This article is from the In-Depth Report Hot Dog! The Science of July 4th Food
60-Second Science

Food Chemists Celebrate Tasty Centennial

It's the 100th anniversary of the Maillard reaction, perhaps the most important chemical reaction that takes place to enhance food's taste when we cook. Karen Hopkin reports

Nobel week—a fine time to celebrate science’s most notable achievements. As you raise your glass to this year’s laureates, why not toast one of chemistry’s most delectable discoveries. Because it’s the 100th anniversary of the Maillard reaction, without which toast would be just a boring piece of dry bread. 

As noted in the current issue of Chemical & Engineering News [Sarah Everts, The Maillard Reaction Turns 100], in 1912 Louis-Camille Maillard first described what happens when you cook sugars along with protein. Driven by the heat, these molecules react to produce a variety of savory smells and tastes, the good stuff in everything from grilled steak and French fries to dark roast coffee, maple syrup, and crusty bread.

The reaction takes place pretty much any time you cook, which makes it the most favored—and flavored—chemistry around.

Of course, the Maillard reaction is not all peaches and cream…or popcorn and caramel. The same chemistry can also create acrylamide, a potential carcinogen made when meat gets charred on the barbie. And so chemists continue to work adding flavor to foods while keeping them carcinogen-free. Now that’s a recipe that should win a ticket to Stockholm.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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