Tallest Jelly Competition

12th September 2013

Tallest Jelly 019The Institute of Food Research will be testing the jelly-building skills of Norfolk’s schoolchildren, inviting them to use their culinary cunning to build the tallest possible jelly. As part of the EDP Adnams Norfolk Food & Drink Festival, the IFR is teaming up with the Institute of Physics (IOP) to judge how well they use food science, physics, engineering and sheer ingenuity to build their edible edifices. Usually a jelly struggles to get over 10cm, will this year see the record of 1 metre being broken?

Schools will be judged not only on how high their creations reach, but also the ways in which they have tackled this problem. They will need to keep a workbook to show how they’ve applied scientific thinking and experimentation to this particular problem.

Judging for the jelly contest will take place at 11:00am on Friday 27th September, at The Forum Norwich. Professor Paul Hardaker, Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, will be judging the workbooks along with Dr Phil Smith OBE, Head of the Teacher Scientist Network and Science presenter Dr Ken Faquhar.

”I will be looking for the students to show plenty of imagination, to apply their knowledge of science and to adopt a considered scientific approach to make some very tall jellies!” said Prof Hardaker.

Our Jellyvision website includes lots of pictures and video from previous years’ competitions

Food scientists have to take into account the way foods and ingredients change their properties during cooking, freezing, dissolving and all manner of processes to produce the highest quality finished product that looks and taste great. Building a tall jelly is a simplified, and somewhat messier, version of the sort of challenges facing food scientists.

jellySo why is it so difficult to make tall jellies? The answers lie in the molecular structure of gelatin, the protein jelly is made from. If you look at gelatin on the molecular scale, you can see that it’s made up of long thin strands, with each molecule made of three individual strands wound around each other. This is similar to the double helix structure of DNA, but in gelatin there are three strands – a triple helix.

The strands are held together by weak bonds, and if they are heated up these bonds break. For jelly you buy in the supermarket, this happens by adding boiling water. When proteins lose their shape like this it is called denaturing. As the jelly cools, or as you add cold water, the molecules start to come together again, this time trapping water molecules between the tangle of molecular chains. This mixture of water molecules spread evenly in a matrix of gelatin proteins is known as a hydrocolloid.

tallest_jelly_026When the jelly completely cools, and sets, the water between the tangled molecules makes the structure less strong, so that it can’t even support its own weight. So the molecular structure they form when they set stops jellies getting very tall, but it does give them their familiar wobble. This molecular structure has a melting point of about 35°C. This is just below our own body temperature, and this gives jelly its ability to melt in the mouth.

So how can this be strengthened? Using less water and more gelatin works, but this is against the rules in our Tallest Jelly Competition (the standard concentration is about 1% gelatin). Freezing a jelly is also outlawed, as although this strengthens the structure through freezing the water trapped in it, when it defrosts the water is lost and the structure collapses completely.

tallest_jelly_044Schools are allowed to use any other edible materials to support their jellies. But all jellies must be freestanding, and the jelly builders must be willing to eat anything added to the jelly.

We’re not going to give away any secrets about what sorts of edible foods work best, but we can suggest some foods to be avoided for a good jelly. Pineapple is a top jelly no-no, as anyone who’s been tempted to add fresh pineapple to a jelly would find out. This is because pineapple contains proteins called proteases, whose sole job is to chop up other proteins. So in a jelly, the proteases attack the long gelatin molecules, breaking them down and preventing the jelly from setting at all. If you hold pineapple in your mouth for a while, you might feel a tingling sensation, which is the pineapple proteases at work on the proteins in your skin. Kiwi fruit , mango and papaya also have proteases, and so should also be avoided when jelly making.

Teams from primary, secondary and sixth form schools across Norfolk are invited to join in the competition.

_2777690646Entries are open to any age group and prizes will be awarded for all entries that successfully bring their jellies to the Final on Friday 27th September at The Forum in Norwich. Additional prizes will be awarded to the winners in Primary (up to Yr 6), Secondary (up to Yr 11), 6th Form and an overall prize for the best school. Prizes will also be awarded for the best project design even if ultimately the jelly fails! So remember to bring along your ideas and plans too including design modifications following failures. This can be on a poster or workbook.