Chemistry’s Role in Your Holiday Celebrations
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Thanksgiving Dinner

The holiday season is a time of eating, giving, spending time with family and friends and spreading good cheer. Many people may not know – or even think about – how a variety of holiday activities rely on chemistry and chemical ingredients. Cooking the holiday feast, driving to grandma’s house, attending festive holiday activities – all of these are connected by chemistry.

Read more to find out how chemistry plays a variety of roles in your holiday celebrations:

  • Brining your turkey. You may have heard about a poultry preparation technique called brining, to help keep turkey and chicken moist and flavorful. A simple chemical interaction is what makes this process work. When you place a turkey in a brine solution of sodium chloride (salt) and H2O (water), the chemical processes of diffusion and osmosis take place – both the salt and the water move from an area of greater concentration (the brine) to an area of lesser concentration (the meat) . The added water in the turkey’s muscle cells makes the meat juicier. Meanwhile, the proteins in the turkey rearrange to find balance, simultaneously adding flavor from the sodium and chloride ions from the salt. Learn more about science behind brining in this American Chemical Society video.
  • Filling the breadbasket. Breads, muffins and other baked goods are the results of an interaction among a variety of chemical ingredients. Flour, for example, contains a variety of chemical compounds that give bread its fine texture and support the other ingredients during rising. And when baking soda, which chemists refer to as pure sodium bicarbonate, is combined with lactose (milk), the resulting chemical reaction produces bubbles of carbon dioxide that expand under oven temperatures, causing baked goods to rise.
  • Supplying the pantry. A wide variety of holiday staples such as pumpkin, cranberry sauce, corn and many more, come in cans coated with an epoxy resin lining that protects the food inside from contamination and spoilage that can make a person sick. 
  • Keeping food safe and fresh. Preservatives added to food also fight spoilage caused by bacteria, molds, fungus and yeast. Preservatives also help extend a food’s shelf life—making it possible to feed large numbers of people during the holiday season.
  • Packing leftovers, minimizing food waste. Polycarbonate plastic food storage containers enable leftover foods to stay fresh for days after holiday feasts. Plastics in general play a critical role in both preventing food waste and packaging waste. Lightweight plastic packaging also typically uses less material and energy to manufacture than other packaging materials, which results in less packaging waste, less energy use and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Traveling through the woods (or interstate highways). Driving long distances to see family and friends? Automobile components made from plastic materials help make cars more lightweight and fuel-efficient, resulting in lower CO2 emissions. Today, plastics make up 50 percent of the volume of new cars but only 10 percent of the weight.
  • Inflating balloons on parade. Inflating balloons on parade. The chemical element helium fills the bright balloons floating above the streets in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and other parades each year. And other materials made with chemistry play a role in the balloon’s buoyancy. For example, large balloons made from polyurethane ensure a tight seal to encase the approximately 12,000 cubic feet of helium needed to make the balloon float.

Does having an “organic” turkey, “all natural” or “antibiotic-free” turkey matter? What about organic cranberries versus non-organic cranberries? We’ve answered your questions about the chemistry of a healthy Thanksgiving feast.