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Have scientists invented “super-chocolate”?

by on 2015/08/28

A thundering headline from the Daily Mail reads “We could soon be indulging in SUPER-CHOCOLATE: Scientists tweak ingredients at molecular level to help create perfect recipe”. Reading this headline, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is a hi-tech laboratory experiment, with a team of scientists labouring over a vat of deliciously superior chocolate, tinkering with individual molecules of chocolate for a perfect taste (I personally am immediately taken back to Gene Wilder’s peerless performance of Willy Wonka). The facts are perhaps less dramatic, but still an important advance to producing better chocolate in industrial quantities.

What did the Researchers Do?

The “tweaking” of ingredients at the molecular level were in fact carried out in a computer. Molecular dynamics simulations were used to study lecithin, a term that refers to a group of compounds that are added to chocolate during conching. Conching is a refining process, where the chocolate is repeatedly mashed at temperatures of 70 – 80 degrees centigrade, which helps the fats in the cocoa butter to mix well with the cocoa solids. Lecithin assists the process by reducing the viscosity of the chocolate, i.e. making it runnier, which helps the mixing process. A well conched chocolate has a pleasant texture or “mouthfeel”, and has an improved flavour.

It is this process that the scientists wanted to study in their simulations, as how lecithin compounds actually help conching is quite unclear. They studied the behaviour of various lecithin compounds as they interacted with a sucrose crystal surface inside the cocoa butter. This is only one aspect of the lecithin’s interaction with the cocoa butter during conching – these simulations were only able to model limited aspects of the process, as the timescale of conching (minutes to hours) is much longer than the timescales that these simulations can explore (billionths of a second!).

The simulations gave important data on how much energy is required for the lecithin molecules to extract themselves from the sucrose. This information can only really be accessed by simulations, not laboratory experiments. This still remains only part of the conching process –  the authors themselves stated:

Multi-scale modelling, where MD is an important part of the toolbox, seems to be the most promising approach gain new insight into food processes when experiments come to their limits.

In simpler terms, molecular dynamics models need to be accompanied by other chemical interaction models to really understand the full process of refining chocolate.

What Did The Media Say?

The Mail’s bombastic headline of super-chocolate appears quite overblown given the subject matter. The press release gives no indication that the authors were attempting to draw up a winning formula, as is hinted at in the text.

The article does mention other teams trying to improve chocolate recipes, but their tweaking of ingredients is arguably not occurring “at the molecular level” (they are experimenting with the fermentation of the cacao beans at a much earlier stage of the chocolate manufacturing process). The actual description of the simulation research, and the researchers’ discoveries, is relatively accurate and insightful.

This is an example of a single headline referring to multiple research stories. The headline describes parts of the article relatively accurately but is confusing and inaccurate if applied to the wrong parts. Readers should beware that a news story about research can sometimes be an amalgam of several research stories, which can result in over the top headlines like this one above, which spoils what is actually a well written article. The box insert about “chocolate making you younger” deserves a post of its own…

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