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A friend writes:

Why do people continue to think that cotton candy is a flavor? It's spun sugar with food coloring. It tastes like... sugar.

Now I'm curious.

Ignoring for a moment any possible contribution of the food coloring, are there chemical changes to the sugar (sucrose, I presume) during the heating process that are distinguishable by the human olfactory or taste system?

The smell of a cotton candy machine and fresh cotton candy definitely seems distinctive; I'm sure the machine itself and the increased aerosolization of the sugar in the vicinity both have something to do with that. Similarly, the increased surface area of the sugar probably changes the magnitude of our tastebuds' responses. But I wonder about the specific chemical changes involved, and whether they're detectable by most humans.

(Psychologically and/or neurologically, I'm sure there's something to be said about the whole experience of cotton candy changing our perception of how it tastes. In this case, I'm looking for the basic chemistry and biology.)

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Cotton candy tends to use flavored sugar.. –  Brendan Long Jul 10 '11 at 7:39
    
@Brendan Long: ah, fascinating. I've experienced maple cotton candy myself, but you're saying the generic pink stuff is usually flavored too? Know what they use? –  leander Jul 10 '11 at 22:21
    
I was in a hurry when I posted that. I went back and did a bit of research and posted an answer. –  Brendan Long Jul 11 '11 at 6:58
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4 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

What Rincewind42 says about caramelization is true in itself, but it doesn't apply here. Cotton candy is made from sugar syrup at the hard ball stage (130°C), so too cold for caramelization. Caramelization only starts occuring at 160°C and above. In fact, caramel has a very different texture from sugar, so it is practically impossible to spin cotton out of it. It makes spidery, unendly elastic strands, unlike the brittle cotton candy strands. Plus, it is visibly brown, and tastes very different from sugar, so you'd notice it when eating the cotton candy.

The flavor of cotton candy is indeed sugar (unless it has had something else added). But taste is not the same thing as flavor. Things taste different to us based on texture, aroma, color and food name. (I once read about a study made with unusually colored puddings. People who had eaten cherry pudding with yellow coloring were sure they are eating banana or lemon, and they were convinced the pink vanilla pudding was strawberry). So it is entirely possible that a gelato customer who eats a gelato called "cotton candy", has lots of sugar and is painted a pastel color will perceive it as having a different taste from non-flavored ice cream which has lots of sugar, but not the color or the name, especially if the texture of the "cotton candy" flavor is tweaked a bit.

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"Cotton candy is made from sugar syrup at the hard ball stage (130°C)" -- interesting, thanks (+1). And yeah, I'm specifically interested if there are any olfactory- or tastebud-detectable chemical changes. The psychology of taste perception is a fascinating subject, but I'm looking for something a bit less broad than that. –  leander Jul 10 '11 at 22:18
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At this temperature, there aren't any chemical changes. You can see it for yourself - buy cotton candy, wet & compress it in your mouth, and chomp on it - the texture gets very sandy and you can taste that it is really like sugar. There is a small whif of caramel, because stray sugar in the machine does get too hot and caramelizes, and the caramel aroma it gives off mixes slightly with the cotton candy, but it is too weak to call it a flavor in its own right. –  rumtscho Jul 10 '11 at 22:24
    
Between this and @Taste Five's answer, I think the mystery is solved. Thanks. =) –  leander Jul 14 '11 at 13:56
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Cotton candy sugar comes in several flavors:

Cotton Candy Express sells grape, cherry, pink vanilla and raspberry.

Flossugar comes in a bunch of flavors like vanilla, banana, and blue raspberry (the actual names of the flavors are pretty weird).

Based on that, I'd guess that the "cotton candy flavor" is whatever flavoring they usually put in pink cotton candy, which seems to be just vanilla.

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As @Brendan said there is flavor added to cotton candy. The mixtures aren't just sugar. The flavoring comes from an ingredient called flossine. If my memory serves correctly it is manufactured by Gold Medal, and is basically some proprietary mixture of coloring and flavor.

I believe the standard flavor is cherry. The last time I ran a cotton candy machine was a couple years ago for a church fall festival.

You can just run a plain sugar through the cotton candy machine, but it wont give you the taste you are looking for.

To answer your question, there is a chemical change in the sucrose as it moves from crystal to liquid form, but nothing that I believe would affect what we can taste. It is all really in the flossine.

FYI, if you are looking for that flavor in something else, like a cake or ice cream you can buy the flossine concentrate, and use it for whatever. Just make sure you aren't using any other flavors that will destroy the flavor profile of the flossine.

Hope this helps with what you are looking for.

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When the sugar is heated to make the cotton candy, it will caramelise. This causes many chemical changes. The following clipped from wikipedia:

Caramelization is the removal of water from a sugar, proceeding to isomerization and polymerization of the sugars into various high-weight compounds. Compounds such as difructose anhydride may be created from the monosaccharides after water loss. Fragmentation reactions result in low-molecular-weight compounds that may be volatile and may contribute to flavor. Polymerization reactions lead to larger-molecular-weight compounds that contribute to the dark-brown color.

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