Science of a Christmas Dinner

21st December 2020

The fascinating food science behind your festive meal

One of the many delights of the holidays is tucking into a delicious Christmas dinner. Have you ever wondered though what the Christmas dinner of tomorrow might look like, or the health benefits of those best-loved festive dishes? Dig into the science behind your favourite (and not-so favourite) Christmas staples, and what the future holds for these festive foods…

No sprout about it, it’s time to tuck into cruciferous vegetables!

Whether you love them or loathe them, Brussels sprouts are a great source of essential vitamins. One serving of 8 sprouts (166g) provides 170% of your daily requirement of vitamin K and 75% of your vitamin C. They also contain 4.3g of fibre – which is 17% of your RI. Studies have also shown that cruciferous vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, may reduce the risk of prostate cancer [i], bladder cancer [ii], breast cancer [iii], and other conditions. We have collected together many of the papers relating to the effects of cruciferous vegetables.

Cruciferous vegetables of the Brassica family also include broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflowers. Scientists at the Quadram Institute are particularly interested in the health benefits of broccoli. PhD student Gemma Beasy’s current work focuses on understanding how bioactives in foods, such as those present in broccoli, prevent prostate cancer progression and her undergraduate project on understanding how dietary sulforaphane, present in broccoli, influences AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) in liver cancer won the Top Project Award from the Royal Society of Biology in 2019. Federico Bernuzzi similarly is looking at the mechanisms by which the consumption of cruciferous vegetables are associated with reduced risk of metabolic disorders such as cancers and cardiovascular diseases, which is still unclear. Federico’s project focuses on studying the importance of NRF2 activation in mediating changes in liver metabolic pathways that can maintain health.

Christmas Spudding

Stocked up on one too many spuds? It happens to the best of us. The potato is one of the world’s most important food crops, but in most growing regions it is only harvested once a year. A proportion of tubers must therefore be stored efficiently to ensure there are enough provisions to last until the next harvest. Back in 2018 Postgraduate student Jessica Garnett and the Quadram’s Prof Kate Kemsley set out a novel method to judge the state of commercially stored potatoes by looking at their response to light. [iv]

This doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with all those extra spuds though! Well, worry not, because there are multiple ways to use those potatoes for festive leftovers and easily calculate the nutritional value. From roasting to mashed and duchess, the Food Databanks National Capability (FDNC) have the nutritional value on a variety of spud recipes. It’s worth noting that the type of fat and oil you cook potatoes in will affect their nutritional levels. Which leads us to a very important question – just how much fat is in the typical Christmas dinner? Last year Dr Maria Traka teamed up with Anglian Water and TV presenter Mark Thompson to answer this very question, as well as calculate how far it would take you if you used it as fuel for your car.

It’s time to give peas a chance this Christmas

Yes peas to wrinkly peas! Working with the John Innes Centre, Imperial College London, and the University of Glasgow, scientists have developed a type of wrinkled ‘super pea’ that may help control blood sugar levels and could reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. The work, published in the journal Nature Food and funded by the BBSRC, focused on a naturally occurring type of pea [v]. Unlike regular peas, they contain higher amounts of ‘resistant starch’, which takes longer for the body to break down. The scientists suggest incorporating the peas into processed foods, in the form of pea flour, may help tackle the global type 2 diabetes epidemic. Find out more about the study in our detailed blog.

Turkey or Festive Furkey?

Whilst we’ve covered the vegetables, there’s one more important question that rules the arrangements each year – what’s going to be the main? If you’ve plumped for Turkey, our Food Databanks National Capability (FDNC) have the low-down on the nutritional value. A large portion (140g) provides 87% of your recommended daily intake of protein and 140% RI vitamin B3. Yet whilst a roast Turkey leg contains 6.6% fat, roast breast contains significantly less, only 2% fat. FNDC has had a bit of festive fun with a few hints and tips if you wanted to use the calculation method to produce a nutrition label content for your Christmas fare.

But what if all you want for Christmas is a sustainable, plant-based alternative? Mycoprotein is a food ingredient used in all the meat replacement products branded as Quorn™. PhD student Raffaele is researching the health benefits of mycoprotein, particularly how it influences digestion. Apart from the lower environmental impact compared to meat, studies suggest that the mycoprotein structure, which is determined by fibrous cell walls, may have a pivotal role in influencing the digestion of fats and carbohydrates in the upper gut. This may result in health benefits that reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes. Plus, there’s plenty of ideas to inspire you for a truly festive Christmas dinner, from a ‘mince’ wellington to a Quorn and Chestnut loaf!


The festive season is rooted in culinary traditions, but that’s not to say you can’t shake things up with a non-traditional take on the annual dinner – the phenomenon in Japan of tucking into KFC for Christmas recently made headlines, and around the world people celebrate Christmas by feasting on everything from goose to whale blubber. Whatever you decide upon for your festive feast, our scientists are working all year round to innovate the food we eat and enhance its quality to promote lifelong health. Happy Holidays!


List of References

[i] Joseph, M. A., K. B. Moysich, J. L. Freudenheim, P. G. Shields, E. D. Bowman, Y. Zhang, J. R. Marshall, and C. B. Ambrosone. “Cruciferous Vegetables, Genetic Polymorphisms in Glutathione S-Transferases M1 and T1, and Prostate Cancer Risk.” Nutr Cancer 50, no. 2 (2004): 206-13.

[ii] Lin, J., A. Kamat, J. Gu, M. Chen, C. P. Dinney, M. R. Forman, and X. Wu. “Dietary Intake of Vegetables and Fruits and the Modification Effects of Gstm1 and Nat2 Genotypes on Bladder Cancer Risk.” Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 18, no. 7 (Jul 2009): 2090-7.

[iii] Fowke, J. H., Chung, F. L., Jin, F., Qi, D., Cai, Q., Conaway, C., Cheng, J. R., Shu, X. O., Gao, Y. T. and Zheng, W. (2003)  “Urinary Isothiocyanate Levels, Brassica, and Human Breast Cancer ”

[iv] Jessica M.R. Garnett, Nikolaus Wellner, Andrew G. Mayes, Gerard Downey, and E. Kate Kemsley. “Using induced chlorophyll production to monitor the physiological state of stored potatoes (Solanum tuberosum L.).” Postharvest Biology and Technology, Volume 145 (2018): 222-229

[v] Petropoulou, K., Salt, L.J., Edwards, C.H. et al. “A natural mutation in Pisum sativum L. (pea) alters starch assembly and improves glucose homeostasis in humans”. Nat Food 1, 693–704 (2020).

Related Targets

Targeting Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular Disease

Targeting food composition

Food Composition

Targeting Future Foods

Future Foods

Targeting personalised nutrition

Personalised Nutrition

Related Research Groups

Narbad group

Arjan Narbad

Kemsley group

Kate Kemsley

Maria Traka

fruit and vegetables

Paul Finglas

Related Research Areas

Research area: Food innovation

Food Innovation and Health