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The Science of Bacon

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Photo Credit: Mai Nguyen

Imagine rolling out of bed on a Saturday morning, shuffling into your kitchen, and tossing a few strips of streaky bacon into a skillet. After a few minutes, you’ll hear a delightful crackling and sizzling, soon followed by a complex and savory aroma that could lure even the most resolute of vegetarians to the kitchen. As time passes, you peek into the skillet and notice the bacon begin to brown and bubble. After an agonizing wait, the bacon has finally reached a desired color and crispness and is ready to be consumed. You eagerly bite into a strip of bacon and are met with a pleasantly smoky taste, crunch, and a melt-in-your-mouth sensation. Bacon is a delight to eat, but it’s even better when you understand the science of why it’s so delicious.

There are two major factors that can explain why bacon has such a devoted fan base, with the first and more obvious factor being its aroma. Scientists have identified over 150 compounds responsible for bacon’s distinctive smell. As bacon cooks, there are a couple of different things going on. The Maillard reaction, the browning that results when amino acids in the bacon react with reducing sugars present in bacon fat, produces several desirable flavor compounds. This same browning reaction is also what forms the darkened and crunchy exterior on a pretzel or provides a stout beer with its characteristic color and taste.

During this process, bacon fat also melts and degrades into flavor compounds of its own. The compounds produced from the Maillard reaction and from the thermal degradation of bacon fat combine to form even more aroma compounds. In one study, scientists used gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy and revealed many of these aroma compounds to be pyridines, pyrazines, and furans, which were also found in the aroma of a fried pork loin that was tested. Pyridines, pyrazines, and furans are known to impart meaty flavors, so what actually sets bacon apart from the fried pork loin is the presence of nitrites. Nitrites are introduced into bacon during the curing process and are believed to react with aroma compounds in such a way that dramatically increases the presence of other nitrogen-forming compounds, including those meaty pyridine and pyrazine molecules. Ultimately, we can thank the high presence of nitrogen compounds as well as the interplay of fat, protein, sugars, and heat for bacon’s savory and unique aroma [1].

Now imagine that you’re eating breakfast. You alternate between bites of fluffy pancake drenched in maple syrup and mouthfuls crispy bacon, and maybe you’ll also have a side of velvety scrambled eggs. Here, you have a variety of textures on your plate –which brings us to our next concept to explain why bacon is so revered—mouthfeel.

Mouthfeel is described as the physical sensations felt in the mouth when eating certain foods. Bacon delivers a crunchy contrast to the softer textures found in scrambled eggs or pancakes in a mouthfeel phenomenon known as dynamic contrast. The brain craves novelty, and sensory contrasts will often increase the amount of pleasure that the brain derives from food, which is why you can find bacon as a textural accompaniment in many classic, creative, or sometimes questionable combinations. In a strip of bacon, you’ll see that it consists of lean meat that is heavily marbled with fat. During the cooking process, fat renders off leaving behind a product that simultaneously crisps and melts in your mouth when consumed, a texture combination that is rivaled by few other foods.

The melt-in-your-mouth phenomenon of bacon illustrates another nuance of mouthfeel, which is vanishing caloric density. Vanishing caloric density can be blamed for why it’s so easy to mindlessly consume massive amounts of popcorn, cotton candy, or other foods that seem to melt in your mouth. Upon ingestion of these foods, it is believed that the brain is tricked into thinking that you’re eating fewer calories than you actually are. Foods with vanishing caloric density have low satiating power but high oral impact, so your brain urges you to consume more, as it finds them more rewarding [2].

Between its tantalizing aroma and its delectable mouthfeel, it’s no surprise why bacon mania has so aggressively swept the nation.

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Now you can use science to justify eating an entire package of bacon in one sitting. Photo credit: Mai Nguyen

References cited

  1. Timón, M., Carrapiso, A., Jurado, A., van de Lagemaat, J. A study of the aroma of fried bacon and fried pork loin. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 2004; 84:825-831.
  2. Witherly S. Why Humans Like Junk Food. iUniverse, Inc.; 2007.

