Polymer purée: UA explores ‘Polymer Science of Cooking’


A pound of polymers, a pinch of microcrystals, a dollop of hydrogel and – bon appétit –  the table is set for a new course this semester at The University of Akron: “Polymer Science of Cooking.” 

The course – a natural sciences colloquium in the Drs. Gary B. and Pamela S. Williams Honors College – is an introduction to the basic concepts of polymer science for undergraduate honors students. It uses common foods, such as ice cream and Jell-O, to illustrate the interaction of polymers (large molecules found in plastic, rubber and DNA).

The course was developed by Dr. Hunter King, assistant professor of polymer science; and fifth-year graduate student Michael Wilson, who is working in the lab of Dr. Ali Dhinojwala, interim dean of the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. The two had previously discussed the overlap in the fundamental concepts in polymer science and those of food processing and cooking, and thought the relationship would make for a class.

“This class will be a very good introduction for polymer science topics that would normally be technical,” said King. “The material for this course is in the make-up of different kinds of foods that people are familiar with, but will be interpreted from a scientific perspective.” 

Tasty projects

The weekly class, held Thursdays, will be activity- and project-based, with cooking demonstrations to represent basic scientific concepts, such as crystallization and crosslinking. A final project will require students to design experiments around food to demonstrate principles they learned.

“Ice cream can be used to explain crystallization,” said King. “You freeze microcrystals within the cream, but you have to do it in a particular way so you don’t get one continuous crystal you can’t eat. This can help explain the kinetics of crystallization, and the difference between quenching and annealing a material."

“Jell-O is a hydrogel, but a special type that can be reprocessed,” added Wilson. “Some behaviors typical of hydrogels in general, such as the brittleness or pliability depending on whether it is dry or wet, can be experienced tangibly with Jell-O. If you understand what a network is and how to form them in different ways, that knowledge can come right out of something familiar, but a bit complex, as Jell-O.”

Mechanics of food

The course will also require students to describe different types of food or ingredients in terms of mechanical properties. Take Tootsie Rolls and marshmallows, for example. Both are soft, but in very different ways. The Tootsie Roll is stiffer and more plastic, but the marshmallow is softer and more elastic.

The Williams Honors College is an intellectual community of high-achieving students of broad academic interests and backgrounds. Its distinguished members enjoy additional scholarships, first-priority class registration, one-on-one research with a faculty member, leadership training, interdisciplinary seminars, additional student groups, education abroad opportunities and access to the residential and academic Honors Complex.


Media contact: Alex Knisely, 330-972-6477 or aknisely@uakron.edu.

Dr. Hunter King

Dr. Hunter King