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UD students explore the lure of chocolate

NEWARK, DE.-- In a University of Delaware’s honors colloquium on chocolate, all 20 student chocolate-tasters agree: Dutch-process cocoa is not a chocoholic’s dream. One dab of the dark brown powder on their tongues sends them dashing for palate-cleansing water and saltine crackers. They grimace in surprise. How could chocolate taste like this?

Sherry Kitto, UD professor of plant and soil sciences who developed the course, isn’t surprised. The alkali-processed cocoa is bitter and unsweetened, she said, not at all like the Hershey Kiss or the other piece of chocolate candy the students have just tasted.

"They’re finding out there’s a whole other world of chocolate from what they are used to," she said with a laugh. Her plant science honors colloquium on chocolate, she said, will widen their horizons.

Who wouldn’t want to take an honors colloquium that requires you to eat chocolate? Not Jed Dooley, a freshman majoring in economics. "It rocks!" he said. "The taste tests are why I signed up."

Students will compile individual reports on the taste-testing, or "sensory evaluation" results, discussed in groups of five and recorded after each test session. The tests are conducted scientifically, comparing the Hershey’s Kiss with a different milk chocolate each week.

"Students rate each specimen with descriptors such as ‘burnt,’ ‘fruity/salty,’ or ‘toasted’ to describe aroma; and ‘bitter,’ ‘salty,’ ‘sour’ or ‘sweet’ to describe taste," Kitto said. "They examine appearance, texture and chemical feeling factors as well."
Electrical engineering major Phil Wilcox has a different take. "Everyone likes eating chocolate," he says. "What I like about this class is how we look at chocolate from so many different angles."

These different angles include the origin and horticulture of Theobroma cacao—the South American tree that bears cocoa beans—as well as the chemistry of chocolate and its nutritional value (good news: it has nutritional value!), how chocolate is produced, its social and financial implications and its use in cuisine.

Most of the coursework—half of each class—is focused on the horticulture and botany of chocolate, according to Kitto, who teaches everything from what the fruit looks like (it is the shape and size of almonds) to production issues to lessons in tissue culture.

Students also learn such chocolate "facts" as which national landmark had a chocolate bar named after it (Old Faithful), and they share experiences stemming from their own love of chocolate. Students even discuss the UN conference on trade and development, which reviewed the regulatory standards for importing chocolate.

"We’re exploring all the things about chocolate that make it so desirable, irresistible, universally appealing and yummy," Kitto said.

Reading and writing

But it’s not all cocoa and Kisses. In addition to spending part of each Friday in sensory evaluation, these first-year honors students must complete a group project related to the taste tests. They also must read four chocolate-related books, fiction and nonfiction, and complete a writing requirement for the class.

Among the selections are such books as "The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the secret world of Hershey and Mars," by Joël Glenn Brenner and "The True History of Chocolate," by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe to "Chocolat," a novel by Joanne Harris.

Through the University Honors Program, Kitto explained that her colloquium has a writing fellow, an upperclass honors student. Kitto’s students write three papers (one creative, one research and one that compares and contrasts Hershey and Mars chocolates) that are edited by the fellow. When the writing fellow returns the edited paper and reviews the critique with the student, the student rewrites the paper, and then Kitto combines it with others from the class for a final information resource on chocolate.

The course draws students from all majors, Kitto said. "Engineers can explore the mechanics of making and packaging chocolate. Business majors discover how the big candy companies market different kinds of chocolate to various target audiences. Veterinary students can research why chocolate is toxic to some animals. Of the 20 students in my colloquium, eight are engineers, five are business majors and the rest are divided among a variety of majors."

Class trips

An added feature of the course is a trip to Wilbur Chocolates, in Lititz, Pa.; and to two local candy factories: The Swiss Chocolatier Factory Store in Oxford, Pa., producer of Neuchatel Chocolates; and Thomson Candies in Avondale, Pa.

According to Kitto, the Oxford candy maker has four retail stores in New York City and one in the Middle East. The price of specialty chocolate-covered figs and dates in the Middle East?

"$100 a pound," Kitto said, noting, "We are very spoiled in the United States."

Business major Kara Sylvis sums up the students’ reactions to the chocolate course: "When do you have a chance to study in such depth something everybody loves?"

Chocolate nutrition: good news and bad

Despite many exciting nutritional findings about chocolate, researchers reluctantly agree: Eating chocolate will never help you to lose weight.

"Chocolate packs a whooping 1,000 calories per 8 ounce chocolate bar!" Cathy Davies, animal and food sciences, said. "The milk chocolate eaten by most Americans is high in fat with few essential nutrients. It is, however, rich in carbohydrates, as well as protein, and is an excellent source of quick energy."

Some wonderful news, however, is that even though high in saturated fat, cocoa butter may be good for you.

"Recent research indicates that 35 percent of the fatty acid in chocolate is stearic acid, which we now know can help to lower total blood cholesterol," she said.

Stearic acid, in fact, has been called a "unique" saturated fat because, unlike other saturated fats such as those in butter, stearic acid does not raise blood cholesterol levels. Not only does it not raise LDL-cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) levels, but it actually increases HDL-cholesterol (the good cholesterol) levels.

The news keeps getting better, Davies explained, noting that researchers also have found chocolate to be rich in phytochemicals–the plant compounds in soy, black tea, red wine, broccoli and cranberry juice that have been shown to be impressively beneficial to human health.

"Procyanidins–the particular compounds in chocolate–are antioxidants that potentially reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. And, the darker the chocolate, the more antioxidants."

It’s not at all surprising that chocolate currently is linked to medicinal uses; actually it’s an example of history repeating itself. The medicinal use of chocolate and cocoa dates back at least 500 years, all throughout Europe and the Americas. Chocolate–made from the fruit of Theobroma cacao, which translates from Greek as "food of the Gods"–has long been used both as primary medicine and as a vehicle to deliver other medicines, Davies said..

"The studies on chocolate phytochemicals still are very preliminary and it will be exciting to see what the research shows next," she said. "I find it especially interesting that cocoa butter is solid–even brittle–at room temperature, but then can melt in your mouth. There’s lots of interesting science there."

Facts for chocolate lovers

Did you know?

  • An estimated 35 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate were sold for Valentine’s Day in 2000.
  • Projected sales of candy for Valentine’s Day 2001 total $1.085 million.
  • About 3.3 billion pounds of chocolate are consumed annually in the United States, reflecting $8.4 billion wholesale dollars and $13 billion in retail sales.

A survey conducted by the Chocolate Manufacturers Association indicates that 50 percent of women plan to give chocolate to a guy for Valentine’s Day, but 64 percent of men make no plans in advance for a romantic Valentine’s Day.

SOURCE: Chocolate Manufacturers Association/National Confectioners Association; 7900 Westpark Blvd., Suite A 320; McLean, Virginia 22102.

Contact: Beth Thomas (302) 831-8749
Pat McAdams (302) 831-1356

Feb. 5, 2001