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MAGICTORCH

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NGSS: Core Idea: PS1.A   

CCSS: Literacy in Science: 3   

TEKS: 6.2A, 7.2A, 8.2A, C.2E, C.4D

Extreme Candy

Food scientists use chemistry to create sour, fiery, fizzy, and weird-tasting treats to tantalize your taste buds

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: How do you think food scientists make extreme or odd candy flavors?

One of the best parts of Halloween is going door-to-door to collect a big haul of candy. But some sweets in your bag might seem more like tricks than treats. They include candies that pack a puckery punch, fiery jawbreakers, and gross-flavored jelly beans. These tongue-tingling, eye-watering, gag-inducing sweets wouldn’t be possible without chemistry.

What’s one of the best parts of Halloween? Going door-to-door to collect a big load of candy! But some of those sweets might seem more like tricks than treats. They include candies with a sour punch, fiery jawbreakers, and gross-flavored jelly beans.

These sweets make tongues tingle, eyes water, mouths burn, and people gag. These candies wouldn’t be possible without chemistry.

MAGICTORCH (PHOTO ILLUSTRATION); MIEKE DALLE/GETTY IMAGES (BOY); WUNDERVISUALS/GETTY IMAGES (LEMONS)

PUCKER POWER

PUCKER POWER

A lot of candies, like sour straws and gummies, will make your mouth pucker. But Warheads hard candies are some of the sourest sweets around. The secret to Warheads’ extreme flavor is a combination of acids—typically sour-tasting substances that tend to eat away at other materials. Acids fall on the low end of the pH scale, which measures how acidic something is (see How Sour?).

Warheads’ initial sour blast comes from mildly sour citric acid, commonly found in citrus fruits. It activates your tongue’s sour taste receptors. “Citric acid gets your mouth ready to be tortured with more sour goodness,” says Kerri Harold, a spokesperson for Impact Confections, the makers of Warheads. The compound is just the beginning of a symphony of sour.

Lots of candies will make your mouth pucker. Sour straws and gummies do. But Warheads hard candies are some of the sourest sweets around. What’s the secret to Warheads’ extreme flavor? It’s a mix of acids. These are sour-tasting substances that tend to eat away at other materials. Acids fall on the low end on the pH scale, which measures how acidic something is (see How Sour?).

Warheads’ first sour blast comes from citric acid. This mildly sour acid is found in citrus fruits. It turns on your tongue’s sour taste receptors. “Citric acid gets your mouth ready to be tortured with more sour goodness,” says Kerri Harold. She’s a spokesperson for Impact Confections, the makers of Warheads.

The true jolt in Warheads comes from malic acid, the same compound that gives Granny Smith apples their tart taste. This acid has an extremely sharp and long-lasting sour flavor. Warheads also contain ascorbic acid, commonly known as vitamin C, and fumaric acid, which provides the sour candies’ grand finale.

Saliva dissolves each acid in Warheads at a different rate, explains Harold. The combination gives the candies their persistent sour taste. “If you used only one acid, it would change the timing of the sour sensation,” she says.

The true sour jolt in Warheads comes from malic acid. It’s the same compound that makes Granny Smith apples taste tart. This acid has an extremely sharp and long-lasting sour flavor. Warheads also contain ascorbic acid, commonly known as vitamin C. Fumaric acid provides the sour candies’ final punch.

Saliva dissolves each acid in Warheads at a different rate, explains Harold. The mix gives the candies their lasting sour taste. “If you used only one acid, it would change the timing of the sour sensation,” she says.

MAGICTORCH (ATOMIC FIREBALL PHOTO ILLUSTRATION); SHUTTERSTOCK.COM (EXPLOSION)

CAN YOU TAKE THE HEAT?

CAN YOU TAKE THE HEAT?

Invented in 1954, Atomic FireBall candies are famous for their red-hot flavor. To achieve their fiery heat, candy makers use two ingredients designed to interact with your mouth in different ways.

First, the candy delivers an explosion of spice that comes from the chemical cinnamaldehyde, the oil that gives cinnamon its flavor. Cinnamaldehyde triggers taste receptors on your tongue that detect irritating compounds. Raw garlic and horseradish can set off the same receptors.

Behind the cinnamon flavor is a deeper heat. It comes from capsaicin, the compound that makes chili peppers spicy. An Atomic FireBall contains slightly more capsaicin than a jalapeño pepper. Capsaicin activates a protein, or large biological molecule, in your mouth that usually detects temperatures greater than 43°C (110°F) to alert you that something you’re eating is hot. When sucking on an Atomic FireBall triggers this protein, your body may react by sweating in an attempt to cool down, even though you’re not actually overheating.

Atomic FireBall candies were invented in 1954. They’re famous for their red-hot flavor. Their makers use two ingredients that affect your mouth in different ways.

First, the candy creates a blast of spice. It comes from the chemical cinnamaldehyde, the oil that gives cinnamon its flavor. Some taste receptors on your tongue detect irritating compounds. Cinnamaldehyde sets off these receptors. Raw garlic and horseradish do too.

