Thanksgiving Chemistry: The Science of a Healthy Feast -
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Celebrating Thanksgiving 2020 will be different than in past years. The CDC offers guidance on precautions you can take to celebrate the holiday more safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Thanksgiving, we express gratitude and often celebrate the holiday by sharing a traditional meal with family and friends. Many people may not realize that many aspects of Thanksgiving rely on chemistry. Shopping for the meal’s ingredients, brining the turkey, baking the bread and pies—all of these are connected by chemistry.

Read more to find out how chemistry plays a role in making your Thanksgiving celebration delicious.

Thanksgiving Turkey 

Does having an organic, antibiotic-free or all natural turkey matter?

What does it mean when meat and poultry are labeled organic, antibiotic-free or all natural? Here’s some information about the “turkey chemistry” behind these terms:

Organic: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions that suit their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on grass pastures), fed 100 percent organic feed, allowed to forage and not administered antibiotics or hormones. It’s important to note that studies have shown there doesn’t seem to be much difference, as it relates to health, between organic or conventional meats.

Antibiotic free: Antibiotics are used by farmers to prevent healthy animals from becoming ill and to treat sick animals. Antibiotics are also used to help livestock grow faster. Basically, farmers use antibiotics to treat, control and prevent animal diseases, which in turn can help increase productivity. If a turkey or chicken is labeled “antibiotic free” or with phrases like “no antibiotics ever” and “never given antibiotics,” this mean no antibiotics were used in the animal’s lifetime.

All natural: According to USDA, the official definition of “natural” is a product that contains no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Unlike organically labeled meats, there is no governing body for meat products labeled “natural.”

How does brining my turkey work?

Brine is a solution made by mixing water and salt. Brining, a popular poultry preparation technique, helps keep turkey and chicken moist and flavorful. A simple chemical interaction is what makes this process work. When you place a turkey in a solution of sodium chloride (salt) and H2O (water), the chemical processes of diffusion and osmosis take place. This means that both the salt and the water move from an area of greater concentration (the brine) to an area of lesser concentration (the meat).

The infusion of water inside the turkey makes the meat juicier. Simultaneously, this process adds flavor from the salt compounds. Learn more about the chemistry of brining in this video from the American Chemical Society.


Baking Dinner Rolls


What does chemistry have to do with baking?

Breads, muffins and other baked goods featured in a holiday feast are the result of the interaction of a number 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 pure sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is combined with lactose (milk), the resulting chemical reaction releases carbon dioxide bubbles that expand under oven temperatures, causing baked goods to rise. That’s the chemistry of baking in action.

Chemistry also helps many pantry staples stay fresh. For example, preservatives added to breads, canned vegetables or fruits fight spoilage caused by bacteria, molds, fungus and yeast, helping to extend food’s shelf life. They can also extend the life of your Thanksgiving leftovers.




Are organic cranberries healthier than non-organic cranberries?

People tend to think organic means pesticide free. However, organic crops can still be treated with pesticides. Whether organic or conventionally grown, cranberries and other crops are vulnerable to insects, pathogenic fungi and parasitic weeds. So, farmers use pesticides to treat both organic and conventionally grown cranberries to provide safe and affordable fruit for your Thanksgiving dinner.




Do my potatoes contain pesticides?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while very small amounts of pesticides may remain in or on fruits, vegetables, grains and other farmed foods, that does not mean they are unsafe. Additionally, these small amounts can decrease considerably as crops are harvested and transported, then washed, prepared and cooked, before ending up on the dinner table.

Farmers apply pesticides to both organic and conventional potato crops to help keep insects, rodents and other pests from damaging or destroying crops. Herbicides are used to help stop the growth of weeds and inhibit sprouting in stored potatoes, which can cause nutrients to flood into the new sprouts and the tuber to wither.


Canned Veggies


Should I worry about BPA in can liners?

A variety of Thanksgiving staples such as pumpkin, cranberry sauce and corn come in cans coated with a thin epoxy resin lining. This lining contains BPA that prevents the metal can from corroding, helping to protect the food inside from microbial contamination and other forms of spoilage. Still, many of us have seen products on shelves touting that they are BPA-free, so should canned foods should be avoided?

BPA is one of the most thoroughly tested chemicals in use today and has a safety track record of more than 50 years. The consensus of major government agencies around the world is that BPA is safe as used in food-contact applications. As recently as February 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) answered the question: “Is BPA safe?” with one word: “Yes”.

Check out these additional resources for more information on the chemistry behind a good Thanksgiving feast:


Thanksgiving Food and Chemistry – American Chemical Society

Thanksgiving and Chemistry: What’s the Connection?

Giving Thanks for Polyurethane – Incredible Polyurethane