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Analytical Chemistry

Deciphering Caramel’s Deliciousness

Researchers use a combination of mass spec techniques to tease out the thousands of compounds in the sweet treat

by Bethany Halford
March 12, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 11

Slowly heating sugar until it transforms into tasty caramel is one of the culinary world’s simplest delights. But teasing apart the chemical composition of caramel has been a sticky problem for scientists. Now, Nikolai Kuhnert and Agnieszka Golon of Jacobs University, in Bremen, Germany, have used high-resolution mass spectrometry followed by targeted liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry experiments to study the products that arise from heating glucose, fructose, and saccharose (J. Agric. Food Chem., DOI: 10.1021/jf204807z). Kuhnert and Golon found that several thousand compounds account for the chemical composition of caramel. These include oligomers with up to 12 carbohydrate units formed through unselective glycosidic bonding, dehydration products of oligomers that can lose up to eight water molecules, hydroxyfurfural derivatives, and colored aromatic products. The work, the researchers note, “provides for the first time a comprehensive account of the chemical composition of one of mankind’s oldest, most popular, and most important dietary materials.”


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