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Top Crops: Finding Hidden Grasses and Beans in Processed Foods

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It's the bottom of the ninth, and you've spent a great afternoon at the ball game with a hotdog, a soda, and an ice cream in hand, but I'll bet you're not thinking about how many crops went into those classic baseball snacks. Sure, the bun contains wheat, but did you know that the hotdog might contain wheat, too? And soybeans may have been used to give that ice cream its perfectly smooth texture, while corn was likely used to sweeten the entire meal! Crops can be changed and added to processed foods to improve their taste and texture. In this cooking and food science fair project, you'll find out which crops are used most often in processed foods. Get ready to discover some sweet and savory secrets!


Areas of Science
Time Required
Short (2-5 days)
Material Availability
You will need to visit a grocery store and have at least an hour to spend there. You will also need access to a computer with an Internet connection.
Very Low (under $20)
No issues

Kristin Strong, Science Buddies


To determine which crops are found most often in processed foods.


Imagine Old Mother Hubbard is going to her cupboard... not to get her poor dog a bone, but to get her children some dinner! Her kids ask her what she is going to make, and she grabs a can and tells them, "We're having baked beans tonight," but then her son looks at the label on the can and says, "We're also having corn, wheat, and soy with those beans." What's going on? Is Old Mother Hubbard's son correct?

Baked beans, and thousands of other foods you find in grocery stores, are called processed foods. Processed means that the foods have been changed in some way from their raw states. Processing includes things like cooking, canning, freezing, dehydrating, or milling. So, for example, if you pick a strawberry, wash it, cut off its stem, and then quickly freeze it and seal it in a bag, you have "processed" that strawberry. Or if you cut down stalks of wheat, thresh them to separate the heads of the stalks (the part people eat) from the straw (the part cows eat), and then separate out the wheat berries in the head and grind parts of those into flour, and finally, mix that flour with water and salt and bake it, you have "processed" the wheat and made yummy pita bread!

Why do people process food? One reason is to preserve the food—to make it last longer. People have been preserving food with salt, as well as with drying and smoking methods, for thousands of years. The ancient Inca, for example, were one of the first peoples to learn the art of freeze-drying, high in the cold mountains of Peru. While the French were the first to figure out how to can food in glass jars in the early 1800's, thanks to a contest set up by Emperor Napoleon, who was trying to figure out a better way to feed his army. Preserving food is very important, because it ensures that people have food to eat during the colder seasons when many crops do not grow.

Black and white photo of a group of people standing in a field where the ground is covered with filets of fish

Figure 1. This photo shows adults and children in Iceland in the 1800's, drying pieces of salt cod, a type of fish, in the sun and wind. This is an example of food processing as a form of preservation. (Wikimedia, 2007.)

Another reason foods are processed is for safety. Pasteurizing milk or juice, for example, kills bacteria in the raw milk or juice, that could cause illness.

Processing foods also makes them more convenient. Many processed foods, like chips, crackers, canned soups, juice boxes, and frozen dinners, are "ready-to-eat" or quick to prepare, requiring only warming or opening of the packaging.

Processing of foods is also done to encourage people to eat them. Adding salt, sweeteners, or fats to a food often makes people want to eat more of it. Adding flavor enhancers, like monosodium glutamate (MSG), can make foods more savory. Adding thickeners to a food can create tasty sauces. Sometimes just changing the color or texture of a food through processing can make people want to eat more of it, too.

Some additions or texture changes to food are accomplished by adding one or more foods from the grass or legume (bean) families of plants. Besides sugar cane and bamboo, the main edible grasses are the cereal grains—crops like corn, wheat, rice, barley, and oats. Common legume crops are soybeans, peanuts, garbanzo beans, lentils, and peas. During food processing, these crops may be used as a main ingredient, or as a food additive, to change the taste, texture, or appearance of the main food. In the Bibliography, you will find a full list of all the ways in which food additives are used.

Often, food additives are first modified (changed) before they are added to the main food. For example, a common sweetener used in many processed foods and drinks, like cookies and soda, is high-fructose corn syrup. The syrup is obtained by modifying corn, a plant in the grass family. To get the syrup, the corn is first milled into corn starch, then that corn starch is mixed with special proteins called enzymes, which change the starch into high-fructose corn syrup.

In this food science fair project, you'll look at food labels to discover the most common hidden crops in processed foods. Is there corn going undercover in your crackers? Wheat waiting to be found in your hotdogs? Soybeans slipping through your ice cream? Head off to the grocery store to find out!

Terms and Concepts



These sources discuss what processed foods are, and describe some of their advantages and disadvantages:

This source describes why food additives are used in processed foods:

For help creating bar charts, try this website:

  • National Center for Education Statistics (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved March 19, 2009.

Materials and Equipment

Experimental Procedure

Note: To do this experiment, you will need to visit a grocery store and spend at least an hour there. You will not be making any purchases—at least not for this science fair project!

