Food & Drink

The Engineering of Cotton Candy: Sweet!

About the Author: Alison Kennedy

Alison is sugar-loving aerospace engineering major at USC.


When you go to a carnival or a fair, what’s your favorite thing? The rides? The games? Maybe it’s the food! Where else can you get things like deep fried pickles and foot-long corndogs?

One of the favorite sweets sold at carnivals is cotton candy. We love cotton candy because it looks like a fluffy cloud, it’s fun to eat, it’s easy to carry around…and it tastes great.




Cotton candy was invented in the 1700s. It use to be a treat called “spun sugar” or “fairy floss”, and it was mostly eaten by rich families because sugar was so expensive back then. And they used to make it by hand! They would melt sugar in a pan by setting it next to a fire. Then they would scoop up the melted sugar with a knife, swing the knife back a forth…and there would be a thin thread of sugar syrup!

And cotton candy wasn’t just used for dessert, either. Believe it or not, people once used cotton candy to keep meat fresh? They would spin the sugar over a piece of meat and create a “silver web.” The cotton candy would help keep the meat fresh by keeping away bacteria. One of the causes of bacteria that harms foods is moisture. Scientists discovered that spun sugar absorbs moisture from meat, so bacteria would have less of a chance to grow. It would also absorb moisture from the bacteria itself!




Yes, we can learn about chemistry through cotton candy. Most sugar is made from the plant sugar cane. It is boiled and then after impurities are removed, the liquid dries in granules, or really small cubes. A crystal of sugar that you see in your kitchen is basically tiny molecules organized in a way that makes them their familiar shape. When these molecules are heated to the point where they melt (190 degrees!) they come apart from each other. When you “spin” this liquid sugar, it becomes like thin threads and cools really quickly, before it can turn back into crystals. And these threads look like cotton – cotton candy!


A Cotton Candy Machine

It’s not really known who invented the first cotton candy machine. But we do know cotton candy machines were at World’s Fairs in 1830 and 1903.

A cotton candy machine works by having a round pan and in the middle of the pan is a smaller container that spins really fast. Sugar is melted in the smaller container, which has many small holes in its side. The spinning of the container forces the melted sugar to flow through the holes. The spinning causes what is called “centrifugal force”. This is the force that pushes the melted sugar away from the center and through the small holes. This makes the sugary threads.


Medical Cotton Candy?

As if cotton candy wasn’t good enough, some engineers have been experimenting on using cotton candy to help with medical procedures. Think about how you make useful shapes of things. For example, you use a cookie cutter to make cookies in the shapes of stars and trees. You use Play Doh to make an imprint of your hand and fingers. Well, scientists have been experimenting with using cotton candy to help bring blood to parts of your body. Think about a chocolate covered pretzel. If you could remove the pretzel and keep the chocolate in one piece, you’d have a twisty tube of chocolate.

So now back to cotton candy. Engineers take a special substance and pour it over cotton candy to make a twisty mold of the tiny threads. They then melt and remove the candy from the mold to make artificial blood vessels! They then use these to help make artificial skin to help burn victims and other patients.

So the next time you eat cotton candy, remember the scientists and engineers who helped spin the sugar into such a sweet treat!

(Based on an article by Alison Kennedy)

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