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The Science of Too Sour


Tang, an orange-flavored, powered drink developed by William Mitchell was popularized on board NASA's Mercury flight in 1962. Experimenting with powdered drinks and levels of "sour" can offer kitchen science fun for the whole family! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Born on October 21, 1911: William A. Mitchell, a food scientist who created many classics for General Foods that might ring a bell for teachers and parents, from Pop Rocks candy to Tang. Even Cool Whip and quick-set Jell-O, a duo often used together, lead back to Mitchell.

You may or may not stock Mitchell's foods in your fridge and cabinets, but his list of food-related patents leaves little doubt that he was an innovator with an eye to the ways in which chemistry is at the heart of food science. Showing students the connection between cooking and science can be eye-opening, fun, and creative—plus, it's a great way to spend time together and to make them more independent in the kitchen even as you whet their appetite and curiosity about science.

Mouth-Puckering Fun!

One of the great things about science experiments related to food is that kitchen science can be immediately hands-on. Everyone can get involved mixing and baking and tinkering with recipes and ingredients—and then everyone can help taste-test! There are many food-related Project Ideas on the Science Buddies website that are perfect for families wanting to do a kitchen-based science activity. You could bake cookies or boil pasta together, but for many kids, "sour" may be an exciting place to start with food science!

Do your kids have a penchant for all things sour? Do you? Is a tolerance or a love of "sour" something that differs from person to person, similar to tolerance for saltiness or sweetness?

My kids might run a mile from peppermint. They might hide behind the couch at the thought of cinnamon (no Atomic Fireballs here!). But they love anything sour, and today's drugstore candy shelves never fail to offer up the goods. A current favorite (though Mom- and dentist-disapproved) is a lollipop that also has a sour liquid you squeeze directly on your tongue. It's the kind of makes-you-wiggle-all-over super sour they love. But is it something only a kid would love?

It's a question worth asking, and the Do You Have the Willpower to Taste Something Sour? project gives you a way to put the question to the test in your own kitchen. This project, geared toward early grades, is great for a classroom experiment, or families can modify the project (using fewer volunteers) to make it a fun activity for a hot afternoon, a playdate, or an engaging over-the-weekend experiment. As you and your students mix up batches of lemonade with varying levels of "sour," you'll all have fun—and learn something about human biology and food science!

(Science Buddies Project Ideas in Health and Human Biology are sponsored by the Medtronic Foundation. To view other parent- and family-focused science resources and content, visit our Parent Resources section.)

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