I have a confession to make: Even though I’m a vegetarian, my mouth still waters when there’s bacon popping on the stove. But why? Where does humanity’s bacon-lust emanate from? Why does it taste and smell like the smoky nectar of the gods? Here’s why, according to science.
Bacon’s marbling comes from fat. And everyone knows that fat tastes good. But how come? In part, it’s because fat makes other flavors taste better. Fat affects how “volatile compounds are released in our mouths and, ultimately, how the flavor gets perceived.” What’s more, flavors tend to stick to fat molecules, so that their release is extended in your mouth.
Studies also have shown that your body is designed to like it. It’s possible that humans have as many as 20 receptors for tastes, including fat. One study found that people with a protein called CD36 were more likely to detect small amounts of oil. This predisposition makes evolutionary sense, since fat can be converted into energy — and humans need energy to survive.
Fat is responsible for various chemical reactions, which also affects how bacon tastes. In part, that begins with the cooking process, when pork-belly fat breaks down. The fatty acids in the muscle tissue break apart into compounds such as aldehydes, furans, and ketones. As food scientist Guy Crosby told the BBC, these work together to create bacon’s flavor. The salts that cure the pork belly can change the fat’s chemical reactions, too, which further affects flavor. And the types of fatty acids that are present are affected by the diet and breed of the pig.
Much of bacon’s flavor appeal lies in umami — that buzzy flavor that essentially means “yummy” in Japanese. Six out of the 18 ingredients that make up bacon are types of umami, which we have evolved to crave: According to The Guardian newspaper, umami is “a marker of protein (which is made up of amino acids, which are essential for life).”
When foods are cooked and heated, a chemical reaction occurs between amino acids and sugars, which releases pleasing aromatic compounds including hydrocarbons and aldehydes. (This is known as the Maillard reaction, if you’re ever on Jeopardy!.)
Somehow, bacon-smell is more tantalizing than other foods, though. That stems from the specific chemicals in it. Because bacon is cured in brine or salt, it contains more nitrates than regular pork. As The Telegraph explains, when bacon-fat molecules disintegrate, those nitrogen-rich compounds “not only reinforce the meaty fragrance already in abundance, but they deepen it as well, upping the pungent paradise enveloping the kitchen.” Well said!
The last piece of the puzzle is harder to pin down, or attribute definitively to chemical reactions and science. That’s because part of bacon’s appeal lies in nostalgia. As Aviva Shen writes, bacon is so purely American: “[It] is the iconic food memory of most people’s childhoods — which makes it the ultimate comfort food.” The sight, sound, smell, and taste of bacon calls forth for many people sunny images of breakfasts past, and it’s that ineffable alchemical process that completes the delicious scientific picture of America’s favorite meat.
Nandita Raghuram is a Senior Writer at Studio@Gawker. She tweets here.