A Chemical Thanksgiving

By Mark Stock

With so much food cluttering the Thanksgiving dinner table, it’s tough not to imagine what the yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie might look like under a super-microscope. Each dish affects the body differently, and it takes the goggles of a foodie superhuman to see just what’s happening chemically. Like a Magic School Bus-inspired adventure, let’s take a close look at the main characters of this annual feast.


The most talked about biochemical of late November, tryptophan is an essential amino acid that aids in the production of serotonin, causing drowsiness. As is the case with so many foods—meat especially—excess consumption leads to a feeling of sedation.

Turkey, contrary to common belief, contains about the same amount of tryptophan as chicken and beef. In fact, foods like cod, egg whites and soybeans boast the highest concentration of the little sleep inducer. Your post-meal grogginess is much more the result of eating and drinking like a medieval king for several hours straight.  

Tryptophan supplements were especially big in the 1980s, offered to insomniacs to battle their problem. But the dosage was often too high, causing health problems in many who took the supplements. A pound of turkey, on average, contains about 600 milligrams of tryptophan.  


Buzzing like neon, resveratrol is wine’s newest potential hero. The antioxidant is believed to help with blood flow, especially in the prevention of blood clots, which can lead to heart disease.  It’s much more common in red wines, which spend more time in contact with grape skins—the main source of resveratrol—in their creation. Yet, red wine contains only trace amounts of the blood regulator. In fact, the alcohol alone in wine does essentially the same thing.

Many have eyed resveratrol as the weapon enabling Europeans to live out the so-called “French Paradox,” or, the relatively low degree of heart disease among the French population compared to the quantity of wine consumed. The antibiotic compound exists in larger percentages in regions like Oregon Wine Country because it exists as a plant’s armor, defending against fungal infection that thrives in cooler, wetter climes.

The basic conclusion at the moment is rather ironic: One would have to drink himself under the table to experience any significant positive effects of resveratrol.  

Biogenic Amines

That bold bottle of ’06 Pinot breathing next to the wild rice stuffing likely contains a fair amount of biogenic amines. These chemicals affect mental function, blood pressure and body temperature and are incorporated into the body all the quicker thanks to alcohol’s speedy absorption rate.  

The most common forms are histamine, tyramine and putrescine and swim in much greater numbers—roughly two to three times greater—in red wine than white. These, perhaps more than sulfites, can cause allergic-like reactions among red wine drinkers such as headaches or respiratory problems.  

High biogenic amine levels also occur in saké. But, fear not, as most do not respond negatively to these molecular components. Additionally, these are the same neurotransmitters that create a soothing, calming mental state in moderation.  


These naturally occurring, tongue-drying procyanidins may provide a better answer for the “French Paradox.” Much more prevalent than resveratrol, especially in younger wines made from higher elevation fruit, tannins boost vascular health and serve as wonderful culinary tools, striking a part of the palate rarely hit and, in turn, begging for certain pairings like herbed poultry, peppery stuffing or a smoky batch of gravy.  

Pinot Noir is a notoriously tannic wine and does quite well with just about everything conceived by the Thanksgiving cook. Many shudder at the taste of an extremely tannic wine but might find them much more approachable when tasted aside foods that cut into their grassy bitterness.

Moderation continues to be the age-old remedy for any problems these microscopic heroes and villains may or may not cause. You should stuff yourself on this day of tremendous bounty, and in no way should this piece be read like the harrowing side effects of a pharmaceutical commercial.

We often forget that we are what we eat, and on Thanksgiving, that can mean a lot of different things. So if that bottle of Cab is bothering you, try a more forward white like a dry Gewurtz to greet your turkey. And if you’ve tried every dish on the table and can hardly bring the last bite of pie to your face, try some coffee or a digestif like grappa to settle the gut.

Most importantly, mix and match like your life depends on it, because in a light-hearted way it does, and a beautiful new pairing you’ve never even thought of trying could be at stake.

Mark Stock, a Gonzaga University grad, is a Portland-based freelance writer and photographer with a knack for all things Oregon.

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