The Chemistry of Thanksgiving

I love holidays, and chemistry and I really like to find connections between the two. There is magic (or chemistry) in your Thanksgiving meal preparation. Let’s look at how a materials testing firm like NSL Analytical Services provides a safer Thanksgiving experience for so many Americans.

The Turkey

Chemistry of Thanksgiving

The Turkey in Star Billing

The turkey enjoys star billing in most thanksgiving feasts. Recently, a new method became popular for making moist, tender turkeys: Brining. Brining involves soaking the turkey in a cold salty solution for prolonged period prior to baking. The chemical process that makes this bath so successfully tasty is called osmosis.

How do you know when your turkey is safely, and thoroughly cooked? Behold the itty bitty plastic popup timer that comes in most Turkeys from your supermarkets today. These little devices consist of a pop up stick with a spring. The spring is held in place with a small piece of metal solder. As the turkey cooks the solder melts. Melting point is reached when the turkey’s interior temperature and the popup solder are heated to 185 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, the pop up stick is released, and bakers everywhere can check and see the turkey’s interior is thoroughly cooked to a safe edible temperature.

And how do you know that your pop up timer is likely to work? Before manufacturing, even this simple design needed to be tested for material components, proper consistent melting temperature, and the least amount of solder that will still deliver those results.


And with that perfectly cooked turkey, many homes prepare a popular side dish of mashed potatoes. But Diane Bunce asked in a video produced by the American Chemical Society, “Why do people eat mashed potatoes?” “Why does the flavor of mashed potatoes change as we chew our food?”

The glucose molecules are attached by an alpha linkage. A series of enzymes in humans break down alpha linkages and release the glucose molecules that our bodies use. That breakdown starts with amylase enzyme in saliva. Amylase breaks the carbohydrate down into Maltose, and ultimately, from Maltose, into glucose.

Had too much to eat?

Thanksgiving is a great holiday for foodies, but it also is prime time for antacid sales. Antacids go through material testing procedures too. The measures of efficacy are tested by combining a single dose of the antacid with a determined quantity of acid. The time for reaction is observed, measured and noted. The chemical mixture is then tested for chemical composition, as is the gas that is released from the chemical reaction. Ahh. Feel better?

And then the Dinnerware

Fine china for some makes the thanksgiving meal more festive, but others prefer disposable plates to cut down on clean up time so they can either visit with family or sneak out to start Christmas shopping early.

Fine china rarely contains lead. The only ways to test the dinnerware for this is with an XRF instrument or to pulverize the dishes. The pulverized dishes are then immersed in acid or incinerated. The resulting material is analyzed to determine the total lead content. Because the surface area of a dish is the part that is in contact with the food, the XRF is a better determinant of the dish level of lead. The majority of lead may be found in a dish’s deteriorating painted surface regardless of whether rest of the dish is lead free, and the pulverizing method may return results of negligible lead content.

If paper plates are your Thanksgiving feast preference, then the important question is really, how leakproof and strong will a loaded plate remain. After all, you want to eat your Thanksgiving meal, not wear it. But there are other considerations as well. Recently, a chemical known as PFAS(per/poly fluoroalkyl substances) was found on some disposable dinnerware in the water and grease resistance coating. PFAS chemicals are linked with health issues such as obesity, diabetes, ulcerative colitis, learning and growth impairment in children, increased cholesterol levels, increased cancer risk, immunity reduction and more. And did we mention VOCS? The EPA has determined Volatile organic compounds found on paper plates can contribute to headaches, damage to your liver, kidney and central nervous system. VOCS can harm the lungs, blood flow and more. The good news is that provides a list of the safest disposable dinnerware brands to use.

Before disposable dinnerware is produced, conscientious manufacturers can have a materials testing firm such as NSL Analytical Services, conduct product testing to determine the safety and viability of the dinnerware, make any corrections before mass producing, and stock the stores full of safe, reliable convenient plates for your feast, or like some this year, your Thanksgiving picnic. If you have products to be tested, visit for available tests and quotes.

Meanwhile, have a safe and joyful Thanksgiving.