What does chemistry have to do with cooking?

Developing an understanding of the role chemistry plays in our lives is a critical component of everyone’s education.

I spent last week at the Canadian Chemical Conference and Exhibition. Two thousand chemists from 31 countries gathered in Calgary to share their research and discuss the future of chemistry in Canada and around the world.

There were talks on green chemistry, climate change, microplastics, nanoparticles, biosensors, catalysts, and a whole host of other subjects directly related to chemistry. There were also discussions around equity, diversity, inclusion, indigenization, and social justice.

All of these issues and many more fall within the sphere of chemistry. Chemistry isn’t just balancing equations or analyzing the latest compound. Chemistry impacts so many different aspects of our lives and conversely, our lives impact upon the enterprise of chemistry.

The sessions I attended mostly centerd on chemical education. On how we ensure everyone has the opportunity to understand chemistry. High school introduces chemistry, physics, and biology in grades 8 to 10 but most kids are introduced to the physical sciences much earlier. Indeed, by the time kids enter kindergarten, most have heard of the term “atom” and “element” and if they have ever cooked something – even something as simple as making toast – they have performed a chemical reaction.

Yeah, I know cooking food is not something most people equate to chemistry but it is taking molecules and transforming them from one set of compounds to another using heat. Indeed, it doesn’t even need heat. For example, take an egg white and add salt. The reaction of the sodium ions with the proteins in the albumin results in a chemical transformation. Similarly, add vinegar to milk and the acidification will result in denaturing the proteins. Good cooks are good chemists and sometimes it even works the other way around.

Developing an understanding of the role chemistry plays in our lives is a critical component of everyone’s education. The periodic table which hung on the wall of your school science lab wasn’t just there for decoration. It is an ingredient list for everything around you. And even you.

The talks last week focused on teaching chemistry in university but for many students, their first-year chemistry course is the last course they will ever take in chemistry. But regardless of what degree they take, first-year chemistry won’t be the last time they do chemistry.

Todd Whitcombe is a chemistry professor at UNBC.

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