Love of Chocolate, Love of Science

Gill Radford, Chair of U3A Todmorden with Dr Diana Leitch MBE. Photo by Roger Howard.

Dr Diana Leitch MBE is a serious scientist, a chemist with not only a love of chocolate, but an appetite for promoting science and its role in society.

Thus, on Thursday, 15th August, Diana told U3A Todmorden all about why chocolate makes us feel good.

But she also told us about its geography, history, cultivation and, unexpectedly, its political role.

First things first. The cacao tree (which fruits all year, but needs shade) produces beans that make cocoa and related products such as chocolate.

Note the spellings!  The OED tries to clarify, suggesting the words cacao and cocoa are essentially synonyms and have been used interchangeably since the 17th century. In modern use, the form cacao is often restricted to senses concerned more with the plant itself than with cocoa as a semi-processed commodity or food item.

Anyway, it originates in the Yucatan peninsula in central America and was used by Mayans as a status beverage with special drinking vessels dedicated to it.

Then the Aztecs got hold of it and cultivated it. Montezuma, Diana said, was reported to drink 60 cups a day of a foamy, reddish bitter drink, spiced with chilli. It is allegedly an aphrodisiac.

And cacao beans were valuable: 100 beans were worth one slave.

In time, the Spanish imported it into Europe through the Spanish Netherlands, and sold it at ridiculous prices. But because it was so bitter, they mixed it with cinnamon from India and sugar from Papua New Guinea.

In time the European powers developed their own colonial slave-dependent plantations in Venezuela, the Caribbean, Sri Lanka and West Africa.

In some countries, cacao was vital to the economy. In Tobago, for example, when the plantations were destroyed by Hurricane Flora in 1963, the country could no longer rely on commodities and became instead a tourist destination.

Our modern chocolate developed perhaps because of Hans Sloane’s tastebuds. This former 18th century Governor of Jamaica, added milk to his chocolate and water to soften the taste. This concoction gained popularity in England.

The next leap forward came when John Cadbury, a Quaker, decided to produce an affordable drinking chocolate to lure drinkers away from alcohol. Initially it tasted buttery, so he added sago flour and potato starch to counterbalance that.

Then in 1847 J.S. Fry’s produced the first chocolate bar, and Cadbury’s followed in 1849.

But in 1875, Swiss confectioner Daniel Peters added Nestlé powdered milk to his chocolate, producing the first milk chocolate bar, not emulated by Cadbury’s till 1905.

However, in the cut-throat modern business world Cadbury’s have been acquired by Mondelez, who have gradually lowered the volume of cocoa solids in their chocolate bars. ‘Cadbury’s’ Bournville now contains 36% cocoa solids, nearer the American standard instead of the 60% required under British law.

But is chocolate good for you?

Oh yes! Especially dark chocolate. The science says so.

The Real Thing

Chocolate is full of magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium and manganese.

It contains antioxidants; it increases your feel-good levels with its serotonin and phenylethylamines, and it contains theobromine which is a mild stimulant. And it has a good range of vitamins as well.

What’s not to like? Well, theobromine is a mild diuretic and it is poisonous to dogs. And because chocolate manufacturers want to maximise profits, products will often contain more sugar than is good for us.

The Cadbury’s Creme Egg is notorious: the fondant in one egg contains about 10 heaped teaspoons of sugar, which gives a whole new meaning to the notion of ‘Sweet Death’.

Even if Nestlé manage to ‘structure sugar differently’ they are barking up a very dubious scientific tree. And even if you structure your Kit-Kat bar differently by making it smaller, that won’t necessarily reduce the sugar content.

A small chocolate fountain

And look out for Galaxy which contains more salt than salt water, and chocolate fountains which flow beautifully because they are lubricated with oil.

This was a very stimulating talk by an enthusiastic chemist. I think it more than likely U3A Todmorden members will be visiting her home base at the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre and Museum in Widnes in the next few months.

Our next meeting:   U3A Todmorden’s next members’ meeting will be on Thursday, September 19th when our speaker will be Roy Meakin, whose subject is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

Our contact details are www.u3atod.org.uk (website), info@u3atod.org.uk (email), or 01422 886021 (phone).