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Andrea Towers & Theresa Chong/MEDILL

Getting your hands dirty while learning the chemistry of chocolate.

Learning about the sweet sensation of chocolate and science

by Andrea Towers and Theresa Chong
May 29, 2013

everett wilson chocolate

Andrea Towers & Theresa Chong/MEDILL.

Everett Wilson, a participant in Illinois Science Council's "Chemistry of Chocolate" event Tuesday, shows off his prize: a 10 pound candy bar. He was third place winner in a quiz about chocolate.

Chocolate chart

Data collected from The International Cocoa Organization (ICCO)
Chart made by Andrea Towers and Theresa Chong/MEDILL

A sampling of the largest cacao producing countries in 2009/2010.

Chocolate google map

Google maps

Blommer Chocolate Co. located at 600 W. Kinzie St. fill the air in the North River area with the sweet smell of chocolate.

chocolate front

Andrea Towers & Theresa Chong/MEDILL

Learning about the science behind chocolate has never been this tasty before.

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“I won this,” said Lincoln Square resident Everett Wilson, as he gazed at a 10-pound solid brick of chocolate. “I was third place.”

The 29-year-old quality assurance specialist’s prize from a pop quiz that tested each participant’s knowledge of chocolate during an event hosted by the Illinois Science Council.

Wilson was just one of dozens of Chicagoans who crowded into a sold-out room Tuesday evening to learn and tantalize their taste buds with the sweet scents of dark, milk and white chocolate. “Chemistry of Chocolate,” was part of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s adult-only “Nature on Tap” program, which enables science lovers and individuals of all ages to come together and learn about the science behind the sweet treat in a fun and relaxing atmosphere. 

He joked that he wanted to attend the event to expand his knowledge of chocolate beyond his “marital” relationship with it. And who could blame him? After all, most of the world seems to love chocolate, too.

Before the 17th century, chocolate was a delicacy typically enjoyed by the affluent. It wasn’t until the late 1700’s, when the cocoa grinding process was mechanized with the invention of the steam engine, that chocolate to able be mass-produced and devoured by the rich and the poor. Despite the debate surrounding the origin of chocolate, it is believed to have first been discovered by the Mayans in 600 B.C.

According to the National Confectioners Association’s press release at the Sweets and Snacks Expo in Chicago last week, confectionary manufacturers used approximately 805 million pounds of cocoa beans in their products in 2010 at a cost of nearly $1 billion.

But making the tasty treat is not as easy as it seems. “You can’t just make chocolate at home,” said Shelby Hatch, a Northwestern University chemistry lecturer. She added that there are multiple processes involved, including growing, harvesting, fermenting, roasting, grinding and refining the beans that go into creating the popular delicacy.

Blommer Chocolate Co., located at 600 W. Kinzie St, fills the River North area with a chocolate aroma because the factory roasts 6,000-pounds of bean per hour. R&D Manager Melissa Tisoncik explained that during the growing phase, cocoa pods are highly susceptible to bacteria and insects. “There are around 20 or more different insects that love chocolate,” she said, adding that Brazil was the top grower of cocoa trees in the 1980’s until they were infected by a bacteria called witches’ broom, which wiped out its crops. Tisoncik also said that to this day, Brazil has been unable to recover from the damage, which leaves the Ivory Coast the No. 1 producer of cacoa.

Among the most important chemical compound in the cocoa bean is theobromine, which is in a family of alkaloid molecules called methylxanthines. Caffeine, found in coffee, and theophylline, found in tea, is also in the methylxanthine class. Tisconcik explained that this is what makes chocolate toxic to dogs, because their bodies can’t metabolize theobromine.

But to humans, chocolate remains a delicious treat, one commonly hailed as “the food of Gods.”

“I’m not an addict,” Wilson said as he eyed his newly acquired treat, adding that he ate chocolate a few times a week but now it’ll be “probably more.”