Angelica Harris and Kelly Tingle (right to left) build a volcano, part of a food-chemistry lesson on acid-base chemistry with vinegar and baking soda.
In a city of tweeting food trucks and Michelin-star-courting
restaurants, it was only a matter of time before San Francisco’s fusion-food
culture found a way into a chemistry classroom.
After all, chemistry is what we taste when we bite into a chocolate-drizzled
double scoop of destabilized fat globules, fragaria ananassa, and liquid
nitrogen. We just call it a strawberry ice cream sundae.
Tami Spector, University of San Francisco professor of
chemistry, first introduced the class, called Molecular Gastronomy, last
spring. It focuses on the physical and chemical processes of food and drink
The idea of the course is to introduce non-science students,
many of whom find memorizing chemical formulas and reactions mind numbing, to the
intricacies of molecular chemistry using an accessible and interactive approach.
Michelle Cancellier ’12, an English major, said the class helped her and other
humanities majors understand the abstract concepts that underlie chemistry such
as polymers, ionic charge, and chemical bonds that can make the subject so
Spector incorporates common foods into the science lessons,
including an in-class experiment that separates caffeine from tea to illustrate
solubility and extraction. Another lesson has students whip up a batch of
homemade mayonnaise to learn about emulsions. From sweet to savory, students
have isolated clove oil, created ice cream, pickled vegetables, baked soufflés,
“Unlike many aspects of science, which seem unapproachable
to non-science majors, or simply obligatory as part of their core requirements,
food science taps into most people’s natural curiosity about food,” Spector
“Science was hard for me to grasp and understand,” said Nicole
Bowler ’11, who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history. “Molecular
Gastronomy was interesting because it taught the science and basic chemical
reactions behind things that I eat and drink on a daily basis.”