Hidden secrets of chocolate unveiled at the American University in Cairo

Ingy Deif, Wednesday 25 Feb 2015

Crowds gather to listen to an Egyptian professor talking about the marvels of chocolate and the secret to our infatuation with it

Photo: AUC
Dr Adham Ramadan at AUC

"We have never seen the place so full of people, compared with other events at the same hall. People are literally cramming in side- ways."

These were the words of some attendants in the back rows of the American University in Cairo's Oriental Hall, standing on their toes and stretching their ears to listen carefully to the speaker.
The reason for that was obvious.
The topic was the discussion of one of the heavenly indulgences, whose love -simply put- unites the world: the once dubbed ' Food of Gods'. Chocolate.
On February the 23rd, attendants flocked early to listen to Adham Ramadan, dean of the graduate studies and professor in the department of chemistry at the American University in Cairo.
Titled: 'Chocolate as the Science of Indulgence' , the lecture explained the scientific fundamentals behind our enjoyment of chocolate and the role played by science in the transformations undergone by chocolate over the centuries from being an Aztec venerated drink to its current world consumption as a confectionery.
Magical components
"The pleasure generated from devouring a bar of chocolate is a result of the ingredients within. Each component is responsible for triggering a pleasure spot, and the result is the pleasure you feel, and in some very high quality, even a buzz," Ramadan said, stating that it was dubbed as 'The food of Gods' by our ancestors. He specified the magical components of chocolate as follows:
First, and most importantly, Cocoa. How does the flavor come through? Cocoa beans go through a series of preparations. They get fermented, dried, roasted, and crushed.
Roasting is very important because it triggers the chemical reaction that unleashes the taste, the same as what occurs with coffee beans.
Then comes the second most pivotal element: Fats.
Typically, 25% to 35% of solid chocolate are composed of fats. These are a mixture of cocoa butter, milk fats and other vegetable fats.
In the process of manufacturing, it is important to make sure that the fat molecules realign together to produce this luster and shine.
It is very important to coat all particles with this fat, as this is what actually creates the "flowing and melting" feeling in the mouth, and prevents the chocolate from becoming granular.
The third component is sugar. It is the cheapest ingredient in the bar, and makes up to 50% of the chocolate.
Sugar is quite important. It overcomes the bitterness of chocolate, and it traps the volatile flavor of cocoa because it absorbs flavors easily.
Sugar also acts as a structure holder to the bar of chocolate, preventing it from melting in hot weather. In a good chocolate bar, the manufacturing procedure has to make sure that all sugar particles are totally covered with fat- and for a very good reason.
Sugar absorbs water and humidity very easily, and if it does in the case of the particles not being coated properly with fats, the chocolate piece will become coarse and lumpy.
Milk protein is the fourth main ingredient. It gives the taste of creaminess in the mouth. It also balances the sourness that is produced by the process of fermentation of the cocoa.
Understandably, that is why the black chocolate tastes a little bit sour, while the milky one does not.
Photo: Reuters
Happy, in love, or both!
Dr Ramadan explains that the pleasure induced by chocolate eating is a result of the fat triglyceride molecules melting in the temperature of the mouth, in addition to the smooth texture that is yielded by the fat coating of the chocolate and sugar particles.
Add to that the flavor released, milk protein and the flow effect by the sugar and fat, and the result is absolute pleasure.
"Nevertheless, chemistry can also explain vividly the happiness associated with this indulgence.
"Although a host of many elements collaborate to produce this good feeling after eating chocolate, three of them play a central role," he says.
Ramadan explained that eating chocolates stimulates the release of endorphins, which are the hormones responsible for making us feel happy.
The presence of Tryptophan in chocolate stimulates the brain to produce the neuro- transmitter serotonin, which makes us feel thrilled and very happy.
As for Phenylethlyamine in the chocolate, it results in a sense of contentment and wellbeing, and it lifts the mood, producing a feeling like that of being in love!
Finally there is a stimulant within called Theobromine. It creates the alertness or buzz feeling. The darker and finer the brand, the more buzz we feel afterwards.
Good or bad?
After a final presentation , the discussion turned into a round of questions and answers.
Different flavors and additions to chocolate were discussed, one of which was chilli as an ingredient - introduced in Latin America.
It was described as a flavor enhancer that is unleashed after swallowing the chocolate rather than during the process.
'Salt' added to the chocolate was an unexpected recommendation, so was the overwhelming number of those favoring dark chocolate compared with the regular milky kind.
Ramadan responded to a question about the history of chocolate and whether it was ever regarded as a forbidden temptation, as depicted in the highly acclaimed movie 'Chocolat', by saying that this had never been the case.
"People throughout the ages embraced its magic and pleasure, and Church allowed it at fasting periods," he said.
At the end of the question and answer session it was posed: "Is chocolate ultimately good for the health?" Ramadan said that the lower the content of sugar and fat in a chocolate, the better.
He added that dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, which have a host of benefits, improving cardiac health, preventing cancer, controlling high blood pressure and, finally, maintaining blood vessels.
"It is not that eating daily a bar of dark chocolate will guarantee cancer prevention, but it definitely has a host of benefits for the health," he concluded.
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