Food science unravels chocolate’s sensual, sustainable mysteries

Closeup of several individual pieces of chocolate.
Chocolate candies have been a Valentine's delight for more than 150 years. Food scientists study how chocolate interacts with our senses and find ways to make confections more sustainable. Photo by WSU Photo Services.

Like love itself, chocolate can give us a boost, satisfy our spirits, and may help us live longer. It’s not a perfect food, but food scientists try to make it better.

“Chocolate is a luxury item, worthy of giving as a gift,” said Soo-Yeun Lee, director of Washington State University’s School of Food Science. “In ancient times, dating back to 450 BCE, chocolate was served and consumed as a drink, and it was only available to royalty.”

At WSU, scientists and students are unraveling the mysteries of foods like chocolate, studying what happens to our senses when we pop treats into our mouths. They are also developing healthy and sustainable ways to enjoy our favorites. 

Chocolate has long been associated with love. For the ancient Mayans, cacao was held sacred and used as part of marriage ceremonies. Once claimed as an aphrodisiac, cocoa contains theobromine, phenylethylamine, and tryptophan — stimulants or building blocks of feel-good hormones like serotonin that are released when we fall in love.

“Serotonin gives us relaxed, good feelings, which can relate to chocolate being associated with feeling of love,” Lee said. “Also, many of us reach out for a piece of chocolate when we feel anxious or stressed to counteract these feelings with serotonin release.

“Serotonin gives us relaxed, good feelings, which can relate to chocolate being associated with feeling of love.”

Soo-Yeun Lee, director
WSU School of Food Science

“A piece of chocolate can wake you up,” she added. It naturally contains caffeine, though in much less quantity than coffee — ideal for a pick-me-up without the jitters or sleeplessness. Flavonoids and antioxidants in dark chocolate may also help our bodies stay healthy — though the confections themselves are high in sugar and saturated fat. 

Chocolate’s smooth gloss hides another surprising secret. The hard, shiny coating found on many products is edible shellac, typically referred to as confectioner’s glaze.

“It’s safe to consume,” Lee said. Like all natural shellac products, confectioner’s glaze is made from the resin secretions of the lac beetle, found in India and Thailand. It takes tens of thousands of beetles to make a pound of resin, which is imported and processed using alcohol to produce the glaze. 

“As it is a completely imported product, it’s expensive, and the amount available fluctuates yearly,” Lee said. “And, because it is alcohol-based, it creates volatile organic compounds during the process, which are released in the atmosphere and create concerns of environmental sustainability.”

Earlier in her career, Lee set out to develop a more sustainable edible coating made from whey protein, a dairy product used in foods and supplements that can be sourced domestically. The protein jacket performed similarly to glaze, offering an alternative for bulk products. Its faint dairy flavor vanished in chocolate’s taste and aroma.

“Chocolate has a very long shelf life,” Lee said. Kept in a cool, dry place, it can last for a decade. “What really determines when it will deteriorate are the nuts, which can lose their appealing quality much sooner than chocolate.”

Used on peanuts as part of ingredients in confections, the whey coating significantly increased shelf life. Consumers who tasted the candies found them comparable to glazed products. 

Chocolate is an ideal product for recruiting tasters for a sensory panel.

“When I used chocolate in my taste test panel, everybody wanted to participate, so it was very easy to recruit panelists,” Lee said.

But the inquiry itself is what interests food scientists like her. Each discovery leads to new and surprising questions.

“Food science is a scientific discipline in pursuit of truth and new discoveries in the realm of food, which is a necessity in our lives and intertwined with our culture,” Lee said. “There is so much more for us to learn about food and a wealth of career opportunities as professionals in the area of food science.”

The WSU School of Food Science is made up of scholars exploring the chemistry, microbiology, engineering, and sensory science of food, enhancing food safety, quality, and security. The School encompasses the WSU Creamery, where students produce the famous Cougar Gold cheese and award-winning ice creams while building valuable career skills. Learn more at sfs.wsu.edu.

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