Science Explains Why Chocolate Should be Savored, Not Scarfed

And other molecular secrets to digest while you’re digesting

Mmm, science. (TheCrimsonMonkey / iStock)
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In October of 1671, French aristocrat Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné, penned a note to her daughter: “I have reconciled myself to chocolate,” she wrote. “I took it the day before yesterday to digest my dinner … and I took it yesterday to nourish me so that I could fast until evening: it gave me all the effects I wanted. That’s what I like about it: it acts according to my intention.”

Most of us can relate with Madame de Sévigné’s assessment that chocolate sates many hungers. Cocoa and chocolate come from a fruit categorized by Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who founded taxonomy, as Theobroma cacao: food of the gods. Colorful and typically oblong, this precursor to chocolate starts off as a bitter seed surrounded by juicy pulp within the pod. That pulp, known as baba, or “slime,” in Spanish, dissipates during fermentation. The seeds are dried and become what we refer to as cocoa beans. From there, they are roasted, cracked and shelled. The smaller pieces of beans, or nibs, are then processed into cocoa and chocolate.  

But long before cacao seeds were transformed into chocolate bars, they were consumed in liquid form and used as currency and in indigenous rituals. In Mayan culture, cacao was a sign of power and considered critical sustenance for the journey to the afterworld. In the pre-Colombian period, explains anthropologist Cameron McNeil in her book Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao,  “cacao was associated with blood and sacrifice.” Chocolate could even serve as ersatz blood: Achiote, a natural red colorant from the tree Bixa orellana, was added to some cacao beverages, giving them a blood-like appearance.

Cacao, revered around the globe, has played an important role in spiritual traditions, global trade, medicine, culinary traditions and many a broken heart. Before you indulge in Halloween treats, join us as we explore how this bitter seed—and the chocolate it becomes—came to captivate our hearts. 

It starts with a slow melt

Cocoa beans are made up of nibs and cocoa butter, roughly 50 percent of each. The butter is a fat that’s stable at room temperature, which is why it is popular not only in chocolate and baked goods, but also in beauty products. When used in the latter, the cocoa butter is typically deodorized, stripped of some or all of its aromas. But these aromas are essential to chocolate.  

Flavor is primarily an expression of smell, not taste—which is why it’s so hard to discern what you’re eating when you have a cold. In chocolate, the molecules that make up these aromas are suspended in the butter (or fat) and released slowly into our mouth and retronasal passage as the glorious substance starts to melt on our tongue.

Chocolate’s high concentration of fat, coupled with a melting point just below human body temperature, allows for maximum flavor dispersal. That’s why, according to food chemist Peter Schieberle, chocolate should be savored, not scarfed.

“When you put chocolate in your mouth, a chemical reaction happens,” Schieberle explained to his colleagues at the meeting of the American Chemical Society before being presented with the 2011 ACS Award for the Advancement of Application of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. “Some people just bite and swallow chocolate. If you do that, the reaction doesn’t have time to happen, and you lose a lot of flavor.”

Every smell is made up of multiple aroma compounds that come together to register in our brains as a distinct scent. While cocoa contains over 600 of these volatile, or airborne, aroma compounds, most of what registers to us as a chocolate smell comes from compounds that, surprisingly, smell nothing like cocoa. Instead, these compounds have aromas ranging from peaches and potato chips to cooked meat that transform when they are combined.

When sharing his team’s findings, Schieberle asserted: “To make a very good cocoa aroma, you need only 25 of the nearly 600 volatile compounds present in the beans.” 

About Simran Sethi

Simran is a journalist and educator focused on food and sustainability. She is the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, a book about changes in food and agriculture told through bread, wine, chocolate, coffee and beer.

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