x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Melting moment in research

Designing chocolate that will not melt in high heat has become an academic affair at the University of Cambridge, which will not say who is funding the study. But figuring that out is not rocket science.

Liquid chocolate the Cadbury Bournville factory in Birmingham, UK. This is the end of the chain where the real money is made.  Graham Barclay / Bloomberg News
Liquid chocolate the Cadbury Bournville factory in Birmingham, UK. This is the end of the chain where the real money is made. Graham Barclay / Bloomberg News

As anyone who has tried to walk more than 50 metres outdoors during a UAE summer knows, there are some obvious drawbacks to life in the hotter parts of the world.

These can range from the mildly inconvenient – we’ve all seen tourists bounding barefoot across the white-hot sand of a Dubai beach, only to discover that the sea is hot enough to cook a lobster – to the life-threatening realities of drought and desertification.

But hey, wouldn’t it be great if someone could invent a chocolate bar that didn’t melt in the sun?

The good news is that this challenge to improve the human condition has been taken up by the University of Cambridge.

Its department of chemical engineering and biotechnology is inviting the best brains in Europe to apply for a fully funded doctorate of three and a half years “to study the fundamentals of heat-stable chocolate”.

To qualify for this Wonka-esque post, the applicant must have spent at least four years studying at university, with proven experience of experimental investigation and a high degree in physics, chemistry, materials science or engineering.

Because of funding regulations, whoever bags the gig will have to be European, so Oompa-Loompas need not apply.

And presumably a sweet tooth would be a disadvantage. No point in hiring someone who’d be tempted to scoff all the experiments.

The successful applicant will be supervised by some of the finest brains in Cambridge – two professors and a doctor, leaders in geotechnical and chemical engineering, and soft-matter physics.

The offer is something of a departure for the world-renowned department, whose research groups are better known for work in vital and complex fields such as carbon capture, nanotechnological drug-delivery, development of proteins for regenerative medicine and identifying the molecular basis of major neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, autism and depression.

Small wonder the university is remaining tight-lipped about a project designed solely to bring an end to melty-chocolate misery, and declining to say which commercial organisation is funding it, although it is a fair bet it’s one of the world’s biggest chocolate makers.

Pick any one from Candy Industry magazine’s list of top 10 global confectionery companies, from US giant Mars in the top spot to Turkey’s Yildiz at number 10.

But the answer to “who?” is not as interesting as the answer to “why?”, an answer that shines a light on the dark side of chocolate.

The aim of the project, says Dr Ian Wilson, reader in chemical engineering at Cambridge, is “to understand how chocolate, which is a complex material from a scientific perspective, can be made to retain its shape and product qualities when stored at warmer temperatures”.

The commercial advantages of this “are obvious”, Dr Wilson says, but there is also “the potential for scientific learning, as this project combines the chemistry of bonding as well as aspects of crystallisation and soft solids”.

This is not, he insists, “a doctorate of chocolate, but a doctorate in complex materials science and engineering”.

Perhaps. But at a time when the US and European governments are waging war on confectionery as a chief cause of the obesity epidemic plaguing the western world, chocolate makers – like tobacco and alcohol producers before them – are seeking fresh markets in the less-regulated developing world.

“The world is changing and as the pace of life and accessibility to commodities increases, the chocolate industry needs to adapt too,” says Dr Wilson.

“Whereas previously customers might not expect to be able to eat chocolate in the tropics, today there is an expectation of being able to access everything everywhere. So new product principles are required and that’s what motivates the funding behind this research.”

And of course, chocolate that doesn’t melt in the heat would be a breakthrough for sales in countries where air-conditioning is the exception rather than the rule. Michael Segal, a spokesman for the International Cocoa Organisation that works to improve the plight of cocoa farmers, points out that few of the millions of small farmers who grow the cocoa upon which chocolate makers depend have ever tasted the end product.

“There’s not much demand in cocoa-producing countries for chocolate,” says Mr Segal, whose group represents cocoa-producing and consuming countries.

For one thing, “there’s the problem of producing a bar capable of sitting for weeks on the shelf of a shop without air conditioning.

“When the average daily temperature is 32°C it’s not very conducive to eating or storing chocolate, so there’s an element of interest in that they could finally get to taste the end product.”

But ambient temperature isn’t the only reason chocolate has yet to become an acquired taste in West African countries such as Ghana and Ivory Coast, where about 70 per cent of the world’s cocoa is grown by more than 2 million small-scale farmers, many operating at a subsistence level.

For them, a bar of chocolate might cost a day’s wages. Rarely do they sell their cocoa harvest direct to the chocolate makers for the full market price.

Instead, it passes through intermediaries who take advantage of farmers’ lack of organisation to take much of the profit for themselves.

“In a normal chocolate bar cocoa is unlikely to account for more than 10 per cent of manufacturers’ costs,” says Mr Segal.

“One of our ongoing projects is to expose this and highlight the plight of the cocoa farmer, who out of a chain of 100 per cent might be able to recoup perhaps 5 per cent of the value of a chocolate bar.”

The vast majority of farmers are individuals, “typically working a small plot with just a few trees. In many cases these farmers are not very well organised and not very educated, and just doing something that pays them enough to survive. It’s a serious situation.”

Just how serious is something even western chocolate makers recognise.

Sabine Nafziger, secretary general of Caobisco, the association of European chocolate, biscuit and confectionery industries, spoke recently of “the collective challenge facing all stakeholders working to eliminate hazardous child labour conditions in cocoa farming communities in Ivory Coast and Ghana”.

The challenges, admits Caobisco, “are complex and need a holistic approach and a long-term engagement of all stakeholders”.

But so far too little is being done to satisfy the European Campaign for Fair Chocolate.

In July the campaign’s “Chocomobile” began a three-month, 14-nation European tour “to inform people about where cocoa comes from and the inexcusable conditions under which it is produced”.

This year, says the campaign, the global chocolate market will be worth US$100 billion (Dh367bn), but while farmers are earning less than $1.25 a day, the lion’s share of profit from cocoa is made after the beans have reached the developed world.

Worse, says campaigner Lina Gross, the low income for farmers “leads to serious violations of human and labour rights on cocoa farms.

“Farmers cannot pay sufficient salaries to the workers and provide them with acceptable accommodation and health care.”

In many cases, “farmers can’t even afford to hire workers and are forced to deploy their children to work on the farms”, Ms Gross says.

“An estimated 2 million children are working in cocoa cultivation and trade, hundreds of thousands of them under exploitative conditions.”

It remains to be seen if the Cambridge research will lead to a chocolate bar that can survive unprotected in the tropics and, if it does, whether any of the profits harvested as a result by chocolate companies will find their way back to the people growing cocoa for a pittance.

Last month a video showing cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast tasting chocolate for the first time went viral on YouTube.

“I did not know that cocoa was so yummy,” said Alphonse, one of the farmers, in a documentary by Dutch public service broadcaster VPRO, which described the cocoa trade as “a multibillion-dollar industry that divides the world into beggars and gluttons”.

“This,” added Alphonse, quite possibly with his tongue firmly alongside the chunk of chocolate lodged in his cheek, “must be why white people are so healthy”.