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Red Robin’s Science-y Kids’ Menu

Today’s post is by Jeff Huber, C&EN assistant editor and connoisseur of fast-food kids’ meals.

What’s cookin'?: Red flaunts proper lab attire. Credit: Red Robin

Albert Einstein had his theory of relativity. Charles Darwin had his theory of evolution. And now Red, the avian mascot of Red Robin restaurants, has his own theory: the theory of yummm, in which “U + RR [i.e., Red Robin] x F(un) = yuM3.”

It’s a controversial postulate sure to be met with skepticism from the scientific community. Scientists hoping to poke holes in Red’s theory, however, won’t be able to look inside an academic journal to study the logic behind Red’s assertion. Instead, they’ll have to look at the back of a Red Robin kids’ menu.

There, under a banner proclaiming his theory, Red appeared last fall alongside a variety of science-related games, including a maze through a twisty test tube and a matching exercise in which children were asked to identify the chemical element that most closely aligns with such everyday items as a soda can and milk (answers: aluminum and calcium, respectively).

“The games on the kids’ menu provide a great avenue for parents and kids to interact while they are dining at Red Robin,” says communications manager Jamie Winter, who explains that the science-centric kids’ menu was released in an effort to coincide with the start of a new school year. “It made sense to create a menu that was focused on a school subject,” she says.

Menu with answers filled in. Credit: Red Robin

To further promote science education, the kids’ menu asks young patrons to also visit the Red Robin website, where Red’s Science Fair Fun Lab provides instructions for a number of kid-friendly science experiments including recipes for rock candy and slime.

Newscripts is all for encouraging children to discuss science over the dinner table, but we do have one minor quibble. At the conclusion of the menu’s word jumble, it is revealed that Red’s favorite science subject is biology, not chemistry! How could Red make such an egregious snub?

“There is no rhyme or reason to why Red’s favorite science subject is biology versus another science discipline,” reassures Winter. “The menu is just meant to be fun and engaging.”

Alright. But, for a minute there, Red had us seeing red.

NOTE: Hat tip to @rachelpep and her kids for bringing the Red Robin menu to the Newscripts desk.

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.

Do the Dew. Well, if you don't mind the potential mouse carcasses, that is. Credit: Flickr user -ej!

What’s more disgusting than finding a mouse in your Mountain Dew? Learning that the beverage would have likely transformed the rodent into a gelatinous mass before you ever cracked the can. [The Smoking Gun]

Paul Bracher learns the pitfalls of coming up with an acronym as you get older. [ChemBark]

Researchers make self-cleaning surface by sequestering cheese-rind fungus in coating technology. Mmmmm, Roquefort cheese-rind fungus. [Discover]

Green tea is good for you, so Chinese researchers wonder what it does to broiler chickens. Newscripts gang ponders how chickens manage to hold teacups. [J. Ag. Food Chem.]

Take some silver atoms, add a dash of salmon sperm DNA, and Voilà! A data-storage device. Of course. [Gizmodo]

Here are 20 things we didn’t know about alcohol, like don’t try to outdrink a Malaysian pen-tailed treeshrew. [Discover]

Not sure how this got in here, but “Organ Trail” game tests players’ zombie survival skills. Apparently, your “family” doesn’t have to worry about dysentery—just a hunger for brains. [Hatsproduction.com]

CT Scans For Holiday Hams

Today’s post is by Sophia L. Cai, an assistant production editor and Newscripts contributor here at C&EN.

Country ham. Credit: John Goetzinger/Wikimedia Commons

While hoards of holiday feasters head back to the gym in the new year, some scientists may be wandering back into the lab to study the holiday feast ingredients. In a just-accepted study in the Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry, Eva Santos-Garcés and colleagues at Spain’s Institute of Agricultural-Alimentary Research & Technology (IRTA) demonstrate a way to monitor the dry curing of hams—a process that produces salty meats such as prosciutto and country hams that can store for months. Monitoring salt and water content ensures a quality product, but it also helps determine water activity, a measure of potential microbial growth and therefore shelf-life.

