A North Central College student preparing a healthy lunch.

What is Nutrition Science?

Reviewed by Jacob Imm

Jul 19, 2023

What is Nutritional Science?

If you’ve ever taken a vitamin to address a health concern or added a scoop of protein powder to your post-workout smoothie to boost your gains, you have nutritional science to thank.

What is nutrition science? Simply put, nutrition science is the general term given to the study of food, nutrients, and other ingestible substances and their effects on the human body. It’s an exciting field in which doctors and scientists find ways to help people live healthier lives.

If you want to learn more about nutritional science, you’re in the right place. This guide goes into detail on the discipline, including its history, its importance, and what to study if you wish to enter the field. 

Modern Nutritional Science: A Brief History

Food and nutrition have been studied for centuries, but what the modern academy considers nutritional science isn’t quite as ancient. While there’s no exact date for when the field of nutrition sciences was born, as the British Medical Journal (BMJ) states, there are some key milestones over the last century that define the progress of modern nutritional science:

  • The isolation and production of the first vitamin – The presence of vitamins in our food was known prior to 1926, but it was this year when the first vitamin (B1, then known as thiamine) was isolated. This discovery started a scientific trend of synthesizing vitamins to help people address nutritional deficits. Nearly 100 years later, it’s still a primary focus of nutritional science.
  • Advancements in nutritional understanding – Many states require packaged foodstuffs to list how much sugar and fat they contain. That’s because nutritional studies found excessive intake of these substances leads to obesity and other health issues. Studies determining the hazardous and highly-addictive nature of sugar and other ingredients took place from the 1950s to 1970s. Thus, modern labeling requirements that help consumers make healthier choices exemplify nutritional science’s positive impact on society.
  • Recommendations for healthy dietary guidelines – The modern prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and other dietary-related illnesses is a fairly recent problem in the health sciences community. But nutritional science continually adapts to meet the ongoing challenges of poor diets. From the 1990s onwards, developing healthy ways to help people manage their weight and improved nutrition education have been the main goals of nutritional science.

These accomplishments are but a small selection of the advancements nutritional science has made in improving human health. Nonetheless, modern scientists still face and attempt to mitigate many contemporary nutritional issues. 

The Main Concerns of Contemporary Nutritional Science

The world has changed tremendously over the last century and, with it, so has the focus of nutritional science. For instance, according to an article by PubMed, malnutrition was one of the largest human health problems affecting humanity, especially children, at the turn of the 20th century. Now, there are more overweight than underweight individuals globally, and obesity currently causes more health problems than malnourishment. 

Another example of how times have changed is that in 1932, vitamin C was isolated and synthesized to aid in the fight against scurvy—a vitamin deficiency disorder that causes bruising, bleeding, and fatigue, according to the BMJ. Today, scientists are debating whether or not the disease has all but gone extinct.

Simply put, the health and nutrition problems of yesteryear are a far cry from the issues contemporary nutritional scientists deal with; a modern world brings with it modern issues. Hence, nutritional science now focuses on problems such as:

  • Dispelling archaic dietary myths – The advancement of nutritional science has brought many positives to society, but it’s also spurred at least one drawback: the rise of self-proclaimed “nutrition experts” and dietary myths. To that end, combating misleading advice (like only caring about a food’s calorie count rather than worrying about its nutritional makeup) is an ongoing concern of nutritional science that nutrition education programs try to combat.
  • Influencing government policy – Harmful food misconceptions aren’t only spread through old wives’ tales and dubious “doctors.” Some government institutions continue to broadcast outdated recommendations, such as villainizing fats while promoting foods high in sugar. And these misleading suggestions make it difficult for people who actually want to improve their health to do so effectively. Hence, a contemporary concern of nutritional scientists is bringing government food policy into the 21st century.
  • Understanding how food interacts with the body – For many years, nutritional science has studied how food interacts with the body. However, recent findings have made scientists realize that food enacts much more complex molecular and physiological effects than previously thought. Developing a more thorough understanding of how food works inside of us and other nutritional unknowns drives contemporary research in the field.

What Do Nutritional Scientists Do?

Speaking of research in the field, you may be wondering what exactly nutritional scientists do. 

