Science / Technology and Health

The Elements of Food

Written by Annie Beckmann

February 24, 2014

The salad bar at Cherry Street Market

A Core course taught by Sue Jackels examines the chemistry behind what we eat.

To someone who isn't a science major, studying the fundamentals of chemistry might sound like a formidable task that involves more than a passing acquaintance with the periodic table of elements. That may have been the case way back when, but today's Core makes this natural science a lot more, well, palatable.

Becoming a better informed consumer about issues related to food and nutrition is the focus of this course taught by Professor Sue Jackels, in the College of Science and Engineering (pictured here). That calls for understanding just enough about chemistry and science, says Jackels, without being too overwhelming.

This is the professor who, in the heat of the summer, at the annual research open house of the College of Science and Engineering, leads her research students in mixing cream, eggs and milk with liquid nitrogen to create velvet-smooth ice cream. The "ooohs" and "aaaahs" Jackels and the researchers elicit when folks spoon into this ice cream are enough to make anybody curious about the role chemistry plays in food.

Still, Jackels concedes it took some jockeying before she recognized how to capture student interest for this Core course. She plunged into the chemistry of cooking until she realized freshmen weren't especially enthused about food preparation. That's when she tinkered with her course topics so they'd appeal more to students who don't spend much time in the kitchen.

Students learn about the basic components of food-proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, water and micronutrients. They also develop an understanding of calories, food labels, properties of foods and a smidge about the chemistry of cooking. 

The amazing part? The revelations, for sure. Students compare fruit juices with sodas and are surprised to learn there's about the same amount of sugar in both.

In lab experiments, they burn a peanut to find out it's mostly oil. At five different "potato chip stations" in the lab, teams weigh and mash a single potato chip with a mortar and pestle, then use petroleum ether to determine how much fat it contains. Invariably, they start to wonder about the fat content in an order of fries.

Students explore the properties of triglycerides, that group of organic compounds that include fats and oils. Then they look into which fats are saturated and unsaturated, why trans fats are worse than saturated fats and talk about heart disease and healthy oils.

After a couple of months, students take a field trip to Stumptown Coffee Roasters near campus and watch how the browning of coffee beans impacts their flavor. By this point in the course, students have the confidence to ask the master roaster smart questions about what's done to bring out the flavor, says Jackels.

Four students in the winter quarter class are part of the academic residential community on the fourth floor of Bellarmine Hall affiliated with the Faith and the Great Ideas program. Psychology major Taelor Fair, a freshman from Healdsburg, Calif., says she was intrigued with a science class related to food. Elisa Pickett, a freshman photography major from Houston, Texas, is pleased to have found a chemistry course for non-science majors, although she grouses about the 8:30 a.m. start time.

"I'm amazed they trust me with chemicals this early in the morning," she says with a laugh.

David Ho, a freshman psychology major from Taiwan, appreciates the subject matter. "To learn about this makes it sound like I'm smart," he says.

Sophomore Marc Delgado, a psychology major from Spokane who's their Resident Assistant at Bellarmine, says he's had an interest in food science for a long time.

"This is a good bonding experience for us," he says as the foursome works together in the lab to extract oil from potato chips.   

In this Core class, they have an opportunity to make ice cream the old-fashioned way (without liquid nitrogen) and near the end of the course, they even study chocolate, its taste and flavor.

There are quizzes but no final exam. Instead, two or three students team up to research an issue and craft a white paper on it. They present these at the end of the quarter on topics that have included the effects of protein and amino acid supplements on athletic performance, nutrition and the brain, the role of gluten in the diet, caffeine addiction, nutrition vs. calorie count, foods and moods, and the modern-day controversy about genetically modified organisms. Class discussions about the white papers are especially animated, says Jackels.