This Is the Science Behind Your Soggy Cereal
The process by which your cereal withers into mush is more complicated than you'd think. There are fractals, and displacement curves, and "moisture-toughening."
Foto von Steven Wilke via Flickr
Does anyone not love cereal? Sure, some love it more than others—the fictionalized version of Jerry Seinfeld, for instance—but there's a reason why this genre of carb-loading gets its own aisle at the supermarket.
Not so beloved, however, is the sogginess that ensues if you happen to leave your bowl of puffed wheat or Magic Sugar Flakes or what-have-you out to rest even for a few minutes, during which time it will degrade from a crunchy party in a swimming pool of milk to a homogenous swamp of creamy starch.
Researchers from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst have been very concerned about this phenomenon—so much so that they've completed a review study about the issue of cereal sogginess, published now in the Journal of Food Science.
Sure, you can feel free to read the study itself, if you smile fondly at phrases such as "smoothing their compressive force-displacement curves" and "apparent fractal dimension." But here's the gist, if you're more interested in the colloquial version.
Scientists looked at three crunchy foods: Peanut Butter Crunch (the peanut butter version of Cap'n Crunch), Cheese Balls (the poor man's spherical Cheetos), and pork rinds (a.k.a chicharones). Although these foods are similar texturally, they are all made from very different ingredients, have different chemical compositions, and obviously have incongruent flavors.
When left in liquid, all three of these foods "[lose] their brittleness and become soggy." (Duh.) But while their moisture content increases and their crunchiness becomes but a distant memory, the "stiffness" and "partial plasticization" of each actually increases. A bone-dry cheese ball will crumble passively in your mouth, while one dropped in a glass of cola and then miserably eaten regardless will lose a bit of its give at first chew.
Apparently, soggy cereal undergoes a process called "moisture toughening." Of the three foods tested, the only one lacking this feature was the pork rind.
The brittleness of cereal creates the crunch that we so enjoy, but when milk enters the picture, each individual piece of cereal can actually withstand more force before breaking. That is, until it turns to mush entirely.
You've probably never noticed this "moisture toughening," but now that you're aware of it, expect it to disturb you when you accidentally ignore your Cocoa Puffs for 45 seconds too long. Brittle, tough, soggy—this is the order of events for your cereal. Doesn't sound terribly appetizing, does it?
Lead researcher Micha Peleg was building upon existing research about cereal sogginess that actually resulted in an Ig Nobel Nutrition Prize for a group of British scientists in 1995. Twenty years later, and our strides in cereal texture progress have been paltry. Sigh.
But if knowledge simply isn't enough and you're desperate for a solution to this plaguing problem, you can always buy a bowl that keeps your cereal separate from your milk.
It ain't much of a looker, but at least "moisture toughening" will be one problem you can scratch off your list.