The answer is complex, as nutritional scientists can wear many hats. In fact, nutritional scientists can simultaneously work as researchers, professors, and consultants. 

To that end, some of the duties of the modern nutritional scientist can include:

  • Conducting research – Whether they’re performing laboratory research or conducting studies, nutritional scientists seek to better understand food’s effect on our bodies and society. Thus, conducting, sharing, and reviewing research is a core component of working in the field. Due to the close collaboration between the fields, agricultural and food science are often lumped together as a research discipline with nutrition, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
  • Teaching – Educating the next generation of young scientific minds is key to keeping the field of nutritional science alive. Thus, along with being researchers, many nutritional scientists are also professors in human nutrition. Whether it’s by delivering lectures or penning scholarly articles, sharing their contemporary knowledge helps build the foundation for nutritional breakthroughs in the future. 
  • Advising – Nutritional science isn’t only a theoretical field—it also has implications on real people’s lives. Thus, nutritional scientists often work as nutritionists, advising patients on how to structure their diets to improve their overall health. As previously mentioned, discoveries in nutritional science have had bearings on government nutrition recommendations, as well. Thus, some top-level nutritional scientists also advise politicians while crafting food policy.

Helping individuals and society at large live healthier lives is not the only potential reward of a career as a nutritional scientist. According to the BLS, a good portion of food scientists also earn more than $128,000 annually, making the position financially rewarding, as well.

Find out more about North Central College

How to Become a Nutritional Scientist

If nutritional science sounds like the career path for you, you may be wondering what steps you need to take to begin working in the field. While various occupations in the discipline hold differing educational and professional requirements, there are a few common milestones on the journey to becoming a nutritional scientist, including:

  • Obtaining a relevant undergraduate degree – Getting a bachelor’s degree will prepare you for the ongoing study most nutrition science jobs require. When deciding where to go for your undergraduate, consider schools like North Central College that offer both evidence-based coursework and relationship-centered practice. Such comprehensive bachelor’s degree programs in nutrition science can help prepare students for the next step on their journey, whether that’s pursuing a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) license, furthering their education, or working in the food research industry.
  • Getting licensed – As noted, many nutritional scientists also work as dietitians to help people lead healthier, more fulfilling lives. In order to weed out the qualified from the unqualified, most states require licenses to operate under titles such as “dietitian” or “nutritionist.” If advising individuals about their diets is part of your future goals, you’ll need to obtain the proper permissions to become an RDN.
  • Pursuing graduate-level education – If a research-oriented career is more in line with your goals, then pursuing education beyond a bachelor’s is a savvy way to secure that type of work in the food science and nutrition industries. In fact, it’s not uncommon for workers in these sectors to obtain master’s degrees or even Ph.Ds. To qualify for certain positions, such as professor of nutritional science, these higher degrees may even be compulsory.
  • Working in the sector of your choosing – If you’re wondering what you can do with a nutritional science degree, it's good to know that nutritional scientists have a wide variety of choices when determining a specific career path. Positions such as a dietitian, professor, and related occupations are available. And from independent protein powder producers to food industry titans, there are plenty of companies that need nutritional scientists to help develop and test their food-related products.

If the journey toward becoming a nutritional scientist sounds like a challenging but worthwhile endeavor to you, then perhaps it’s time to take the first step toward a career in nutrition science.

Discover Your Passion For Nutritional Science 

Nutritional science is a complex and fascinating field—weaving together threads of health, diet, supplementation, legislation, and more. Pursuing a degree in nutritional science allows you to taste-test many different facets of the discipline and discover your passion. 

Consider starting that journey with a program like North Central College’s (NCC) bachelor’s degree in nutrition science. NCC’s nutrition science program is fully accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics. 

At North Central, expert professors combine scientific coursework with plenty of hands-on practice to prepare you for a variety of careers. Whether you want to oversee production in the food service industry or your undergraduate is just one step on your educational journey, NCC is a phenomenal jumping-off point for your future.

Contact North Central College today to learn more about a nutrition science degree.

Jacob Imm is the associate director in the North Central College Office of Institutional Communication. He has 13 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.



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