Cool Class: The Science of Sustenance

December 01, 2015

By Rob Humphreys ’16MBA

Students prepare gelatin during a chemistry experiment.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Kasandra Riley (center) leads students in an experiment to study how gelatin and sugar affect the traits of candies.Photo by Scott Cook.

Edible experiments are making students rethink their relationship with food.

If you’ve ever noticed that ice cream tastes sweeter as it melts, there’s a reason. When food is frozen, it naturally loses sweetness. Maybe that’s why a chocolate-vanilla swirl tastes so good on a warm, sunny day.

At Rollins, students are not only learning the science behind these types of lessons, they’re replicating it in the laboratory. From finding just the right recipe for baking chocolate-chip cookies to discovering why an avocado turns brown when sliced, this class serves up an equal dose of hands-on fun and practical knowledge.

Two students cooking gelatin.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Course Title

The Science of Sustenance


Kasandra Riley, assistant professor of chemistry

Assorted fish gummies made by chemistry students.
Photo by Scott Cook.
A student stirs a pot of gelatin.
Photo by Scott Cook.

The Scoop

The Science of Sustenance explores the inextricable relationship between science and our everyday experiences as humans sustained by food. It focuses on an understanding of how individual food components, as well as physical and chemical changes, contribute to the overall quality of a food.

The premise is that science is always involved in the foods we eat, and an act of creative cooking is truly the same as conducting a science experiment.

A student measures out cornstarch during a chemistry experiment.
Photo by Scott Cook.


When we dropped in on class in late October, students were making fish-shaped gummy candies. They got to see how changing the ratio of gelatin to sugar affected the candies’ physical traits. For instance, too much gelatin and the candy was too stiff. Too little and it became floppy.

“As a science professor, it’s really neat to see people get excited about this course, because everyone can relate to food on some level,” Riley says. “Only four of the 16 students are science majors, so the composition of the course makes it a lot of fun to have several perspectives.”

A student looks at a laptop during a chemistry experiment.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Student Perspective

“At first, as an American studies major, I thought a biochemistry class was going to be out of my academic realm,” says Tyler Vaughan ’18. “But everything I thought was turned on its head when I stepped foot into the classroom. Dr. Riley was eager to teach science to a class of mostly non-majors in ‘digestible’ bites. This experience is making me reconsider what I look for in food and my relationship with food in general.”

A group of students gathered around a large table during a chemistry experiment.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Fun Fact

Ever wondered why drinking whole milk is the best way to cool your mouth after eating a hot pepper? Riley gives five scientific reasons:

1) Milk contains sugar, which dilutes heat.
2) Milk contains fat, which dissolves the lipid that makes a pepper hot.
3) Milk is cool, counteracting the physical sensations of pain and heat.
4) Milk is a liquid, so it coats all the mouth’s surfaces.
5) Most importantly, the milk protein casein (a big part of cheese) binds to the hydrophobic capsaicin molecule (just like fats do) to help drag it away from the mouth’s pain receptor.

A student pours gelatin into fish-shaped molds to make gummies.
Photo by Scott Cook.
Students unmold the fish gummies they just made.
Photo by Scott Cook.
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