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Periodic Graphics: The Chemistry Of Barbecue

Chemical educator and Compound Interest blogger Andy Brunning serves up some chemical facts about how grilling produces smoky flavor

by Andy Brunning
July 13, 2015 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 93, ISSUE 28

Credit: Andy Brunning/Compound Interest
To download a pdf of this article, visit

A collaboration between C&EN and Andy Brunning, chemistry educator and author of the popular graphics blog Compound Interest. To see more of Brunning’s work, go to Check out all of C&EN’s Periodic Graphics here.



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Annamarie Door (June 4, 2016 10:20 AM)
I love the topics that you choose to cover. They have been a great way to start chemistry class with my high-schoolers. It gets their minds started while still being low key and applicable to their lives.
Enrico Uva (June 4, 2016 3:53 PM)
If meat undergoes a Maillard reaction, where are the sugars coming from? Glycogen? The added sauce? Is some browning the result of myoglobin-chemistry? Someone who agrees with me: "James R Etchison, Ph.D. (August 10, 2013 2:42 PM) see
"I agree. I've been pooh-poohing food "chemists" who attribute meat browning to "The Maillard Reaction" for years. I'm a retired glycoprotein biochemist and spent my career studying protein glycosylation and carbohydrate chemistry/biochemistry.

As anyone who cooks meat knows, dark meat browns more readily and more extensively than white meat. Red meat (e.g. beef steak) contains more myoglobin and mitochrondria than white meat (e.g. chicken breast). Both lean meats contain very little to no carbohydrate or sugars. Red meat is geared up for aerobic metabolism (high myoglobin and mitochondria) whereas white meat produces energy primarily by anaerobic metabolism (glycolysis of glucose). If anything, white meat should contain more carbohydrate (as glycogen) than red meat. In actuality, the glycolysis continues after the source animal is dead an butchered and virtually all glycogen is metabolized post slaughter.

While many reactions producing browning in meat may produce end products similar to those of The Maillard Reaction, calling the browning of meat a "Maillard Reaction" is almost certainly a misnomer.

In the absence of carbohydrate, the browning reactions in meat probably are related to reactions arising from the pyrrolysis of the tetrapyroles of myoglobin and mitochondrial cytochromes or other structures present in the mitochondria.

Of course, when sugar is added to the meat (e.g. barbecue sauce, etc.), then the Maillard reaction is certainly an appropriate label for the flavor reactions of barbecued meat.?
James Lillibridge (June 7, 2016 11:03 AM)
When teaching high school biology, specifically about biomolecules and then again when discussing cancer, I mention this very topic. Thanks to you I will now have a visual aid to show more details about this subject. You really do a great job! I also downloaded an article about microplastics from your sources so I can bring that awareness to the high schoolers as well. Thank you so much!
Jim Lillibridge
Biology/Biomedical Innovation Instructor
Wando High School
Mount Pleasant, SC 29414

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