Skip Navigation


Food Chemistry: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Acrylamide and Enjoy the Flavor

April 23, 2009 at 2:34 pm
By Margaret Taylor '10

We were informed that there would be muppets involved.

It was clear from the start that Eamon Flynn, Sarah Kunelius, Kristine Mackin, Kevin Tell, Sarah Toews, and Xia Xiong’s talk Friday before last was not going to be a typical chemistry comps presentation.  For one thing, most comps groups in the Chemistry Department do an in-depth study of the work of a particular chemist, who they get to meet at the end of the year.  This group was given a field: food chemistry.

After careful deliberation, these intrepid seniors finally narrowed their research down to one of the Big Questions of life.  Why does grilled and toasted food taste so good?  The answer, which they shared with us at their comps presentation, is the Maillard Reaction.  The Maillard Reaction is a complex series of chemical reactions discovered in 1912 by (guess who?) Louis-Camille Maillard that makes cooked food turn brown and develop flavor.  Before we got too far into the PowerPoint, the group delivered on their promise to involve muppets by showing a picture of the Swedish Chef.

The way the Maillard Reaction happens is that the amino acids and the sugars in food start to interact with each other under high heat.  The reaction produces a wide variety of compounds, like 2-methylbutanal, which gives flavor to “beer, cheddar cheese, beef, and French fries, which is a pretty winning combination in my book,” says Eamon.  It also produces 6-Acetyl-2,3,4,5-tetrahydropyridine, which gives bread part of its bready taste, and melanoidins, which make food brown.

The chemistry students have studied the kinetics of the reaction using another scientist’s work with shrimp hydrosylate, which gives them an excuse to display a picture of Pepe the king prawn.  Some sugars react in the Maillard reaction faster than others, which has to do with how easily they form their open chain form.

The Maillard reaction isn’t just limited to food.  This browning reaction is also what happens with some sunless tanner.  The tanner contains a special sugar that interacts with the amino acids in your skin to produce brown products.

And tasty brown compounds aren’t the only thing that the reaction makes.  Another product is acrylamide, which was responsible for the great French fry scare of a few years ago.  Acrylamide is an irritant and a neurotoxin found in small quantities in foods that have undergone browning, especially vegetable products.  It also may be a carcinogen.

The comps presenters discussed several ways to minimize the Maillard reaction in one’s food, if you don’t mind giving up that toasty flavor.  They include such straightforward solutions as cooking things for less time and minimizing the food’s sugar content (so that the amino acids don’t have anything to react with).  Cooking with acid also inhibits the reaction.  Being chemists, they also went over such high-tech alternatives as deactivating the asparagine (the precursor to acrylamide) before cooking.

Must we microwave or boil our food forever and never enjoy the flavor of roast beef again?  It’s true that we don’t know at what dose acrylamide might act as a carcinogen, but the presenters do offer the following statistic for the sake of perspective.  One would have to consume 880 bags of potato chips per day to receive the same dosage of acrylamide that the rats did in the toxicology study.  And if you did that, you’d have other things to worry about.