Even now, when I thought bacon’s ubiquity was finally starting to wane, there’s still someone at every turn espousing the benefits of this fan favorite food. In fact, even as I write this, one of my most health-conscious colleagues is recounting an article about how bacon is actually quite good for you, despite its reputation for being cholesterol in delicious strip form.
Obviously bacon tastes good. We all know that. But what exactly is it about bacon that makes it so lust-worthy, so drool inducing, that it has become a pop culture phenomenon?
To find the answer, I turned to my old friend science.
Bacon and Man’s Beginnings
Although we may consider ourselves far removed from our ancient ancestors, their lifestyles have left a distinctive mark on us — and may, in part, explain why bacon remains a staple in our diet even after breakfast is over.
For primitive man, the hunt for sustenance was a constant and exhausting one. Although the natural sugars found in foods that were relatively easy to forage can provide a great deal of energy (as anyone who has heard about how energizing an apple can be knows), they couldn’t provide enough calories to optimally maintain the high-impact lifestyle of the average hunter.
Fat, however, contains more calories than nearly any other food — 9 per gram, to be exact, compared with the 4 calories contained in each gram of protein. Because he most often survived on very few calories, when primitive man did locate and consume fat, his body rewarded this sudden upsurge in energy by releasing dopamine and serotonin, encouraging him to continue pursuing these foods.
Although we now have an abundance of food available, our bodies are still hard-wired to reward the consumption of foods high in fat, protein, and sugar with that same surge of warm and fuzzy feelings.
The Maillard Reaction
Primitive man’s menu of fatty foods likely didn’t include bacon in the way we know it today, but there’s another scientific principle that may explain why the wafting smell of frying rashers is enough to get nearly anyone out of bed: the Maillard reaction.
Sometimes also referred to as “the browning reaction,” the Maillard reaction is the chemical process foods undergo when exposed to dry, high-temperature cooking methods, such as roasting or frying.
When the external temperature of food reaches a certain level, the amino acids and sugars inside begin to break down and recombine into ring-like structures that reflect light, producing the distinctive brown color we see on bread crusts and high-protein foods.
But this process does more than create a lovely brown hue. It also produces up to hundreds of new flavor and scent compounds within the food, creating the distinctive savory flavors — and amazing smells — we associate with such cooking methods.
The Biology of Bacon
The Maillard reaction explains how its scent begins to form, but why does bacon smell so much different from pork loin or any other pig-based meat when it is cooking? That, too, has a complex explanation rooted in the very biology of bacon.
Compared to other pork options, bacon’s high fat level means it undergoes slightly different chemical reactions from any other cut when exposed to heat. This results in a different set of volatile compounds being released into the air, eventually drifting into our noses, and enticing us to the table.
These approximately 150 different volatile compounds combine into an aggressive and very pleasing scent sensation, despite being potentially unappealing as individual smells. In fact, it’s this same principle of perfectly combining compounds that makes chocolate so delicious and French fries smell so appealing. It probably accounts for our equally unbridled love for poutine, as well.
Regardless of whether you’re a die-hard bacon fanatic or just consider it a nice side to have with eggs, the science behind bacon suggests that its popularity isn’t going to diminish any time soon.
So, in the spirit of my newfound appreciation of bacon fanaticism, I say, bacon alarm clock, I’m coming for you.
Craving bacon now? We don’t blame you. Try one of these pork-filled pleasures at our own program restaurants to get your fix:
- Brown sugar, coffee, and cinnamon cured bacon, Knife & Tine, Chicago, IL
- PBJ and bacon burger, Rehab Burger Therapy, Scottsdale, AZ
- Bacon mac n’ cheese burger, Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar, New York, NY
- Mr. Figgy with bruleéd bacon garnish, Crop Bistro & Bar, Cleveland, OH
- BLT roll, Drunken Fish, St. Louis, MO