hot gum!

October 17, 2007 at 4:36 pm | | help me, open thread, science and the public, science@home

Who wants to help me?

Here’s an email my PI received. First of all, it’s pretty cute that some high-school student is emailing professors at Stanford for some help. Secondly, it’s even cuter that the profs actually read the email!


My name is [redacted] and I’m a highschool student who is currently doing an Honors Chemistry project. My idea that I’m experimenting with is that I’m going to try to determine if there is a temperature change or a chemical change that affects the feeling of the mouth when gum is chewed. I was actually doing quite well with my ideas, but now I’m kind of stuck, so I was wondering if somebody in the chemistry department could e-mail me back or possibly help me.

My idea that I was going with is that I wanted to first start out and (using a mouth thermometer) get a starting temperature of a person’s mouth before chewing gum. Then, I wanted to pick a brand of gum in both mint and cinnamon flavors and seperately measure if there is an increasing or decreasing temperature change. My hypothesis is that there will not be a significant change at all, so that’s where the chemistry part comes in. I wanted to then somehow test saliva samples or something with the different chemicals of gum to determine which ingredient creates the “feeling” that the mouth is hot or cold. Except I really have no idea how to go about doing that.

Do you think someone could give me some ideas within the next day or so and let me know/point me in the right direction on how I should go about doing this experiment? That would be amazing, thank you!

My first thought was to look at two flavors of the same brand of gum, find the ingredients that are different, buy those (food-grade) chemicals, and taste them! But most gums just list “natural and artificial flavoring” in the ingredients, so that wouldn’t work. Separating the different ingredients in the gum is a possibility, but probably too difficult.

Another option is to guess the flavors the manufacturers used for cinnamon and mint (an educated guess, but doing some research about flavorings). I bet they use menthol for the mint. I don’t know what they use for the spicy cinnamon, but I know that capsaicin is the chemical that makes chili peppers taste “hot” (by interfering with the pain receptors in your mouth). You could use capsaicin and menthol on saliva samples and measure changes in the temperature or whatever. These would be good estimates of the chemicals they use as flavoring in gum.

Other thoughts? Would there be a very simple way of separating the flavor ingredient without a column or TLC plates? Maybe a paper towel? Or maybe the student could just dissolve the gum in warm water and use the solution of all the ingredients.

But I don’t know what they would measure in the saliva sample (gross!) that could relate to taste.


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  1. You can obviously purchase cinnamon extracts, which (I assume) contains a lot of cinnamaldehyde – the compound that gives cinnamon the spicy flavor and compare it to mint extracts, which should also be available at a health food store. With these extracts, the kids can dip a toothpick in the extracts and put it on their gums (NO SWALLOWING!) and see for themselves that the sensation is the same (if not many orders of magnitude more intense than) had they just chewed the gum and squished it against their gums.

    Comment by Kyle Finchsigmate — October 18, 2007 #

  2. cinnamaldehyde sounds better than capsaisin.

    Comment by sam — October 19, 2007 #

  3. I am a pharmacy student from Midwestern University – Downers Grove, and am in my last year on rotations. I am currently exploring the use of capsaicin 0.2 mg troches in the use of treating oral mucositis resulting from chemotherapy, radiation, and bone marrow transplants.

    To give an overview, a troche is a sort of lozenge that uses polyethylene glycol as a base. It’s sort of a dissolvable waxy like substance, but allows for the patient to be exposed to a lower dose of capsaicin over an extended period of time; thus, reducing the burn. Further, sweeteners (stevia, saccharin) are used to aid in further reduce the burning sensation.

    The “burn” itself is not heat related; however, an effect sensed by the receptors within the mouth. This is believed to result from an elevation in substance P (a chemical believed to be involved in the pain signalling pathway). Normally in aches and pains, we want to decrease substance P; however, we tend to want to increase it slowly in the mucositis patient. In theory, the “heat or spice” from the capsaicin is meant to slowly desensitize and numb the patinet’s mouth; therefore reducing the sensation of the pain caused by the mucositis and ulcers. Techincally, if temperature change was the deciding factor, I could simply give the patients a cup of hot chocolate… not likely to help much! However, too high of a concentration of the capsaicin can produce an intense burn, and cause chemical burns within the mouth; not desired either.

    Unfortunately, there is no real good way to measure the temperature of the mouth in an experiment this way, or an inexpensive or humane way to measure “substance P.” The best we can do is use a “visual analog pain scale” that still has some scientific issues with it.

    The feelings of hot or cool caused by the cinnamon or mint are simply sensational effects. This is a hard thing to measure. You further have issues with chemical metabolism and the unknown effects of the breakdown products.

    My recommendation for a high school project would to be to take the two flavors, but use ice cream instead of gum. See which one melts first, and extend your hypothesis from there. This eliminates the “sensory” factors, and revolves around which has more energy. In addition to Kyle’s comment, peppermint is normally used as menthol gives the confusion to being able to produce both hot and cold sensations: heat when the mouth is closed, and give a cooling effect when breathed out.

    Your best bet would to find flavored syrups, and modify a “visual analog taste score” like a pH score. -10 very bitter, 0 tasteless, and 10 very sweet/cooling. Good luck and hope this helps.

    Comment by Danimal — October 22, 2007 #

  4. I think big red is the hottest

    Comment by alysse — December 12, 2007 #

  5. well, since i was the one who wrote this e-mail… thanks for the help. this was my project last year. and it really helped.

    Comment by s — November 13, 2008 #

  6. great! i’m glad we could help.

    Comment by sam — November 14, 2008 #

  7. What about something like the Scoville Scale to measure the hotness. Basically, measure the amount of chemical (capsaicin or other) with HPLC or GC, and then relate it to hotness by averaging dilutions among a panel of tasters.

    Comment by ChemE grad student — July 12, 2009 #

  8. Yes- the Scoville Scale is the perfect place to start! Find it herescoville scale

    Comment by habanero — March 2, 2011 #

  9. I was the student who e-mailed this professor for my sophomore year Honors Chem class…its so cool that this was published from my e-mail that is listed above. It was a really cool project and I did well. Thanks :)

    Comment by Stephanie — March 22, 2011 #

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