UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — From winning a brownie competition at the Pennsylvania Farm Show during his eighth grade year to securing first place in the nation for developing a new product with a team of Penn State food scientists, Michael Zaffuto is diving headfirst into the field of food science.
Zaffuto, a food science major, attributes his many accomplishments to Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, his family and his hometown of Sykesville, Pennsylvania, a close-knit community with plenty of corn and wheat fields.
He developed his love for food from his parents, who taught him the importance of making food that not only tastes good but also looks presentable. From preschool until 12th grade, Zaffuto attended DuBois Central Catholic School, which nurtured his love of science. In seventh grade, Zaffuto made the connection between his two passions and decided that he would pursue food science in college.
“You can imagine my excitement when I made the connection of how cooking and science are so related,” he said. “From that point on, I started reading articles about food science and started doing a little experimenting of my own. It is still a mystery to me how I actually discovered the field existed, but I wrote it down in my seventh grade yearbook and had my mind set ever since.”
Zaffuto is involved in his hometown’s local fair, the Sykesville Ag and Youth Fair, which has been a very special part of his time growing up. That involvement has left a lasting impact and an appreciation for agriculture, which has enhanced his college experiences.
“Having food science as a passion growing up helped me to engage with professionals in the agricultural industry,” he said. “Food science and agriculture go hand-in-hand.”
In the fall of 2016, Zaffuto became a freshman at the University Park campus, where he took advantage of every opportunity presented. From the Food Science Club to becoming an Ag Advocate, he wanted to absorb as much knowledge about the industry as possible.
“I couldn’t believe the opportunities that were available to me,” he said. “Hearing about the experiences of the Ag Advocate who gave me a campus tour confirmed that food science was exactly what I wanted to do and that Penn State was the place for me to achieve my goals.”
Joining clubs helped Zaffuto quickly adjust to the Penn State environment and enabled him to make connections within his field. He adjusted so well, in fact, that he earned the President’s Freshman Award for his first semester at Penn State.
The college’s faculty, staff and students also helped ease his transition to Penn State, and events such as the Ag Sciences Career Day have provided him with networking and professional development opportunities to better his future. In addition, Zaffuto said hands-on learning projects have enabled him to experience many different aspects of the agricultural sciences.
“Reading about something in a textbook is one thing, but once you experience through real engagement, it sticks with you the rest of your life,” said Zaffuto.
One of the most fulfilling and beneficial programs for him has been participation on a product- development team. Zaffuto, along with food science peers and graduate students, developed a product called FuZen, a dairy-based beverage. After testing the product, they entered it into the 2017 National Dairy Council Competition, where it earned first-place honors.
“This was one of the best experiences I have had because I learned so much and gained skills that I will need once I graduate,” said Zaffuto. “I am thankful that the grad students were receptive to our ideas and took the time to teach us everything they knew about developing a product.”
Zaffuto joined two other product-development teams in the Food Science Department, where he currently is helping to come up with new products for consumers. “It has been a goal of mine to develop a product and see it on the grocery store shelf one day,” he said. “Though that is still one of my biggest goals, I learned that there are so many other avenues of food science that I am very excited to explore before my time at Penn State is done.”
While he is eager to bring out his creative side when developing new and exciting food products, he also is determined to make sure that the food people consume is safe.
“It is important for me to educate the public on where their food comes from and correct misconceptions about agriculture, especially in the food industry,” he said. “It gives me a sense of pride to be an integral part of such a positive field.”