulating recipes, replacing shortening with healthier palm oil. Sugar, too, was on the food industry’s hit list as Americans’ waistlines swelled and their blood sugar spiked. Enter low-sugar pies and yet another reformulation.
Miller admits that her teenage choice of a job shadow had more to do with her sweet tooth than with any carefully thought-out career goal. Nonetheless, a career path began to unfold for this child of a meteorologist dad and a veterinarian mom (who worked with bomb-sniffing dogs during a military tour in Kuwait). After a senior-year visit to Oregon State University, Miller set her sights on the Department of Food Science and Technology. Studying food appealed to her practical nature.
“Food science is so applicable to everyday life,” she says. “It’s not one of those sciences where you have to work in a lab. Your kitchen can be your lab.”
A part-time freshman gig crunching data for OSU cheese researcher Lisbeth Goddik introduced Miller to the chemistry, microbiology and artistry of curds and whey. So a logical spot for her first summer internship was Oregon’s famous Tillamook Cheese Factory, where she chemically analyzed milk samples and inspected incoming ingredients like sugar and salt. The next summer, she worked at the Darigold plant back home in Spokane.
Finally, her professional life looped back to its origins: that sweet tooth. At the end of her senior year at OSU, Miller was accepted as a summer intern at ENILBIO, the National School of Dairy Industry and Biotechnology. Tucked away in the picturesque French town of Poligny, the school resides in one of the world’s finest cheese-making regions. The school also researches ice cream.
Miller’s delighted grin seems to say, “Can you believe it?” as she explains her summer job testing the texture of ice cream made without chemical emulsifiers — compounds like polysorbate 80, monoglycerides and diglycerides — that give ice cream its smoothness, free of gritty ice crystals.
“It’s all about mouth feel,” she says, sounding very much like a vintner after swishing, sipping and spitting a pinot noir. “Consumers want a creamy, pleasant mouthfeel, but they don’t want the substances that create that pleasant texture. It’s a Catch 22.”
In France, she’ll be looking at what happens to ice cream, texturally, without those multisyllabic emulsifiers. It’s all part of an international trend, Miller says. More and more, consumers avoid foods listing unpronounceable additives and unrecognizable terminology on their packages. “There’s a big push to clean up the labels on food products, to limit the number of ingredients and to use only natural ones,” she says.