One Formula to Rule Them All: The Maillard Reaction

A friend of mine recently asked me a question that seemed simple at first glance: what is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation for some topic of your choosing? Though I took stabs at his question over and over, I couldn’t conjure up a fitting answer. Nothing I knew about seemed “deep, elegant, or beautiful” enough to fit the bill.

That is, until I read an old article titled “6 Picky Eating Habits You Can Fix” by Chris Bucholz. The article stated that Brussels sprouts become more palatable as humans age because our taste buds can better process bitterness. However, if, as an adult, you think “they still taste like hot garbage, you can step things up a bit and roast the bejeezus out of them. By letting the Maillard reaction smooth off the rough edges of their flavor, you can make them way tastier.”1

I had never heard of the Maillard reaction before, so I decided to look it up. This chemical phenomenon, a.k.a. “the browning reaction”, occurs when high heat breaks down carbs and proteins into simple sugars and amino acids, respectively. The heat then combines these chemical building blocks into numerous different molecules. “What begins as a simple reaction between amino acids and sugars quickly becomes very complicated: the molecules produced keep reacting in ever more complex ways that generate literally hundreds of various molecules.”2 In any case, protein + sugar + heat = delicious.

Maillard reaction on burger and fries

Notably, different foods have different carbs and proteins, which is why toasted bread, fresh cookies, and seared steaks all have divergent taste profiles. This shocking diversity of flavor stemming from a single chemical reaction has been a huge enabler for the artificial flavoring industry. Food scientists can use the Maillard reaction to determine which molecules are responsible for a given aroma or taste and then generate those same compounds in a lab. For example, artificial maple syrup derives its taste from analysis of the Maillard reaction that real syrup undergoes.

So, an obscure chemical reaction governs the flavor of every roasted, grilled, baked, and fried food in existence (and miscellany like beer and chocolate). I chanced upon an elegant formula for a universal phenomenon, sufficiently answering my friend’s question. He responded: now find a way to make it meaningful to read for the general audience. This immediately led me to wonder whether something similar to the Maillard reaction occurs in other fields.

I began my search in the field of social dynamics, where I stumbled onto the One-Third Hypothesis (OTH). This theory by Hugo Engelmann states that a social group’s prominence increases as the group’s size approaches one-third of the whole population. Above one-third, groups begin to splinter; social cohesion is too difficult to sustain at a larger group size. Under one-third, groups do not have the requisite sway to gain social capital and prominence.

Some cases of empirical proof have been found on a city level. When the German population in Milwaukee reached 33% of the city’s population over a century ago, they saw a surge in social prestige and importance, which they lost as the population grew.3 The OTH has also been used to explain the 1967 Detroit riot and the 2011 London riots.

Based on anecdotal experience, I can say that the OTH seems to work on smaller population scales as well. My high school, a small private school in Central New Jersey, had an Indian population that was around 33% of the school. That group tended to get the highest grades, lead extracurricular clubs, and win student government elections. Furthermore, the Indian students curried the most favor with the teachers and administrators. In fact, the group had enough social significance that they could hold a Diwali celebration so popular that it sold out the school’s gym seating every year.

Consideration of the OTH led me to wonder whether Donald Trump’s supporters comprise ~33% of the US population. In November, Trump had 32% of the electorate. Perhaps that core group of supporters provided a critical mass that has enabled him to attract more of the voting population. As Trump support grows, we see some GOP voters reluctantly siding with Trump; however, the party seems primed to splinter into sub-groups that have more social cohesion. As far as the Maillard reaction goes, the OTH seems to function similarly in social dynamics; it appears almost universally, whether in a small group or across a nation.

Finally, after ruminating on Trump and steaks (but not Trump Steaks), I began to think about whether certain formulas might apply universally between fields. The idea of cascading failure might be one such formula. Cascading failure occurs when a breakdown in one part of a system triggers further breakdowns, eventually crippling the system at large. We see this phenomenon occur when organs, software systems, and banks fail. A single breakpoint can snowball to create much larger negative effects.

Cascading Failure

Simply put, there seem to be universal rules underlying phenomena in and across different fields. One way to become more successful is to uncover these rules and exploit them. Whether you’re a chemist creating artificial flavors, a politician trying to garner votes, or an engineer trying to avert system failure, you need to understand the secret rules of the game to be effective.


Also published on Medium.

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