A deeper heat is behind the cinnamon flavor. It comes from capsaicin, the compound that makes chili peppers spicy. An Atomic FireBall contains a little more capsaicin than a jalapeño pepper. Capsaicin turns on a protein in your mouth. This large biological molecule usually detects temperatures above 43°C (110°F). It warns you that you’re eating something hot. When you suck on an Atomic FireBall, this protein goes into action. Your body may start sweating to try to cool down, even though you’re not really overheating.

MAGICTORCH (POP ROCKS PHOTO ILLUSTRATION); SHUTTERSTOCK.COM (BUBBLES); KEITH HOMAN/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO (POP ROCKS)

CRACKLING CANDY

CRACKLING CANDY

When you pour a pack of Pop Rocks into your mouth, the small pieces of candy start to crackle on your tongue almost instantly. But how?

Candy makers create hard candy by combining sugar, corn syrup, water, and flavoring. The mixture is boiled and then allowed to cool and harden. Pop Rocks are made the same way but with one additional ingredient. Manufacturers add carbon dioxide gas (CO2) to the sugary liquid mix under high pressure, or applied force. Tiny bubbles of the gas remain trapped in the candy after it solidifies.

When your saliva starts to dissolve the candy, the pressurized gas bubbles burst. That causes the popping sensation you feel in your mouth.

Pour a pack of Pop Rocks into your mouth. The small pieces of candy start to crackle on your tongue right away. But how?

Candy makers create hard candy by mixing sugar, corn syrup, water, and flavoring. The mixture is boiled, and then it cools and hardens. Pop Rocks are made the same way. But they have one more ingredient. Candy makers add carbon dioxide gas (CO2) to the sweet liquid mix. They pump in the gas under high pressure, or applied force. When the candy hardens, tiny gas bubbles stay trapped inside.

These gas bubbles are under pressure. When your saliva starts to dissolve the candy, the bubbles burst. That causes the popping feeling in your mouth.

MAGICTORCH (JELLYBEAN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION);TSUNEO YAMASHITA/GETTY IMAGES (JELLYBEANS); SHUTTERSTOCK.COM (ALL OTHER IMAGES)

BARF-WORTHY BEANS

BARF-WORTHY BEANS

If someone asked you to name your favorite jelly bean flavor, you probably wouldn’t choose dead fish, lawn clippings, moldy cheese, or stinky socks. But those are just a few of the choices in a pack of Jelly Belly’s BeanBoozled jelly beans. Each box contains both yummy and gross flavored beans that look identical. For example, you won’t know if a white bean will taste like coconut or spoiled milk until you eat it.

Jelly Belly doesn’t use actual rotten seafood or old gym socks as ingredients. So how do they create nauseating jelly beans that taste so disgustingly accurate? Food scientists start by studying the scent of the gross flavor they’re trying to replicate. Our sense of smell is closely tied to our sense of taste.

What’s your favorite jelly bean flavor? You probably wouldn’t choose dead fish, lawn clippings, moldy cheese, or stinky socks. But those are some of the choices in a pack of Jelly Belly’s BeanBoozled jelly beans. Each box contains yummy and gross-flavored beans that look the same. For example, a white bean might taste like coconut or spoiled milk. You won’t know until you eat it.

Jelly Belly doesn’t really use rotten fish or old gym socks as ingredients. But their disgusting jelly beans taste like the real thing. So how does Jelly Belly do it? When food scientists want to copy a gross flavor, they study its scent. Our sense of smell is closely tied to our sense of taste.

To re-create a revolting flavor, scientists place a target object—like a stinky sock—in a gas chromatograph. The instrument heats the object until it gives off its distinctive smelly vapors and then analyzes the chemical makeup of the gases to generate a flavor profile. The scientists experiment with different flavorings until they find a combination of compounds similar to those in the profile.

New beans don’t always make the grade. The early versions of a pizza-flavored jelly bean were “truly awful,” says Jelly Belly spokesperson Irena Miles. The company shelved the flavor but later adjusted the recipe to create a barf-flavored BeanBoozled bean.

Whether you prefer treats that taste like vomit, make you sweat, come with a sour kick, or fizz in your mouth, there’s an extreme candy out there for you. Food scientists make sure there are plenty of flavor options to satisfy individual preferences, says Miles. Your own personal favorite “just depends on who you are.”

To copy a disgusting flavor, scientists take a target object, like a stinky sock. They place it in a gas chromatograph. First, the instrument heats the object until it gives off its usual smelly gases. Then it examines the chemicals in the gases to form a flavor profile. The scientists experiment with different flavorings. They try to find a mix of compounds like those in the profile.

New beans don’t always make the grade. Early forms of a pizza-flavored jelly bean were “truly awful,” says Jelly Belly spokesperson Irena Miles. The company put the flavor on hold. But later, they changed the recipe to create a barf-flavored BeanBoozled bean.

Maybe you’d pick treats that taste like vomit or make you sweat. Or maybe you’d rather have candies that produce a sour kick or fizz in your mouth. No matter what, there’s an extreme candy for you. Food scientists make sure there are plenty of flavor choices to please different people, says Miles. Your own personal favorite “just depends on who you are.” 

CORE QUESTION: How does chemical analysis help in the creation of new candy flavors?

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