Instead of using testing methods that require destroying the tasty meats, these researchers have taken a more clinical approach: using a CT scanner. That’s right, the same computed tomography scans more recognizably used to examine head trauma patients or to prescreen for types of cancer have garnered the attention of the food science community in recent years. Because salt ions produce a marked increase in CT attenuation values, the researchers could easily track salt-related benchmarks of hams at various stages of the preservation process. They combined their own CT analytical tools and predictive models in a case study to successfully characterize salt distribution, dehydration, and water activity in dry-cured hams in two different dry-curing production lines.

But popping a ham in a CT scanner isn’t quite as easy as popping it in the oven. The group is currently working to overcome disturbances in its data that are caused by the presence of intramuscular fat, for example.

In the short term, CT-scanned hams will probably be relegated to the lab bench, but Santos-Garcés and her team say that, in the future, industrial producers could take advantage of this technology. Grab some random ham off the belt, run it through a CT scanner, and adjust the salt and water content of the entire batch accordingly. Voilà! In the meantime, though, makers of dry-cured hams will just have to rely on more destructive methods of testing the saltiness of hams in time for the next holiday season.

National Lampoon’s … Chemistry Vacation?

Today’s post is from See Arr Oh, who finds chemistry lurking in a holiday classic. See Arr Oh is a chemist working in industry.

It’s that time of the year again! ‘Tis the season for snowflakes, gifts, and, of course, watching holiday movies.

Which one’s your favorite? Maybe Miracle on 34th Street, or Frosty the Snowman? For me, it’s always been National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Watching it again last week, I recalled, perhaps even subconsciously, one of the many reasons I like it so much.

At the core, it’s a Christmas movie about a wacky family man—who works in Chicago as a food chemist (well, “additive designer” according to the script).

That’s right. Look around Clark Griswold’s office in the film. See anything interesting? I see catchy product art, miniature swimming pools (the “last true family man”), and look, molecular models! Sadly, they appear to have been set up by an errant props person; I can’t think of any stable chemicals with a sulfur-bound peroxide, nor a stable N,O carbene!

Let’s delve deeper for more evidence of Clark’s chemistry connection. First, when he encounters his boss in the hallway, Clark gets complimented on a new “non-nutritive cereal varnish.” Clark himself refers to it as a “crunch enhancer.” What could this bonus-worthy product be? Perhaps a derivative of carnauba wax? Or a cyclodextrin? Could it be a soluble fiber, like Metamucil, that preserves the precious cereal flakes?

Second, the infamous silver saucer scene, which ends with Clark toppling into a Walmart dumpster. Remember the compound he smeared on the bottom of the saucer? A “noncaloric silicon-based kitchen lubricant,” which he claims is more slippery than cooking grease. Given the low friction coefficient with the snow cover, one suspects derivatized mineral oil, or maybe Clark has presaged the lotus-leaf-inspired superhydrophobic coatings developed recently.

Whether you watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation for holiday joy, or for scientific enlightenment, we here at Newscripts hope you and your families have a wonderful holiday season. And please, if your sewer is glowing green or evolving strange gases, don’t let anyone light a match.

Amusing News Aliquots – Thanksgiving Feast Edition

In lieu of our usual silly samplings from this week’s science news, Lauren Wolf and I have compiled a list of our favorite articles from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry on turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Credit: Shutterstock

Ever wonder whether ground turkey is REALLY a lower-fat substitute for ground beef? These guys have. [10.1021/jf00032a012]

Planning to irradiate your turkey instead of brine it this Thanksgiving? You could be in for a volatile-sulfur surprise. [10.1021/jf020158y]

We hate it when our turkey meat gets oxidized. Thank goodness for honey. [10.1021/jf010820a]