Mai NguyenAbout the author: Mai Nguyen is an aspiring food scientist who received her B.S. in biochemistry from the University of Virginia. She hopes to soon escape the bench in pursuit of a more creative and fulfilling career.

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Watermelon

(Steve Evans/Flickr)

(Steve Evans/Flickr)

Nothing says “summer” quite like a big, juicy slice of watermelon. Even if you prefer it charred on the grill or blended into an icy agua fresca, watermelon is one of the best ways to beat the late-summer heat.

So what gives watermelon its refreshingly delicate flavor?

Turns out the answer is pretty complicated. Over the last few decades, scientists have identified dozens of flavor and aroma molecules that contribute to watermelon’s unique taste [1].

And here’s an interesting twist: a watermelon’s flavor has a lot to do with its color. Chow down on a yellow ‘Early Moonbeam,’ a pale ‘Cream of Saskatchewan,’ or a deep red ‘Crimson Sweet’ and you’ll likely notice different flavor profiles for each melon.

These watermelons don’t just look different, they taste different, too! (David MacTavish/Hutchinson Farm)

These watermelons don’t just look different, they taste different, too! (David MacTavish/Hutchinson Farm)

Several of watermelon’s flavor molecules form when colorful chemicals called carotenoids break down into smaller chemical compounds [2,3].

For example, the classic color of red watermelons comes from lycopene, the same molecule responsible for the color of red tomatoes. When lycopene breaks down, it forms key flavor compounds such as lemon-scented citral.

Orange melons don’t have much lycopene, but they make up for it with extra beta-carotene. This chemical – the same one that makes carrots orange – leads to a completely different set of flavor molecules, including floral beta-ionone.

Colorful molecules called carotenoids break down into different flavor compounds. Figure adapted from [2].

The chemistry of watermelon flavor is clearly complex, but scientists are still searching for individual molecules that mimic watermelon’s characteristic taste.

Most recently, a study identified a single molecule – dubbed “watermelon aldehyde” – that has a very distinct watermelon aroma [4]. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), the molecule is too unstable to be used as a food additive. So for now, artificially flavored “watermelon” products will just have to keep on tasting nothing like watermelon.

Good thing there’s plenty of real, chemically complex watermelon to go around.

References

  1. Yajima I, Sakakibara H, Ide J, Yanai T, Hayashi K (1985) Volatile flavor components of watermelon (Citrullus vulgaris). Agric Biol Chem 49: 3145–3150. doi:10.1271/bbb1961.49.3145.
  2. Lewinsohn E, Sitrit Y, Bar E, Azulay Y, Meir A, et al. (2005) Carotenoid Pigmentation Affects the Volatile Composition of Tomato and Watermelon Fruits, As Revealed by Comparative Genetic Analyses. J Agric Food Chem 53: 3142–3148. doi:10.1021/jf047927t.
  3. Lewinsohn E, Sitrit Y, Bar E, Azulay Y, Ibdah M, et al. (2005) Not just colors—carotenoid degradation as a link between pigmentation and aroma in tomato and watermelon fruit. Trends Food Sci Technol 16: 407–415. doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2005.04.004.
  4. Genthner ER (2010) Identification of key odorants in fresh-cut watermelon aroma and structure-odor relationships of cis, cis-3, 6-nonadienal and ester analogs with cis, cis-3, 6-nonadiene, cis-3-nonene and cis-6-nonene backbone structures University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Available: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/16898.

Liz Roth-JohnsonAbout the author: Liz Roth-Johnson received her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology at UCLA. If she’s not in the lab, you can usually find her experimenting in the kitchen.

