Friday, April 21, 2006

Food Sciences

I confess: I was jonesing for some Peeps.

You know, Peeps. Those marshmallow chicks in bright colors that make their ubiquitous appearance around Easter. With a consistency somewhere between old chewing gum and new Styrofoam, and a shape that resembles an actual chick the way that Tofurkey resembles a Thanksgiving bird, they appear in every drug store for a few weeks in the spring, then disappear just as fast. Thankfully, an associate had bought a couple of boxes to give to her husband. As had her mother. Also her sister. And her sister-in-law. Net net, she was overrun with the things. So with the holiday over, she brought them in and put them by the printer in the office, where I dove in.

But as I stuffed one into my maw, I wondered if I was doing myself any harm. Let’s face it: they have little taste, are shelf stable for 2 years and add absolutely no nutrients to your diet. So are they animal, vegetable or mineral? Has anyone really looked into the minutia of this foodstuff/object? Turns out others have wondered this as well, and subjected them to an exhaustive battery of tests.

Back in 1988, researchers at Emory University ran the candy through numerous trials. Among others, they froze them in liquid nitrogen, heated them in an oven and put them in a vacuum chamber. In nearly every case, about what you would expect to happen happened: they were seriously dented but not destroyed. Their results confirmed why, to quote the researchers, “Peeps are rarely found in polar regions” and why “Peeps are poorly equipped as fighter pilots.”

Just why would scientists at a major center for knowledge (OK, probably a bunch of bored graduate students with some time on their hands after a night of hard partying) expend the effort to make these discoveries? Probably just a one-time thing, right? Well, it turns out that others have the same kind of insatiable curiosity, resulting in a huge body of “scientific” research into other innocuous elements of our everyday lives.

Take T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S., a project conducted at Rice University. The acronym, derived from the snack of the same name, stands for “Tests With Inorganic Noxious Kakes In Extreme Situations.” Following standard scientific protocols, “Each test consisted of two Twinkies. One Twinkie acted as the control, and was not touched during the course of the experiment. The other Twinkie was subjected to various stimuli and its reactions recorded, photographed.” And just to make sure there would be no questions asked should the Nobel committee call, “After each test, the control Twinkie was consumed to ensure that it would not be inadvertently used in another experiment.”

And the experiments themselves? To test the effects of gravity, the cakes were taken to the sixth floor and dropped, with their resulting condition noted. To test its solubility, they were immersed in water. And in the resistivity test, electrodes were attached and electrical current was passed through them. Since the cakes passed no current, the researchers concluded that, “If you want to electrically isolate a room from static or higher voltage electricity, you can simply line it with Twinkies.”

Then there’s the research that has been done concerning SPT-based combustion. SPT, by the way, stand for Strawberry Pop Tarts. This contribution to the scientific compendium was based on the accidental observation that this prepackaged pastry, when stuck in a toaster, could be made to “emit flames like a blowtorch.” Not wanting to take the claim at face value, a researcher in Texas conducted an experiment, documenting every step from preparing the sample (“A SPT was removed from the box and its protective packaging and carefully placed into the toaster slot”) to extinguishing the resultant flames (“A reluctant research assistant sprinkled baking soda on the flames. The reluctance was understandable given the potential for premature SPT ejection.”) Among the conclusions: “We believe that frosted SPTs may successfully produce even larger torches. Further research in this area is warranted.”

Other foodstuffs have been suggested to equally rigorous scientific study. One enterprising individual did a distribution analysis of those conversation hearts that you find on Valentine’s day, the ones with the cute sayings. She discovered that there are roughly 70 sayings represented in the typical 283 piece 9 ounce bag. Top sayings included “Dream Girl” (9 occurrences), “Wise Up”(8) and “Write Me”(7). She also noted that “a single serving size is 40 pieces. We believe that is also the current World Record for ‘Most Conversation Hearts Consumed in One Sitting.’”

It keeps on going. Almost no product is immune from someone poking, prodding or otherwise testing it. Turns out that a yellow squeeze bottle of French’s Mustard is good for approximately for 80 hot dogs at an average of 5 grams of mustard per hot dog. A pair of Duracell D cells lasts in a flashlight for 116 hours.  There are four thousand, eight hundred and two Cheerios in a box.  And the average distribution of M&Ms over 10 packs shows that orange is the most common color at 24%, while yellow is the least common at 12%.

Yes, you can say that these are people with way too much time on their hands. You can wonder why their tuition (and probably some of your tax dollars) are being used in pursuit of this lunacy.  But as I reached for another Peep, I appreciated the fact that someone took the time to examine more closely this blob of sugar that makes its appearance but once a year. And let me tell you… after eating two, that’s plenty often enough.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has can resist eating anything unless it has sugar in it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.