In Honor Of National Chocolate Day, Here Are The Strangest Things We Know About Chocolate
Chocolate plus science makes for guaranteed headlines. Flavonols, compounds in the cacao bean, are the current target of gigantic studies focusing on the possible health benefits of chocolate, for everything from cardiovascular health to cancer; but anything linking chocolate, which is definitely the opiate of the masses these days, with human betterment is guaranteed to be a journalistic bonanza. Friday is National Chocolate Day, and the chocolate market in the United States alone is predicted to reach $25 billion in 2019, so we're all desperate to know that there might be a good side to this extraordinarily common snack, and other scientific aspects of its deliciousness. Science has been more than happy to oblige, sometimes in very odd ways.
The extent of the frenzy can sometimes be pretty damaging for science's reputation. In 2015, the science journalist John Bohannon deliberately spread a hugely flawed study about chocolate's potential to help people lose weight, through the world's media and then revealed it as a scam. He conducted the study himself, which had conclusions about the tie between chocolate and weight loss that could be torn apart in about three seconds, sent it out into the world without peer review, and watched the world's journalists eat it up (with red faces, once they found out they'd been scammed). Bohannon's point was a wider one about journalistic standards in reporting science, but it also highlights something interesting: chocolate news, particularly anything giving it positive effects, will always catch the eye of the public.
Here are five of the strangest studies about chocolate.
We're Discriminatory About Chocolate's Origins
Our perceptions about the "best" regions in the world for chocolate are often pretty fixed: Swiss, Italian, and Belgian artisanal chocolatiers come up top, while single-origin cacao beans from places like Ecuador also tend to rate very highly. But, realistically, as chocolate skills become international and it's gradually easier for places to get their hands on top-quality beans even in far-flung locations, this may no longer be completely accurate. And a study in 2011 found that we're unwilling to let go of those old-fashioned perceptions even in the face of direct evidence that "other" chocolate might be better.
China's chocolate market has faced difficulty; it was reported in early 2016 that Chinese consumers prefer foreign chocolates to domestic artisanal brands, often because of concerns about food safety. And the news doesn't get better overseas. Students given an unmarked block of chocolate from Trader Joe's were told, either before or after they had eaten it, that it was from Switzerland or China, and then asked to rate it. Those who were told beforehand that it was Swiss rated it more highly than those who were told it was Chinese, presumably because of cultural ideas about Swiss chocolate being "better." But those who were told after tasting it actually preferred the "Chinese" chocolate to the "Swiss" one. They had the same results when the chocolate was "expensive" or "cheap": students were less likely to say they'd enjoyed it if they were told it was expensive AFTER they'd eaten it. Expand your mind: chocolate from diverse places might be amazing, and it's just your old-fashioned prejudices telling you otherwise.
People Who Prefer Dark Chocolate Tolerate Bitterness Twice As Well
It turns out that, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Dairy Sciences, there's a direct link between our personal tastes in milk or dark solid chocolate and how much bitterness we can tolerate in dark chocolate ice cream. This is pretty intuitive; people who love really dark chocolate are clearly not just in it for the sugar-sweetness of the whole endeavor. (I'm a 100 percent chocolate person, myself.)
But the scientists involved wanted to make sure, so they gave chocolate samples to 96 people between the ages of 18 to 45 (none of whom smoked, which can harm the taste buds), noted which one they preferred, and then offered them increasingly bitter ice cream samples. The samples had been spiked with increasing amounts of a substance called sucrose octaacetate, and the participants were asked to "tap out" when they'd basically reached their bitterness threshold. Surprise: the ones who'd preferred dark chocolate were able to handle almost twice the amount of bitterness in their ice cream.
You Can Check Chocolate Quality With An Ultrasound
This seems completely bonkers but is actually very practical for makers of artisanal, high-end chocolate: monitoring the crystallization of cocoa butter, which is a key aspect of extremely high-quality chocolate, can now be done via ultrasound, according to Belgian science released earlier in 2016. National Geographic , commenting on the ultrasound process, explained that, "depending on the temperature, cocoa butter crystallizes into any one of six different forms, only one of which (Form V) is desirable, generating just the right degree of shininess, melt-in-your-mouth yumminess, and satisfying snap when you break it that high-quality chocolate makers require."
The current tests for Form V mean taking some chocolate samples out of the production line and testing them in a laboratory, risking the viability of the whole batch as they wait for results. Ultrasounds, according to the Belgian scientists who tested the idea, gives a much more accurate way of assessing when Form V has occurred without needing to remove anything; it saves time, money, and chocolate.
We Only Now Understand The Physics Of A Chocolate Fountain
Chocolate fountains: the preserve of weddings, bar mitzvahs, and fancy baby showers everywhere, and, apparently, an utter mystery to physicists until a study released in 2015 explained them. It seems that chocolate doesn't do what other fountains do in a similar scenario: water would just fall straight down in a curtain, while chocolate actually "pulls inwards," which is what makes chocolate fountains a lot less messy and easier to control than, say, raspberry lemonade fountains. The reason appears to be surface tension, and the mathematician behind the problem explored the many different factors that influence chocolate fountain shape, from the fat content of the chocolate (less than 30 percent fat and it flows more easily) to the fact that chocolate is a non-Newtonian fluid whose flow is impacted by stress. Whether this will lead to bigger and more complex chocolate fountain developments remains to be seen.
The Smell Of Chocolate Cake Definitely Sells More Cake
The notion of sprinkling scent around commercial areas isn't new: Japanese shops in particular use pine smells to help staff attention, according to the BBC. But a 2014 study about chocolate cake may introduce a new era into food journalism: scratch-and-sniff chocolate advertisements. In the study, the scientists gave participants the phrase "Feel like a chocolate cake?", with some also getting a picture of a chocolate cake. They were then either offered a sachet smelling like chocolate cake, told to imagine its smell, or not told to do anything. The results were intriguing: the people who smelled the cake salivated more, indicating more of a desire and hunger, but people also salivated a lot if they were given just the image and the tagline. Traditional advertising, it seems, does work; but it might be enhanced by a little eau de chocolat between the pages of your local gourmet magazine.
Images: Pixabay; Giphy