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A Matter of Taste: Full-Fat Versus Reduced-Fat Cheese

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Given the popularity of cheese and the seeming ubiquitous goal towards eating less fat, it is no surprise that reduced- and low-fat cheeses have great market potential. Though as many cheese companies have discovered, reducing the amount of fat for the sake of fewer calories sacrifices that rich, bold, creamy flavor of cheese. Fat is a major contributor to taste and mouthfeel of foods, and many cheeses are considered high-fat foods. But how exactly does fat content influence cheese taste and texture?

In cheesemaking, the process of converting milk to cheese alters the structure and composition of milk, essentially reducing it to a concentrated form of milk fat and casein, a major milk protein. Casein forms a protein matrix that traps fat and water, giving cheese that soft, moist texture we expect [1]. Full-fat cheeses typically have a casein-to-fat ratio of less than one, meaning there is a higher concentration of fat compared to casein in the cheese. Because fat is a nonpolar biomolecule, the greater fat content, locked within the casein network, gives rise to a predominantly nonpolar cheese matrix.

By definition, reduced-fat cheeses have at least 25% less fat than their full-fat counterparts and low-fat cheeses have 3g of fat or less per serving (21 Code of Federal Regulations [101.62b]), which is roughly around an 80% reduction or greater, depending on the type of cheese. To accomplish this, lower fat milks, such as skim milk, are used to produce the lower fat variants, which have a casein-to-fat ratio greater than one [1,2]. With less fat, the casein networks form a tighter matrix that gives rise to firmer cheese [1]. To replace the fats removed from the cheese matrix and to soften the texture, water is typically added back into the cheeses [2]. Water is a polar molecule, so by increasing the moisture this way, the cheese matrices of reduced- and low-fat cheeses are more polar, unlike the nonpolar matrices of the full-fat cheeses.

Comparing the casein-to-fat ratios of different cheeses gives insight into more than simply cheese composition—the ratios signify how we taste the cheese. When a piece of cheese is ingested, it increases in temperature in our mouth and dissolves with saliva, transforming from a semisolid to a liquid. In addition to textural changes, aromatic flavor compounds are also released during this phase change [3]. The rate at which these compounds are released is determined by their partition coefficient, which is the concentration of the aromatic compound in its gas form compared to its concentration in its liquid form [3]. Whether the flavor compound is in a polar versus a nonpolar matrix can influence the partition coefficient, altering the timing of their release and ultimately, our sensory perception of the flavor [3]. Many flavor compounds found in cheeses happen to be fat-soluble, meaning they can mix with other nonpolar substances without separating into two layers. Considering that lower fat cheeses have prevalently polar matrices, the way the flavor compounds interact with the cheese matrices differs significantly enough to change flavor-release patterns. This is what causes some reduced- and low-fat cheeses to taste “off” compared to full-fat cheeses.

Fat reduction also modifies the cheese biochemistry. Through analysis of full-fat cheese versus 75% reduced-fat cheese, it was found that different sets of flavor compounds are critical for the cheesy flavor of the two types of cheese [3]. When certain flavor compounds characteristic of full-fat aged cheddar were added to reduced-fat young cheddar, tasters scored the two cheeses similarly [3]. So take heart, cheese-lovers. Reduced-fat cheeses certainly do have the potential to be healthy and delicious.

References Cited

  1. Banks, J. M. (2004). The Technology of Low-Fat Cheese Manufacture. International Journal of Dairy Technology, 57(4), 199-207. doi:10.1111/j.1471-0307.2004.00136.x
  2. Impact of Fat Reduction on Flavor and Flavor Chemistry of Cheddar Cheeses. (2010). Journal of Dairy Science, 93(11), 5069-5081. doi:10.3168/jds.2010-3346
  3. Kim, M. K., Drake, S. L., & Drake, M. A. (2011). Evaluation of Key Flavor Compounds in Reduced- and Full-Fat Cheddar Cheeses Using Sensory Studies on Model Systems. Journal of Sensory Studies, 26(4), 278-290. doi:10.1111/j.1745-459X.2011.00343.x

Alice PhungAbout the author: Alice Phung once had her sights set on an English degree, but eventually switched over to chemistry and hasn’t looked back since.

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