If you grew up in the ’70s, Saturday morning cartoons were punctuated by commercials full of drama and peril: the valiant Cap’n Crunch, fighting a French freebooter who wanted to steal his namesake cereal. You couldn’t blame the pirate — as the Cap’n would tell us after he’d won the day:

“It’s got corn for crunch, oats for punch, and it stays crunchy, even in milk!”

By the ’70s, kids expected cereal to stay crunchy. They had no idea how previous generations had to deal with mopey, soggy flakes, their firmness fatally wounded the moment the milk hit the bowl.

Cap’n Crunch changed all that when it debuted in 1963. It did stay crunchy.

But how?

Science! Specifically, food scientists — like Elwood Caldwell, a University of Minnesota professor. It was his contribution to crunch technology, achieved while working at Quaker Oats in Chicago, that made the news when he passed away in May. Rightly so: not many people can say they changed an entire generation’s assumptions about breakfast food performance.

After his stint at Quaker, he was the first head of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition, staying for 15 years. He created the Elwood F. and Florence A. Caldwell Fellowship to assist grad students, founded a lecture series on the study of food, was executive editor of Cereal Foods World, and more.

We may outgrow Cap’n Crunch, but we never outgrow our need to eat — and thanks to people like Professor Caldwell, our food’s not only good, it’s safe. Ever opened a bag of rice and discovered it’s teeming with weevils? No? We’re not saying you should always think about his discovery of the means by which phenolic antioxidants can prolong the shelf life of rice. But now would be a good time to do so.

James Lileks