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Maymester Course Teaches ‘Better Eating Through Chemistry’

better eating through chemistry-161C2H4. That’s the chemical formula for ethylene, a colorless, odorless gas that’s released as fruit ripens, and it’s also what music business major Mimi Ijir learned this week can break down starches in the food she consumes.

Ijir is among the 22 students taking an undergraduate Maymester course being offered on campus this year for the third time, a Junior Cornerstone Seminar taught by chemistry Professor Dr. Kim Daus. The seminar, titled “Better Eating through Chemistry: Using Chemistry to Improve Local Cuisine,” manages to accomplish two noteworthy feats: getting non-science majors excited about organic chemistry while also encouraging better eating habits in college students.

Professor Kim Daus explains the chemical makeup of various sugars.
Professor Kim Daus explains the chemical makeup of various sugars.

The four-credit hour course, which meets from 9 a.m. to 1:50 p.m. five days a week for three weeks, includes lectures, readings, problem solving assignments, research, field trips, lab experimentation and intensive group work and assessment. Though the work load and time commitment is not for the faint-hearted, the class appeared thoroughly engaged in the course material.

Ijir said, “It’s definitely made me a smarter cook. It’s been fascinating to see the connections behind the food and realize not just that bread is bad for me but learn why it’s bad from a chemistry standpoint.”

The class begins each morning with an overview of basic chemistry principles involved in food and cooking, including covalent bonds, pH, solubility, states of matter, physical and chemical properties, and intermolecular attractive forces. A lab experiment generally follows, with Tuesday’s research asking students to hypothesize which type of flour contained the most gluten and then to test their theories through water rinses that distinguished gluten from starch.

Daus said, “One of the major challenges associated with eating healthier within cuisines is how to make food we love taste good and still remain true to our traditions and cultures. In order to make changes we need to understand the nature of our food, how preparation alters it and how to work within recipes. In other words, we need to understand the chemistry behind food and cooking.”

Each week students receive a challenge that sets up their research and collaboration for the following days. For example, students ate lunch locally at La Hacienda and Mas Tacos Por Favor on consecutive days, and then were challenged to research and prepare a healthy, vegetarian Hispanic meal as one of their group projects. The meal would need to not only provide natural alternatives to the typically higher-fat fare found in many Mexican restaurants, but it would also need to maintain good protein counts without using meat.

One group created a healthy version of huevos rancheros with an avocado verde sauce along with homemade salsa and flour tortillas.
One group created a healthy version of huevos rancheros with an avocado verde sauce along with homemade salsa and flour tortillas.

“We’re cooking the same meals,” said public relations major Megan McBride, “but we’re making them better and healthier. You still have the integrity of the original dish.”

In addition to presenting their plates to the class, each group must also explain the rationales for the recipes they created before all the participants get to dive in and test their research through a class meal. Other field trips for the course include visits to Noble Dairy Farm, Delvin Farm and the Nashville Farmer’s Market, where students take tours and discover more about the nutrient value of various foods.

McBride noted  she took this Maymester course because “I needed both a lab and a Junior Cornerstone for my gen ed requirements. I’m not very skilled with sciences but incorporating it this way with food helps me understand and apply it better. In this class we get to see how the chemistry is reflected in the food, and it all just clicks. It makes chemistry practical.”

Click here to view more photos from the “Better Eating Through Chemistry” class.

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