Smith: Maillard reaction makes food tasty | Food and Cooking

You may remember learning about the Maillard reaction in science class at school. You probably didn’t know it then, but the Maillard reaction is something you see or use every day. It’s what makes food so delicious, turning bread into toast, giving broccoli a sweeter flavor when roasted, producing grill marks on a steak or even roasting coffee.

Named after the French chemist Louis Camille Maillard, the Maillard reaction is a complex process involving many small chemical reactions that occur when proteins and sugars in food are heated to produce a browning color and distinct flavor. The reaction is affected by heat, moisture and time. A roasted potato, for example, undergoes a Maillard reaction, as this dry-heat method of cooking involves high temperatures that will produce chemical reactions and accelerate the evaporation of water. On the other hand, a boiled or steamed potato does not undergo a Maillard reaction because the shorter cooking time and lower temperatures result in high of levels of water present. Therefore, a roasted potato tastes very different from a boiled or mashed potato!

There is some debate on the safety of Maillard reactions. Research shows that acrylamide, a probable cancer-causing chemical according to the World Health Organization, may be a byproduct of the Maillard reaction, particularly in potatoes, wheat and rye. However, there is no evidence that these foods cause cancer in humans. The Maillard reaction does produce a good thing: antioxidants, which are chemicals that help ward off cancer.

1 teaspoon canola or vegetable oil

3 cups chopped vegetables (onion, bell pepper, zucchini, etc.)

3 oz. light (Neufchatel) cream cheese, softened

1 cup cubed whole wheat bread

⅓ cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Wash hands with soap and water. Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add the vegetables and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender. Set aside to cool. In a large bowl, whisk the cream cheese until smooth. Add eggs and whisk well. Stir in vegetables, bread, and pepper. Pour into greased 8×8-inch baking dish. Bake, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, sprinkle on the cheese and bake in the oven for an additional five minutes or until egg mixture is set, and cheese is browned.

Nutrition Facts (per serving): 200 calories, 11 grams fat, 280 milligrams sodium, 15 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 12 grams protein

Tamanna, N., & Mahmood, N. (2015). Food Processing and Maillard Reaction Products: Effect on Human Health and Nutrition. International journal of food science, 2015, 526762.

Smith is nutrition and wellness educator for the University of Illinois Extension, McLean County. Contact her at 309-663-8306. 

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