Beat the Heat: Investigating Garlic Powder

The ingredients list as seen on a typical bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Snacking is a quintessential pastime in American culture. At many times, we have seen ourselves mindlessly reaching for the nearest box of Cheez-Its simply because, well, we need something to reduce our cravings before our next main meal. And the snack companies are aware of our almost subconscious cravings such that the potato chip company, Lay’s has its slogan as “Betcha can’t eat just one,” essentially taunting the hunger-stricken American public in the process. Personally, a favorite snack of mine is a nice bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. This modern delicacy is extremely addicting, and as its name implies, is intensely spicy, so much that your nose might drip a bit as you inhale the strong spices in the bag. Curious to why this snack caused this reaction in me, I decided to ask the heads at Frito-Lay themselves about their product. What ingredients in the Cheetos make this notorious spicy flavor? I wrote to them:

I was eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos the other day, and I took a look at the ingredients list because I was curious at what spices made the Cheetos so hot. I specifically noted the onion powder, garlic powder, and natural flavor. Is the spiciness of your product because of these three ingredients or are there others on the list to enhance the spicy flavor? Also, I was wondering what is ”natural flavor” and what is it made up of? Thanks so much, hope to hear from you soon! 

Frito-Lay replied with the following:

Thank you for writing to us. 

The “heat” in Cheetos Crunchy Flamin’ Hot is a secret–and that’s why it’s included under “natural flavors.” Using terms like “spices” and “natural flavors” on ingredient statements, is the way food companies protect their proprietary recipes. 

You’re right about the other seasonings like garlic and onion (two ingredients that must always be listed when used). They are included in the seasoning to enhance the flavor.

We consider you a valued consumer and hope you will continue to enjoy snacks from Frito-Lay. 

Best regards,

Linda

Frito-Lay Consumer Relations

It was understandable for Linda to not disclose what exactly is “natural flavor,” but nevertheless, I could deduce that the garlic and onion powder contribute to the Cheetos’ distinct flavor. And with this information, let’s look into the contents of specifically, garlic powder.

The Chemistry of Garlic Powder

Biologically active (or “bioactive”) components are the biomolecules that are responsible for influencing the various metabolic processes in foods. It is because of these bioactive food components that foods display their health benefits. For example, bioactive compounds such as dietary fiber found in many fruits and vegetables such as apples, broccoli, and carrots allow for capturing of harmful toxins in the digestive tract. Once completing its function in the digestive tract, this all-important bioactive food component consequently prevents constipation in the body and possibly even lowering one’s risk of heart disease or diabetes. Garlic powder is an interesting ingredient in that it does not actually contain the major biologically active component of garlic, allicin. In fact, fresh garlic in general does not directly contain allicin either! This apparent commodity can all be explained once the intricate chemistry of garlic is investigated.

A visual representation of the chemical reaction that forms allicin from alliin.

Within a sample of fresh garlic is a chemical known as alliin, which is its natural constituent. In addition, the enzyme, alliinase, is also found in fresh garlic. Like most enzymes, alliinase acts as a catalyst in a chemical reaction. Because the alliinase molecule acts as the catalyst, it would consequently lower the activation energy of the reaction to speed up the process. In this case, it would speed up the creation of allicin.

However, alliinase acts in perhaps the most important chemical reaction regarding fresh garlic. As we all know, garlic is noted for its strong smell and flavor, but most notably, its ability to generate tears when cut. Chemicals that give garlic these distinct qualities are supplied via this reaction between alliin and alliinase. Alliinase is released and subsequently reacts with alliin to make the aforementioned component allicin. Of course, the evident ambiguity of all these terms makes the reaction somewhat difficult to comprehend, but from a wider perspective, it really is nothing we haven’t seen before. As a matter of fact, this conversion to allicin actually occurs when you cut or crush garlic with a knife! This explains the tear effect, as it is when garlic is cut that its bioactive component, allicin finally appears.

 The act of chopping or crushing garlic releases the allicin in the cloves of garlic.

Once the allicin is produced, it will take a short time for the odor from the garlic to go away. As it turns out, allicin has quite a short half-life (2.5 days at 23°C,  to be exact!). It can be assumed that the reaction is first order with respect to allicin, since the half-life is constant at certain temperatures and not dependent on the initial amount of allicin produced. This is convenient for the production of allicin, as it helps to maintain the preservation of alliinase and alliin so more future allicin can be produced. This allicin production occurs very quickly and within a small surface area of the clove (where the garlic is being cut), meanwhile the alliinase and alliin remain sustained in other parts of the clove. In other words, even though allicin generates a large amount of odor albeit briefly, as long as the alliinase and alliin persist in their respective section of the clove, then allicin can continue being made repeatedly.

Moving Forward with Allicin

In this video, a man gives a humorous account of how he tried to make allicin by directly consuming cloves of garlic.

Now knowing that allicin is produced when garlic is chopped or crushed, it would probably not be a very good idea to chew garlic directly, especially multiple cloves. Obviously, for the man in the video who tried to receive the effects of allicin directly in the body, it did not turn out too well as he received nausea as a result. There could be a possibility that this is why even though garlic powder does not contain allicin, it still achieves intense flavor and odor when consumed. Ingesting allicin in large amounts would cause potential uncomfortability in the body but not when derived into its chemicals such as alliinase and alliin as is with garlic powder in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos  and other garlic supplements in other food products. Garlic powder achieves similar effects to garlic but none that would be seriously detrimental to the body. With this, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos can acknowledge garlic powder’s contents for its intense heat, advantageously applying bioactive components of garlic for its effect. It is something to keep in mind for the next time you mindlessly munch on this interesting snack.

Even Katy Perry can’t deny the delicious taste of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos!

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