About this Article
Written by: Alison Kennedy
Written on: May 5th, 2012
Tags: food & drink, health & medicine
Thumbnail by: Roland Zumbuhl/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
Alison is sugar-loving aerospace engineering major at USC.
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Volume XIV Issue III > Cotton Candy: Carnival Snack to Medical Wonder
Many people know that cotton candy is made from sugar. They may not know, however, this fun carnival treat's colorful history. Cotton candy has been used in many different ways since its properties have become known in greater detail. Melting and spinning sugar, for one, results in a delicious dessert: using chemistry and physics, engineers have created machines that can form the fluffy snack. Nowadays, cotton candy is not only considered for consumption, but also for transplant research.


Carnivals, circuses and amusement parks entertain huge crowds of people, but what keeps visitors satisfied in the spare moments among rides, stunts and attractions? One answer is cotton candy.
Cotton candy evolved from a rare and decadent dessert called spun sugar. Spun sugar was an 18th century delicacy, enjoyed mostly by wealthy families due to the high price of sugar. But even as time passed and the price of sugar decreased, very few people had the patience to melt sugar and spin it into a dessert without burning it, so this treat was still a rarity. When sugar spun by machines became available to the public in the early 20th century, however, the dessert took on a new name: cotton candy.
Cotton candy is almost entirely made of sugar. For those who want to manipulate sugar for cooking purposes, an understanding of sugar on a molecular level is vital. Sugar molecules must be manipulated—dyed and arranged in a certain way—in order to produce the commonly pink, fluffy snack we know today (Fig. 1). This manipulation was achieved by the earliest electric cotton candy machines, which were simple to operate and which completed the melting and spinning processes faster than could be accomplished by hand. The spinning motion exhibited by these machines is governed by rotational physics, a topic that the candy machine engineers understood well.
Roland Zumbuhl/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: Cotton candy, the sugary carnival treat.
Today, engineers who understand chemistry and biology are using cotton candy to actually improve human health. New research explores the use of small cotton candy threads to create a network of pathways. These pathways would become part of new and complex transplants as a way to imitate vascular networks (i.e. to transport blood).