Got gum problems? You might want an extra helping of cranberry sauce. [10.1021/jf203304v]

But if you’re using fresh cranberries, be sure to give them a good washing. Wouldn’t want any ethylene dibromide with your relish. [10.1021/jf001025k]

And if you’re planning to store your cranberries for future use, those kept at 15 °C pack the biggest antioxidant punch. [10.1021/jf001206m]

Pumpkins—the fungus fighters of the cucurbit world. [10.1021/jf902005g]

Tired of pie? Why not use your pumpkin flesh for determining how much L-glutamate is in your food? [10.1021/jf0344791]

The Newscripts gang loves the ACS Legacy Archives almost as much as we love a four-day weekend. Check out this classic from 1910: “Chemical Examination of Pumpkin Seed.” [10.1021/ja01921a009]

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.

To magneto-sense, or not to magneto-sense? That is the question. Credit: Flickr user Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden

Scientists squabble over whether cows really line up with Earth’s magnetic fields. Apparently one team didn’t use the correct cowculator. [NatureNews]

Scientist works toward making first lab-grown hamburger. Hmmm … the Newscripts gang isn’t so sure that the McPetriDish has quite the same ring as the McRib. [iO9]

Raid the stock room of liquid nitrogen and open up your own ice cream shop! But, um, do tell the reporters the correct temperature of the cold stuff. [South Bend Tribune]

If you just can’t keep that ethyl-2-cyanoacrylate out of your ears, someone has found a way to help you. [Improbable.com]

If you thought organ transplants were amazing, you should check out fecal transplants. [Scientific American]

Woman studies 400 YouTube videos of dogs chasing their tails in the name of research. [Discoblog]

There’s an app for that. Learn about DNA by repairing it correctly. [iTunes]



A 3-D Printer In Every Kitchen

In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote a story about 3-D printers—those machines that build solid objects one layer at a time–and the materials that scientists are developing for use with the technology. I’ve had a slight obsession with 3-D printing in the past (see here and here for posts about using the machines for creating buildings and identifying the remains of soldiers), but this article, to my delight, allowed me to go “full tilt” on the subject.

Near the end of the story, Cornell’s Hod Lipson, director of the Creative Machines Lab, says that food printing in particular might just be the “killer app” that drives the market for 3-D printers. He likens it to how the demand for faster, more complex, better-looking video games drove the development of personal computing technology. One day, he believes, every person will have a 3-D printer in the kitchen, just like we all have computers in our offices now.

The Creative Machines Lab runs the Fab@home project which released online the blueprints some years ago for a 3-D printer that works by squeezing pastes and slurries out of syringes. The technology relies on the materials to harden in some way after printing. Once the plans for the printer were made open-access in 2007, people began printing various types of food.

To supplement my story this week, I thought I’d share some rad videos of food printing to pique your appetite—for 3-D printers as well as the food they can create.

In the video above, David Arnold, a chef at the French Culinary Institute, in New York, prints masa, a corn-based dough (think tortillas), into neat shapes. He then steams it and fries it for some crunchy goodness. Although Arnold has said on his blog that he fears a future in which 3-D printers are used to print out dinner from a series of homogenous pastes, he thinks that the technology can be useful in some situations. Cookies, for instance. Continue reading →

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf

The IgNobel Prizes are just a week away. Check out the chem demo promo. [AIR]

The indiscriminate sex life of deep-sea squid. [Guardian] 

The secrets of Velveeta exposed. [Discover] 

Merchants protect wool against counterfeiting by “shooting it up” with specific DNA. Yes, we really said “wool.” [Gizmodo]

For your next nanomartini. [Penn State Science] 

Scientists elicit greater probability of truth-telling by magnetically stimulating certain parts of brain. Politicians nervous. [Tecca]

A typewriter that mixes drinks. Newscripts gang wonders if Rudy (our editor-in-chief) will spring for one of these? [BoingBoing]