MSI wants you to ask, “What’s in my food?

Do you know that Mountain Dew contains brominated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, Yellow #5 and orange juice ?

Do you know what these things are? Or if they’re good or bad for you?

The Museum of Science and Industry is out with an interactive online game that attempts to answer those questions, giving you a look at some of the additives in some well-known foods.

“Would you eat that?” is a digital extension of MSI’s “YOU! The Experience, which examines human life by showcasing the connection between the mind, body and spirit.

The goal for the new online game, according to Steven Beasley, director of digital media at MSI, is to tap into “that basic curiosity about what our food is made of.” Beyond that, says Beasley, “We want people to look at the ingredient label on their food.”

Just pronouncing the ingredients, or remembering them, is a lot of work in this fun game, which is as highly addicting as a bag of Doritos – which is one of the foods the game explores.

Sign on to some really cool sound effects and non-annoying music (though good people can disagree on that point) and you get a list of ingredients that are common to most packaged foods. Hover over each ingredient and a pop-up will tell you what it is and what it does. Then drag and drop four ingredients onto the “Mix It” section to the right. Put them together and see which ones are correct and which ones aren’t. You get more chances, but eventually you will run out. And each time you get it wrong, a screen pops up giving you some decent, but not obvious, hints.

The hint message for Quaker Oats Maple and Brown Sugar Oatmeal, for instance, is:

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and this will get you VITAMINS that help your BRAIN, BONES, and HEART to be in tip-top shape. Since it can be made in about a minute in the microwave, an ingredient helps give it the THICK consistency of stovetop oatmeal.”

The challenge is that while the ingredients that are correct stay in the ingredients column, the ones you got wrong go away, and you have to remember what they are so you don’t choose them again. This is not so easy. Beasley said an earlier prototype erased even the correct answers and the hints, and a lot of adults they tested it on complained that it was too hard. Since this is meant for older kids as well as adults, they made it a little easier.

The balance between challenging and engaging seems about right. As I was playing, I found myself reading the definitions of each ingredient carefully and trying to match them with the hints. After just a half hour or so, I now know that high fructose corn syrup is made from corn but is sweeter than sugar and that ascorbic acid is a vitamin that only humans and guinea pigs (among all mammals) must get from food.

The surprising part to me is how many food additives are actually made from real food, like corn. So, does that mean it’s good for you?

Beasley and his team decided early on not to answer that question.

“It was not our goal to tell you what is good for you or bad for you. It is our goal to help you discover what the properties are,” said Beasley. “When you tell people what’s good and what’s bad it’s massive controversy and it’s not always right. What we wanted to do is give people a basic understanding.”

In fact, Beasley said that my reaction was spot on. They want participants to wonder, “Is this good for me?”

Yet, there are some subtle hints about the relative health of the additives. The definition pop-up for Yellow #5, for instance, tells people that “some scientists think it should be banned due to possible harmful side effects in children.” (“In general,” says Beasley, “you might not want to eat anything that has a number in it.”)

And once you have selected the correct four ingredients for Mountain Dew, the pop-up at the end of the round tells you:

“Brominated vegetable oil in sodas like this has actually sent some people to the hospital when they drank inhuman quantities over several months. Yellow #5 has also been accused of causing hyperactivity when consumed to excess. And high-fructose corn syrup can cause obesity. Drink soda pop responsibly!”

Beasley and his team worked with Patrick Di Justo, the What’s Inside columnist for Wired Magazine to come up with the most commonly used additives. Di Justo also helped work on the YOU! The Experience exhibit, which has had the same Twinkie on display since it opened in the fall of 2009.

Click here to play the “Would you eat that?” game.

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