Friday, 21 October 2016

STEMalive! Blog post by Elaine Hickmott


Salt and Vinegar Science
By Dr Elaine Hickmott, Development Director, EH Enterprises
When you hear the word science what is the first thing that comes into your head?  Whatever it may be, I bet it’s not the image of a bag of your favourite potato crisps.

While speaking to the excellent Rachel Melvin of McLaren Automotive at SATRO’s recent volunteer event, our conversation turned to the wonderful world of manufacturing.  As we chatted about just how much we both love it, we began discussing the BBC2 series, Inside The Factory; in particular the episode about crisps.  Oh my word, the STEM involved in producing, packaging and distributing these popular snacks is quite amazing.

With these thoughts in my head and our science-themed STEMalive! event on 16 November fast approaching, there was nothing for it; a blog post about science and crisps was most definitely in order.  So let’s take a look at some examples of how science is an essential component in a pack of our special snacks.

Add in biology to...

... ensure the core ingredient is the best.

It may be the star of the show but not every potato can make a crisp and with thousands of varieties world-wide, selecting and growing the most suitable ones takes more input than you may first imagine.  Before we even get to the manufacturing site, farmers are growing the potatoes.  For them to achieve the yields, textures, characteristics and storage profiles needed, the biologists have to lend a helping hand with selecting and breeding suitable varieties of potato.  Biology obviously plays an important role in taking our spuds from soil to snack.

Add in physics to...

...give the crispiness and crunch we desire. 

In Alex Babbs’ physics careers blog post about physics and food, John Bows, Technology Innovation Manager at PepsiCo Europe R&D explains how physics is critical in the production of a perfect crisp.  It enables manufacturers to understand more about how potato slices behave when they are cooked.  These insights include understanding the surface tension of potato slices and looking at how processing affects their structure.  Cooking potatoes on an industrial scale in a way which brings us crisps with the crunch we expect certainly requires physics to play its part.

Add in chemistry to...

... create the tastes we know and love.

Flavour chemists are working hard behind the scenes creating a huge variety of tastes and flavours to satisfy our diverse palates.  They blend a range of chemicals and extracts to safely produce the taste experience we expect when we dive into our packet of crisps.  Working with parts per billion here and parts per billion there, these flavours not only have to satisfy us, they must also withstand the manufacturing process and storage.  Our everyday snacks certainly require chemistry to help pack a punch when it comes to taste.


Next time you’re tucking into your favourite bag of crisps remember it is brought to you by those three special ingredients, physics, chemistry and biology. 


- Elaine Hickmott 

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