Molecular Gastronomy in Orbit(z)

November 3, 2010 · 5 comments


The revolution in molecular gastronomy did not begin with Ferran Adrià’s experiments at El Bullí in 1998, it began the year before, and was heralded by the marketing of one of the least successful soft drinks ever created.

In the late spring of 1997 I was walking through Harvard Square when I was accosted by a gang of marketing kids who insisted that I try a new beverage called Orbitz, a non-carbonated fruit drink made by the same company that used to make Clearly Canadian sparkling water. I drank some of the raspberry citrus flavor, and was given a bottle of the (I’m not making this up) pineapple-banana-cherry-coconut “for my  enjoyment later.” Based on my immediate reaction to the drink, I knew that there would never be a “later.” The stuff was too sweet, it wasn’t carbonated, and it has things floating in it: little spheres of gelatin that hovered in suspension in the bottle, which resembled a lava lamp:

This is a photo I took just two days ago of the bottle handed to me thirteen years ago. It hasn’t changed at all.

Last week’s lecture with José Andrés had me thinking about gelation and spherification when I realized I that the perfect application of this technology had been sitting on a shelf in my kitchen for more than a decade. Those little white blobs in the bottle (banana flavored, I think – the bottle remains unopened, so I can only guess) are made of flavored xanthan gum. I have not agitated the contents to redistribute the blobs; that’s how they’ve settled in the bottle. Not that shaking would do much good, as you can see:

What keeps the blobs in position? The liquid is infused with gellan gum, which creates a support matrix for the spheres, which are at a neutral buoyancy with the clear liquid. The addition of a sugar – in this case corn syrup – improves the clarity of the liquid and changes the density to match that of the blobs.

While Orbitz was still available it became a popular science lab demonstration. Adding a salt solution to the contents would cause the spheres to sink: the salt both changed the density and disrupted the gellan protein matrix. Adding a sugar solution would cause the spheres to rise, as they would be less dense than the liquid.

Much to the disappointment of science teachers nationwide, Orbitz failed to last even a year in the hyper-competitive soft drink market. It was clearly (heh) ahead of its time, as evidenced by the URL printed on the bottle cap (you can see the “http” in the photo above):

This explains why I never think of travel when I see the word “Orbitz.” I think of food from the future.


Rose Fox November 3, 2010 at 6:35 pm

I remember being amazed that Orbitz sodas had a URL on the cap! Those were the days.

Like many people, I sampled precisely one Orbitz and swore off of them forever. I do drink coconut water* with bits of coconut pulp floating in it, though, which is a very similar experience.

* Not milk.

David November 3, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Now that I have the necessary ingredients, it wouldn’t take me long to reverse engineer the floating spheres effect, but with liquid-filed spheres in something that tastes a bit more palatable.

Yes, coconuts have two liquid products: the water that naturally occurs, and the thick white stuff usually referred to as “cream of coconut” which is made from the coconut meat. Yet another “milk/cream” loophole, another job for GRAMMARHULK.

ChefGerard November 15, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Orbitz was disgusting but it was not really molecular gastronomy, it was just an over-use of food additives!!

David November 16, 2010 at 6:58 pm

And the difference is…?

ChefGerard November 16, 2010 at 7:03 pm

The difference is the end result! You can play with texture and still produce good food. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of taste…

You don’t have to be a pro chef to try molecular gastronomy. MOLÉCULE-R offers a starter kit that includes everything you need to experiement. It is truly an original gift for Christmas 🙂

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