  1. Prepare five data tables, like the one below, in your lab notebook—one data table for each category of processed foods:
    1. Processed breakfast foods
    2. Canned and processed ready-to-eat meals
    3. Processed meats and seafood
    4. Processed frozen entrees
    5. Processed snacks and treats

Processed Breakfast Foods Data Table

Processed Food (examples) Corn Wheat Rice Oats Sugar cane Other grass Soybean Peanuts Other Legume Unknown additive(s)
Corn flakes                    
Frozen waffles                    
Toaster pastry                    
Instant breakfast drink                    
Crisped rice                    
Total count                    

  1. Select five different ready-to-eat breakfast foods, such as cereals, frozen waffles, breakfast drinks, or toaster pastries, and enter their names into the breakfast foods data table.
  2. Select five different canned ready-to-eat meals, such as canned soups, chili, baked beans, ravioli, or spaghetti, and enter them into the canned foods data table.
  3. Select five different canned, refrigerated, or frozen processed meats or seafood, such as canned tuna, deli meats, fish sticks, or hotdogs, and enter their names into the processed meats and seafood data table.
  4. Select five different frozen ready-to-eat meals, such as "TV dinners" or ethnic foods (for example, Thai green curry or Mexican enchiladas) and enter their names into the processed frozen foods data table.
  5. Select five different snack and treat foods, such as granola bars, marshmallows, cake mixes, cookies, chips, or crackers and enter their names into the processed snacks and treats data table.
  6. Visit a grocery store and take along your data tables and a pen or pencil. Make sure you have about at least an hour to spend there.
  7. Find the first processed food in your processed breakfast foods data table. Remove it from the shelf and read its label.
    1. Look for any grass crops listed in the ingredients (corn, wheat, rice, oats, sugar cane, or any other crops from the grass family). Record in your data table the number of instances you see the grass listed. For example, if you see that a product contains high-fructose corn syrup and modified cornstarch, then you would write down a "2" in the data table, under corn, for that food.
    2. Look for any legume crops listed in the ingredients (soy, peanuts, or any other crops from the legume family). Record in your data table the number of instances you see the legume listed.
    3. To double-check your results, look for any allergy information on the label. In 2006, label laws were changed to require food manufacturers to list whether their product contains any of the eight most common allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, or soybeans. If you see, peanuts, wheat, or soybeans in the allergy list, then you know those crops should be recorded in your data table for that food.
    4. As you read the label, be aware that these food ingredients can be hidden sources of wheat:
      • Food thickeners
      • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
      • Natural flavorings
      • Meat and crab substitutes
      • Soy sauce
    5. As you read the label, be aware that these food ingredients can be hidden sources of corn:
      • Dextrose
      • Maltodextrin
      • Hominy
      • Maize
    6. As you read the label, be aware that these food ingredients can be hidden sources of soy:
      • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
      • Textured vegetable protein
      • Lecithin
      • Monodiglycerides
      • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
      • Vegetable oil
      • Vitamin E
      • Natural flavoring
      • Vegetable gum
      • Vegetable broth
      • Vegetable starch
    7. If you see a hidden source, like "natural flavorings," and you don't know whether it comes from wheat or soy, check the allergy list to see if that helps you identify what the source is.
    8. If you find an additive name that you are unsure of, write down the name of the additive in the last column of your data table so you can look it up later and see if it comes from one of the grass or legume crops.
  8. Repeat step 8 for the remaining foods in your processed breakfast foods data table.
  9. Repeat steps 8–9 for the four other data tables.
  10. Take your data tables back to your home or school. If you have any unknown additives in the last column of your data tables, do research with the computer to identify, if possible, the source crop for the additive. Update your table counts, if necessary.
  11. Rank the crops from most-used to least-used for each data table.
  12. Create a bar chart for each data table, with the crop name on the x-axis and the number of times it was found on the ingredients list on the y-axis. You can make the charts by hand or use a website like Create a Graph to make the charts on the computer and print it. What were the top three crops for each category of processed foods? Do sweeter foods have a different top crop than saltier foods? Do frozen foods have a different top crop than canned foods?
icon scientific method

Ask an Expert

Do you have specific questions about your science project? Our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.


  • Combine all your counts for each of the crops into one large data table. What are the top crops when all the processed foods are combined?
  • Investigate why the top crops in each category were used in each processed food. Visit the Bibliography reference that describes all the uses of food additives to help you. Once you have identified the use of the top crops (for example, sweetener, thickener, preservative, emulsifier) then rank and graph them for each category to see which is used the most. You may find, for example, that canned foods use more flavor enhancers than breakfast foods, or that breakfast foods use more sweeteners than frozen foods, or that frozen foods use more emulsifiers than snack foods.


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MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Top Crops: Finding Hidden Grasses and Beans in Processed Foods." Science Buddies, 23 June 2020, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/FoodSci_p053/cooking-food-science/grasses-and-beans-in-processed-foods. Accessed 30 May 2023.

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2020, June 23). Top Crops: Finding Hidden Grasses and Beans in Processed Foods. Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/FoodSci_p053/cooking-food-science/grasses-and-beans-in-processed-foods

Last edit date: 2020-06-23
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