Remember the chemical side of things

This festive season, as you gather round the turkey and sip your wine, think about the chemistry. You may (or may not) want to use this opportunity for some outreach with your in-laws. But if you do, our features on the Maillard reaction and wine chemistry will provide you with plenty of ammunition for educating your nearest and dearest.

Roast Turkey and red wine

Source: © Shutterstock


If debating (or demonstrating) the effect of pH on the Maillard reaction is too much for you or your audience, a few of the choice facts about wine might be more to their palate. If you’re enjoying New Zealand Sauvignon blanc, for example, you can enlighted your fellow drinkers with the knowledge that just one or two compounds are responsible for its distinctive flavour. If they’re chemists, maybe don’t mention that they’re thiols!

It’s quite suprising that the Maillard reaction – a single set of reactions, if not quite one on its own – is responsible for so many of the flavours we enjoy all year, not just at Christmas. From golden-brown toast with your dark-roasted coffee in the morning to mouth-watering turkey and mince pies, it’s everywhere. As the article mentions, however, there can be harmful by-products of these reactions, acrylamide being one of them. But it’s hard to see that these are anything too serious when compared to what we know fat, sugar and alcohol can do to us if we over-induged in them for a long time.

Although our aim in articles like this is to give our readers some slightly lighter relief at this time of year, there is a serious side. Being able to better understand food chemistry such as the Maillard reaction might one day help scientists create golden and delicious food that doesn’t leave us worrying about our waistlines or arteries. I’ll drink to that.

Another festive touch in this issue is our special cryptic crossword. It’s special not just because it’s enormous, but because each square in the grid is not a single letter as normal, but an element symbol (the 118 on the periodic table, plus D or T for deuterium or tritium). Ths means that although the overall grid has a unique solution, several may exist for each individual clue. Are the Tex-Mex snacks NaCHOs, NAcHoS or NaCHoS, for example? The crossword might help keep you awake after you’ve enjoyed M. Maillard’s exceedingly good chemistry. Enjoy.