Peanut butter and jelly, cookies and cream, burgers and fries, bacon and eggs: perhaps no two other foods have quite the love story as bacon and eggs. Of all American breakfast foods, this flavor combination is likely to result in flavorful memories of meals with the family and even some consumer obsession (think bacon mania). So how did the breakfast power couple come to be? It’s all thanks to the science of nutrition, cooking, and a little bit of advertising. Here’s how their love story unfolded.
The idea to pair bacon and eggs didn’t come from a doctor, but rather a PR mastermind.
A combination of meat and eggs had been consumed in the West for centuries, often early in the day, but this meal didn’t become a permanent fixture in our hearts until more recently. The idea of breakfast had its ups and downs: Because of a religious aversion to gluttony in the Middle Ages, fasting was prescribed in the mornings, followed by meals and snacks at mid-day and at night. According to historian Ian Mortimer, those who did eat breakfast were typically travelers, laborers, the elderly, and anyone who needed to be awake earlier in the day, but this meal didn’t become the norm for all until much later.
The introduction of chocolate to Europe created such a craze among the upper classes, according to The Atlantic, that the Catholic Church was forced to declare the drinking of liquids like chocolate, coffee, and tea acceptable to the fast. This toleration of the morning meal helped make it a part of everyday life, particularly for workers during the eventual Industrial Revolution.
Physicians had been saying for centuries how important a morning meal could be to good health — one 17th-century doctor actually recommended bacon, poached eggs, buttered bread, and wine first thing in the morning — but they weren’t taken seriously until the 1800s. Once breakfast became known as “the most important meal of the day,” heartier and heartier meals began finding their way to the table.
But the actual matchmaking between bacon and eggs was the result of a PR stunt — and not a true health mandate. The Beech-Nut Packing Company, a producer of many foods including chewing gum, peanut butter, ketchup, and ham, hired PR consultant Edward Bernays in the 1920s. His charge? Increase consumer demand for bacon. Bernays — the nephew of Sigmund Freud — and his agency researched American eating habits and found that most Americans were used to very light breakfasts. Beech-Nut’s internal doctor suggested that a heavier breakfast would be healthier “because the body loses energy during the night and needs it during the day.”
The doctor’s thoughts — backed by a “survey” of 5,000 other physicians — were circulated in multiple newspapers around the country to resounding success. “Many of them stated that bacon and eggs should be embodied with the breakfast and, as a result, the sale of bacon went up,” Bernays described the campaign.
Eggs were promoted for their high nutrient quality and protein.
As breakfast became a standard part of the day for American families, hearty foods were crucial for farmers, factory workers, and those who needed energy for a full day’s work. Enter the egg: Not only were eggs often cheaper than meat, they were also a direct source of nutrients and protein. In fact, the biological value of the egg — a measure of a food item’s protein with regard to how well it keeps the body growing and healthy — shows that it includes all of the essential (and nonessential) amino acids. In other words, it’s the perfect source of protein, which you need for muscle mass, immunity, and functioning organ systems.
Despite all the claims that eggs are bad for your heart, more recent scientific research shows the opposite. Eggs help with weight loss, improve cholesterol, include antioxidants that protect your eyesight, and provide critical nutrients for brain development. It’s no wonder that even the Romans tried to include eggs in their morning meal whenever possible.
And even though eggs may be called bland on their own, their fats and chemical compounds interact with other ingredients for, ahem, egg-ceptional taste results. Eggs act as a binder of ingredients, and egg whites help to preserve gas bubbles, which is essential to baking. Just think: Eggs allow you to eat not just omelets, but also bread, baked goods, custards, soups, pasta, and more dishes you make every day.
Sweet and smoky, fatty and buttery — the taste of bacon is all thanks to chemistry.
And then there’s the true hero of the story. Picture this: the sizzle of bacon on a pan, that smoky scent that lures you out of your slumber. It’s your typical all-American breakfast scene on television, but it captures an arguably regular occurrence in U.S. households. And it should be no surprise why so many Americans adore bacon; it’s all in the details — or rather, the science. According to the BBC, organic chemist and food scientist Guy Crosby describes four parts of the curing process that give bacon its beloved flavor:
- Curing salts are applied to the pork belly, which allows for the fat to have just the right chemical reactions for cooking.
- The cured pork bellies are then smoked over a wood fire, taking on both the acrid and sweet flavors of the wood.
- The fat from the pork is rendered into bacon grease, releasing three key compounds that create a mix of flavors: Aldehyde creates the earthy flavors, furan adds nutty flavors, and ketone adds buttery flavors.
- Finally, the Maillard chemical reaction — typical for meats, baked goods, chocolate and more — takes place between the sugars and amino acids, giving the meat a brown color and caramelized flavor.
All of these glorious flavors fuse together to create the aroma and taste that you’re probably dreaming of right now.
The secret to the synergy between bacon and eggs? Umami.
Since ancient Greece, taste has been traditionally thought of in four basic categories — sweet, sour, salty, and bitter — but a fifth category, umami, was discovered by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. It’s often described as a savory or meaty flavor and roughly translates to “deliciousness” in Japanese (really). Umami is found in glutamate molecules and several nucleotide molecules (inosinate, guanylate and adenylate). The concept of umami synergy combines the glutamate and nucleotide for maximum umami flavor. According to biophysics expert and food scientist Ole Mouritsen, as quoted in Epicurious and Popular Science, this synergy accounts for eight times the flavor of glutamate alone. Since most foods have just one type of umami (with the exception of tomatoes and nori), you have to combine ingredients to get the extra flavor punch.
And guess what food pairing has that umami synergy? That’s right, our favorite couple: bacon and eggs. There’s no denying the chemistry between bacon and eggs; bacon has nucleotide molecules, and eggs have glutamate molecules. The science behind these foods has always been bound to bring them together in perfect breakfast harmony. Whether in a breakfast sandwich, an omelet, or even a baked casserole, bacon and eggs have been joined in a flavorful matrimony that can’t be beat.