The Chemistry of a Healthy Thanksgiving -
View count: 2386 Views

The holiday season is a time of eating, giving, spending time with family and friends and spreading good cheer. Many people may not realize just how many holiday activities rely on chemistry. Cooking the Thanksgiving Day turkey, driving to grandma’s house, baking snowman cookies in December – all of these are connected by chemistry.

Read more to find out how chemistry plays a delicious role in your holiday celebrations:

Thanksgiving Turkey 

How does brining my turkey work?

Brining, a popular poultry preparation technique, helps keep turkey and chicken moist and flavorful for any holiday meal. 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 – meaning 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 science behind brining in this video from the American Chemical Society.


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

Here’s a little more information about what these claims actually mean:

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, health-wise, between organic or conventional meats. As one Rutgers study recently concluded: “Consumers who buy organic food because they believe that it contains more healthful nutrients than conventional food are wasting their money.”

Antibiotic free: Farmers use antibiotics to treat, control and prevent animal diseases and to increase the productivity of animals and operations. 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 containing 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.”


Baking Dinner Rolls

What does chemistry have to do with baking?

Breads, muffins and other baked goods featured in a holiday feast result from an 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 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.

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.



Are organic cranberries healthier than non-organic cranberries?

When people think “organic,” they tend to think “pesticide free.” Organic crops can still be treated with pesticides, however. 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 the public.



Are potatoes “loaded” with 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. Additionally, farmers use herbicides to help stop the growth of weeds, as well as to 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 holiday staples such as pumpkin, cranberry sauce, corn and many more, come in cans coated with a thin epoxy resin linings containing 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 does that mean 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 below to get more information on the chemistry behind a good feast:


Thanksgiving Food & Chemistry – American Chemical Society

Thanksgiving and Chemistry: What’s the connection?

Apple Pie, Hold the Apples –

Giving Thanks for Polyurethane – Incredible Polyurethane

Holiday Chemistry – American Chemical Society