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Editorial: Questions about the flavors in chemistry

by Nick Ishmael-Perkins
March 15, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 8


A colorful array of spices in round tins.
Credit: Shutterstock

Every March or April brings one of the largest gatherings of chemists in the world. The spring meeting of the American Chemical Society typically attracts over 10,000 attendees from around the world.

This year the theme of the meeting, “Many Flavors of Chemistry,” is meant to celebrate diversity among chemists and their materials. One of the star attractions at the event is Carolyn Bertozzi, a chemistry Nobel laureate and winner of this year’s Priestley Medal. Bertozzi’s win suggests we have come a long way since the days of “gentleman science” associated with Joseph Priestley himself in 18th century Britain. Bertozzi has been a vocal advocate for greater diversity in the field. Such is her celebrity that she can be found in a Spanish comic book as a time-traveling musician. Impressive for someone who started her career in organic chemistry.

Hosting ACS Spring in the city of New Orleans lends itself to colorful themes. New Orleans is famous for its cuisine and music. Louisiana, where the city is located, is well known as a place where African, European, and Native American cultures have converged since the US was a colony.

Referring to cuisine, though, is not glib marketing. It provides an instructive way to understand the current state of chemistry.

The fact that cooking is, at its heart, chemistry, will come as no surprise to attendees—although I often wonder why this is not more appreciated beyond the world of chemistry. A new book by Arielle Johnson, Flavorama, is thorough in the way it makes the point that flavor is about molecules. The book also compares people’s experience of cuisine with the principles of chemistry, pointing out, for instance, that flavor “follows predictable patterns.”

More prosaically, the business of chemistry profoundly influences the way we grow, prepare, and store what we eat.

As delightful as Johnson’s book and illustrations are, there is a question amid the fumes. Can cooking really be reduced to a series of chemical reactions?

The act of preparing and consuming food is deeply embedded in cultural contexts. Our history and social identity also mark our practices around how we grow, prepare, and store food. Dominant flavor notes will vary by region.

Even our physical environment constrains what is desirable in our cuisine. Noah Whiteman, the author of Most Delicious Poison, notes that numerous compounds humans rely on—things like spices and medicines—originally evolved as plant toxins. Whiteman also points out that the vast majority of plants that provide flavors and medicine are in threatened environments, often alongside endangered Indigenous cultures, and in need of conservation.

These perspectives give the theme of flavors in chemistry a bracing nuance. A diverse chemistry enterprise would mean institutions consider the social environments in which people practice science. When we view institutional progress from this perspective, there is less cause for celebration.

C&EN’s own coverage demonstrates that little changed in the last decade to broaden participation in chemistry. It is unlikely the pandemic at the start of this decade benefited those already struggling to enter chemistry pathways. Indeed, although ACS meetings are global, some regions are better represented than others. Less than 1% of attendees come from Africa or Latin America.

The chemical industry has existed for over 150 years. Yet it was not until 2019, when Ilham Kadri became CEO of Solvay, that a woman of the global ethnic majority led a major global chemical company. She continues to be an exception rather than the norm.

These facts suggest that chemistry, like other science disciplines, is struggling with its claim as a meritocracy. There is much more to be done by institutional heads.

Just as our most memorable meals are not recalled as chemical reactions, a good conference is as much about socialization as the science on display.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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