Creating fast food’s most trendy items, like KFC's Double DownWendy’s Orange Dreamsicle Frosty, or the Taco Bell’s Baja Blast gelato, can take a lot of work. These ideas take months of planning, creating, and tasting. Enter the food scientist. If you aren’t aware of food science and how the profession works, then you’ll be surprised at what's to come. A food scientist’s role is to study the basic elements of food, discover new food, and analyze nutritional value. If you ever wondered about how your favorite fast food items came to light, you can thank the food scientists for making it happen. One of these food geniuses you can send a card to is A’ysha Callahan, who works as a food innovation technologist at KFC. She was one of the sharp minds behind some KFC foods you know and love, like the Chizza and the Saucy Nuggets.

Callahan developed a deep love for food at a young age and was always curious on how to commit to a career that was based around it.

“I come from a big family, so we always connected over food,” Callahan told Spoon University in an interview. “My mom and my dad, they would bring me in the kitchen with them and allow me to help cook dinner. So, it was really great to be able to be in the kitchen at an early age.”

During her time in high school, she applied for a STEM-based extracurricular program that focused heavily on college readiness. During this time, she found an academic mentor with a master’s degree in food science and encouraged her to pursue the same passion.

“I’m so glad she did, because I don’t even think I would know that food science was a thing if it wasn’t for the strong mentorship,” Callahan said.

Callahan went on to attend Alabama A&M University and earned a bachelor’s degree in food science. Her post-grad jobs consisted of working mainly in food quality and food manufacturing, as well as doing internships in Minnesota and Indiana. Wanting to expand her horizons, Callahan decided to look more into product development. Luckily enough, she stumbled upon a position to become a food innovator, which focuses on the development of new food products, processes, and services.

“One day, I was scrolling and scrolling on my phone and actually came across KFC, a job posting for a food innovator,” Callahan said. “I went through many stages of interviews and got to communicate with the team. I was approached with a whole bunch of friendliness and I felt like I could ask any question I wanted.”

Of course, the interviews went well as Callahan now works at the iconic chicken restaurant’s headquarters. After being hired, she quickly realized this was not going to be the typical 9-to-5, as every day looks different.

“Sometimes, I may come in and do some computer work. Sometimes, I might go to our creative kitchen where I’m able to bring my ideas to life,” Callahan said.

Within a typical workday, she and the rest of the food product development team collaborate heavily on developing food items and implementing consumer testing. During her time working for KFC, Callahan has worked on several national launches, such as the Saucy Nuggets and the Chizza. The Saucy Nuggets are boneless chicken dripping in a choice of five sauces: Honey Sriracha, Honey BBQ, Nashville Hot, Georgia Gold, and Sticky Chicky Sweet 'n Sour sauce. The Chizza is exactly what it sounds like: pizza ingredients of marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese piled onto a crispy piece of fried chicken.

"What keeps me inspired — one, is the fact that I'm in a position where I can influence food trends and I can physically make everyone feel seen by basically creating a space for everyone's palate to show up and to be satisfied," she said. "So, that way, I feel like I'm doing something for the greater good. If I just stay really, really passionate in my innovation, then someone's going to be happy. At the end of the day, food brings us together."

But it’s not all chicken and pizza. She has also faced many misconceptions about her role in food science.

“The main misconception I always hear about food scientists is, ‘Oh, so you’re a chef’,” Callahan said. “A lot of times, people assume that food scientists are just cooks. But, at the end of the day, we really focus on solving real-world problems that surround the production of food.”

Callahan also pointed out the other aspects that come into working within food science such as “chemistry, nutritional biochemistry, [and] food microbiology.”

Despite the misconceptions, she does have favorite parts of her job that allow her to work with different departments such as marketing and public relations, as well as evaluating food items. The franchise even has its own creative kitchen, where they let people try products that they have been working on.

Callahan also shared her perspective on encouraging those who may want to follow the same career path.

“I would say advise-wise is to not be afraid to take an opportunity that may not be exactly what you want, but it will give you skill sets that will essentially help you get to where you want to go,” Callahan said.

As someone who felt like their dream of becoming a food scientist wouldn’t come true, Callahan had to put herself out there in regards to gaining support on achieving her goals.

Interested in becoming a food scientist yourself? There are college programs that specialize in it. Schools like the University of Georgia, University of Florida, and University of Missouri all offer degrees in food science.