The food science of Winter Vegetables

Welcome to our Christmas dinner special. We’ll be talking about the food science of traditional Christmas dinner cuisine. Have you ever thought about the science behind your Christmas dinner? If the answer is yes, make sure you follow us because we will be posting a new article every Monday and Friday over the next two weeks, in preparation for Christmas, on a dish that’s commonly served as part of traditional Christmas dinner. Our third article is on another Christmas Dinner staple: Winter Vegetables!

Vegetables are a staple on the Christmas dinner table. It’s never complete without a side helping of parsnips, roast and/or mashed potatoes and brussels sprouts. Love them or hate them, supermarkets sell approximately 750 million individual Brussels sprouts at Christmas time in the UK, with 25% of the whole year’s sprout sales being in the two weeks before Christmas.

Why do some people hate brussels sprouts?

Brussels sprouts, as we’ve all seen, are not everyone’s favourite, and it’s not just because some people are picky eaters or that they don’t like to eat vegetables. There’s a potential scientific explanation for this very phenomenon. A group of chemical compounds called glucosinolates, occur naturally in brussels sprouts, as well as broccoli, cabbage and kale (also known as the cruciferous vegetables) and they act as the plants natural defence system. These glucosinolates share a similar structure to the synthetic compounds phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) and propylthiouracil (PROP). These compounds contain a thiocyanate group (nitrogen, carbon and sulphur bonded in series) which is thought to contribute to their bitter taste. Some people have the dominant genetic trait to detect the bitter taste in PTC and PROP, which is believed to have a similar chemical structure to glucosinolates. 

What do parsnips and nutmeg have in common?

Roasted parsnips are another staple found in Christmas Dinner. When roasted in the oven, the Maillard reaction provides the distinctive sweet, nutty, caramel flavours. Interestingly, parsnips share something in common with nutmeg; they both contain small quantities of myristicin which  is a mildly hallucinogenic organic compound. However, the average person will not experience the hallucinogenic qualities as you would need to consume excessively large quantities of nutmeg or parsnips for the myristicin to have a hallucinogenic effect on the person.

Roast potatoes

Roast potatoes (as well as mashed potatoes) are regarded as an essential side dish on the Christmas dinner table. They must be cooked to perfection; crispy on the outside, fluffy and tender on the inside. Raw potatoes are made up of about 80% water, 18% starch, vitamins and minerals. The starch is responsible for potato cooking properties. Starch is made up of amylose and amylopectin which are stored as granules in the potato which break down into sugars (dextrin) as it cooks. Again, the Maillard reaction (read about it in our first article on Christmas Turkey) is responsible for the golden-brown colour of roasted potatoes, as the potato is subjected to high heat, starch is broken down into sugars which releases the roast potato flavour and colour.

Do carrots give you night-vision?

We’ve all heard that you should eat a lot of carrots so you could see clearer at night and protect your eye health. Many scientific studies have since refuted this. Even though carrots contain chemicals called carotenoids (found in the macula at the back of the eye) the retina does not take up beta carotene, the carotenoid in carrots.  You can find high concentrations of carotenes in dark green and orange plants and fruits, like spinach, broccoli, green beans, corn and peaches. However, carrots are good for vitamin A deficiency. Beta carotene is converted to vitamin A in the body which also helps to maintain healthy vison. Additionally, the nutritional value of carrots increases when cooked. Researchers found that antioxidant levels increased immediately after heat processing and continued to increase for the first week of storage, of the cooked carrots, and did not return to the levels of antioxidants found in raw carrots.

So now you’ve learned a lot about the Christmas turkey, please come back next week for another Christmas Dinner dish. Can you guess which dish is we’re going to be explaining the food science for? It’s ?????????? ???????! Tweet us @IFSTNews with your guesses and don’t forget to share this article with your friends and family!