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The color of organic chemistry and a meaty structure mistake

by Andrea Widener
June 12, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 24


Color your own chemistry

Young girl holding a chemistry coloring book.
Credit: Neil Garg
Smart kid: Coloring an introduction to chemicals.

When his daughter Kaylie was four, University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Neil Garg noticed a disturbing trend: She was scared of chemicals.

“I would give her something new, and she would say, ‘Is that a chemical?’ ” Garg remembers.

So Garg set out to help Kaylie and her older sister, Elaina, understand that chemicals are vital to some of their favorite things. Because they love to color, he thought a coloring book might be the perfect vehicle to spread that message to his girls and other kids their age.

Garg involved Elaina and Kaylie in creating “The Organic Coloring Book,” starting with deciding which chemicals to present. “We came up with the chemicals that they were curious about,” he says.

The family started with a chemical question, such as “What’s a chemical that makes soap so foamy?” Then they determined the chemical answer, presented in the book as a structure. “I really liked making the chemical questions. I thought that was fun,” Elaina tells Newscripts. “Coming up with the chemical answers was cool too.”

Elaina’s favorite chemical is dimethylpyrazine, which is a vital part of bacon’s smell. Kaylie’s is the cyanidin that colors blueberries, one of her favorite foods.

Garg hired a graphic designer to draw the book based on structures provided by Garg and several of his graduate students. Although the structures are in two dimensions on the page, he has been happy with how well his kids and others understand what they are seeing. “It’s not too far from the creative imagination of a kid to understand what it looks like in 3-D,” he says.

The designer came up with the idea of introducing an animal that guides readers through the book, named Cheesy the Mouse. Dressed in a lab coat, Cheesy introduces readers to the various chemical questions and answers. Kaylie chose a mouse guide “because I like mice and they love cheese.”

For 1-sulfinylpropane, Cheesy cries as she shows how the chemical in onions makes your eyes sting. “Our eyes make tears to wash the chemical away,” Cheesy explains.

The coloring book has sold about 100 copies via already, and the family has given them away at both girls’ schools.

The book should attract parents who are interested in teaching their kids about how the world works. “It’s really something for kids to at least get exposed to chemicals,” Garg says.

Oscar Mayer’s error

Credit: Twitter
Oscar Mayer oops: The meat maker is correcting this ad campaign that showed mistakes in several chemical structures.
A copy of a tweet about Oscar Mayer’s chemical mistakes in its advertising.
Credit: Twitter
Oscar Mayer oops: The meat maker is correcting this ad campaign that showed mistakes in several chemical structures.

The advertising department at Oscar Mayer could have used a coloring book—or other guidance from chemists—on its recent advertising campaign.

The company made the exciting announcement that it had removed all nitrites and nitrates from its hot dogs. But its television ad flipped the two structures, causing a minor uproar on Twitter. “Hey @oscarmayer, if you have any chemists working for you, have them review your commercials before they air,” @ChemMarketeer tweeted.

The ad features another chemical mistake just a few seconds later: A structure labeled “artificial preservatives” includes an aromatic ring with its double bonds in all the wrong places.

Spokesperson Lynne Galia of Kraft Heinz, which owns Oscar Mayer, tells Newscripts they are aware of the issue. The structures “have been corrected and will be reflected in the ads on air soon,” she says.

If they need more help, they might be able to call Elaina and Kaylie Garg.

Andrea Widener wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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