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Tech Life

How Princeton Grad Students Reverse Engineered the Oreo

Oct 22nd, 2016 11:07am by
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At a graduate school in New Jersey, three friends embarked on a remarkable quest to see into the future — or at least how to tell, with absolute certitude, of where the cream ended up when you twisted your Oreo cookie apart.

The tale starts back in the 1990’s when an ad campaign once ran that suggested that instead of a coin toss, kids could base their important playground decisions, and even foretell their futures, simply by disassembling an Oreo cookie:


Decades later, at Princeton University’s mechanical and aerospace engineering program, three graduate students bravely investigated whether the legends were true — whether there really was a pattern to which half of Nabisco’s chocolate sandwich cookie would end up with the most cream.

And their story captivated Quartz, which posted a lovely essay documenting their odyssey. The team of hearty researchers was:

  • Joshua Spechler — now a hardware engineer at Apple
  • John Cannarella — now a mechanical engineering consultant at DuPont
  • Dan Quinn — currently a post-doctoral student at Stanford

Princeton logo

When they all look back fondly at their time at Princeton, there’s one special experiment they’ll always remember. As Quartz explained:

At 4pm every day, their department would put out coffee and cookies, including — surprise — Oreos. For months, teatime went by without the trio giving a second thought to the cookies, but then one day the Oreo twist-off game came up.

“The Oreo was our generation’s wishbone,” says Quinn, currently a postdoc at Stanford University.

If you’ve ever wondered what graduate students talk about at their daily 4 p.m. break for coffee — now you know. And yes, cookies were also being served. But it wasn’t just that they were awash with nostalgic childhood memories — and a raging caffeine-and-sugar buzz. “Cannarella claimed he had a childhood friend who always won the Oreo twist-off game,” reports Quartz.

“This being a group of scientists, they decided to investigate…”

So is there a pattern to which side of the cookie gets the most cream? When the three friends searched for an answer, they found that “there was nothing in the literature,” according to Quartz. As later explained, “Upon discovering that no one else had given a silly amount of attention to the issue, the trio went deep.”

What’s most surprising about this story is the vast amount of effort that the researchers threw into analyzing the problem. “It’s interesting from an engineering standpoint since the cookie is similar to many modern composites,” Cannarella told Quartz, noting the “strong brittle layer (the wafer) for strength coupled with a weaker ductile layer (the cream) for toughness.” Quartz describes Oreos as “systems that combine high-strength but brittle materials with low strength ductile ones”.

And you thought it was just a cookie….

Oreo pattern (via Wikipedia) Oh, but the mighty Oreo is so much more. Oreos have been America’s best-selling cookie for over a century. After 102 years, two California men actually received 20-year jail sentences in 2014 for selling the secret recipe Oreo uses for the DuPont chemical that whitens the vanilla cream filling. One Nabisco food scientist even racked up five patents for Oreo-related processes. “We can only hope that they are all printed on chocolate,” joked Time magazine, “and written in vanilla icing…”

So maybe somewhere deep in our culture lay an irresistible lure to crack the Oreo cookie’s last remaining secret. The determined researchers at Princeton pursued their scientific investigation. Lab tests and experiments followed, using metal arms to mechanically twist apart cookie after cookie. Er, not surprisingly, their research was entirely self-funded. They ventured to Sam’s Club to buy the cookies in bulk boxes. Following the trail of intrigue (and chocolate), their excellent adventure reached its exciting conclusion, with the researchers finally achieving their “Eureka!” moment — that scientific breakthrough which will revolutionize cookie-twisting for years to come.

“Thousands of cookies later, the Princeton researchers finally realized the 25-year-old game was rigged,” reported Quartz. “The cream ends up on the same side, for every cookie in a box…. If the cream ends up on the left biscuit on one cookie, it’ll end up on the left biscuit for every cookie in that box.”

The team’s ultimate conclusion? “It’s a feature of the manufacturing process.”

Newman-O's factory

The article even cites as more proof a short documentary  about a visit to a cookie factory making a similar snack — the Newman-O (from actor Paul Newman’s food company). Here, the cream filling is applied to only one wafer first. It then travels down the production line, leaving its cream exposed for several crucial seconds — before the other chocolate wafer is applied to the other side.

And apparently, this significantly affects the adhesiveness of the vanilla cream filling. “[T]he hot cream flows easily over the first wafer, filling in the tiny cracks of the cookie and sticking to it like hot glue,” reports Quartz, “whereas the cooler cream just kind of sits on the edges of those crevices.”

Needless to say, this news provoked strong reactions throughout the Oreo-loving world online. “This revelation opens up the door for playground grifters to run roughshod over doe-eyed schoolchildren…” complained “Don’t use your new knowledge for evil,” the article concluded.

But this college experiment led Gizmodo to a theory of its own: “these three guys were probably high as hell when they started on this mission.

“As with most stoner experiments, you learn a little something that you probably wouldn’t have known but it’s pretty much useless.”

And Gizmodo’s story also triggered a predictable reaction from one of their commenters.

“Now I’m hungry for Oreos.”

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