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The numerous small pores on the candy's surface catalyze the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas from the soda, resulting in the rapid expulsion of copious quantities of foam. Although any carbonated beverage will produce a similar effect, the reaction was popularized using Diet Coke for seemingly producing the best results.
When the Mentos come into contact with the Diet Coke, a reaction causes the rapid formation of foam.
MythBusters concluded that the potassium benzoate, aspartame, and CO2 gas contained in the Diet Coke, in combination with the gelatin and gum arabic ingredients of the Mentos, all contribute to the formation of the foam.
The structure of the Mentos is the most significant cause of the eruption due to nucleation. MythBusters reported that when fruit-flavored Mentos with a smooth waxy coating were tested in carbonated drink there was hardly a reaction, whereas mint-flavored Mentos (with no such coating) added to carbonated drink formed an energetic eruption, supporting the nucleation-site theory. According to MythBusters, the surface of the mint Mentos is covered with many small holes that increase the surface area available for reaction (and thus the quantity of reagents exposed to each other at any given time), thereby allowing CO2 bubbles to form with the rapidity and quantity necessary for the "jet"- or "geyser"- or eruption like nature of the effusion.
This hypothesis gained further support when rock salt was used as a "jump start" to the reaction. A paper by Tonya Coffey, a physicist at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, confirmed that the rough surface of the Mentos candy helps speed the reaction. Coffey also found that the aspartame in diet soda lowers the surface tension and causes a bigger reaction, but that caffeine does not accelerate the reaction.