Scientists have explained the physical process that occurs in the mouth when a piece of chocolate is consumed, as it transforms from a solid to a smooth emulsion that many people find irresistible.
By analysing each step, the interdisciplinary research team at the University of Leeds hopes to develop a new generation of luxury chocolates that will have the same feel and texture but be healthier to consume. During the moments it is in the mouth, the chocolate sensation arises from how the chocolate is lubricated, either from ingredients in the chocolate itself or from saliva or a combination of the two.
Fat plays an essential function almost immediately when a piece of chocolate is in contact with the tongue. After that, solid cocoa particles are released, and they become crucial in terms of the tactile sensation, so fat deeper inside the chocolate plays a relatively limited role and could be reduced without impacting the feel or sensation of chocolate.
Anwesha Sarkar, Professor of Colloids and Surfaces in the School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds, said: "Lubrication science gives mechanistic insights into how food feels in the mouth. You can use that knowledge to design food with better taste, texture or health benefits.
"If a chocolate has 5% fat or 50% fat it will still form droplets in the mouth and that gives you the chocolate sensation. However, it is the location of the fat in the make-up of the chocolate which matters in each stage of lubrication, and that has been rarely researched.
"We are showing that the fat layer needs to be on the outer layer of the chocolate; this matters the most, followed by an effective coating of the cocoa particles by fat. This help to make chocolate feel so good."
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The study - published in the scientific journal ACS Applied Materials and Interface - did not investigate how chocolate tastes. Instead, the investigation focused on its feel and texture.
Tests were conducted using a luxury brand of dark chocolate on an artificial 3D tongue-like surface designed at the University of Leeds. The researchers used analytical techniques from a field of engineering called tribology to conduct the study.
Tribology is about how surfaces and fluids interact, the levels of friction between them and the role of lubrication: in this case, saliva or liquids from the chocolate. Those mechanisms are all happening in the mouth when chocolate is eaten.
When chocolate is in contact with the tongue, it releases a fatty film that coats the tongue and other surfaces in the mouth. This fatty film makes the chocolate feel smooth throughout the entire time it is in the mouth.
Dr Siavash Soltanahmadi, from the School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds and the lead researcher in the study, said: "With the understanding of the physical mechanisms that happen as people eat chocolate, we believe that a next generation of chocolate can be developed that offers the feel and sensation of high-fat chocolate yet is a healthier choice.
"Our research opens the possibility that manufacturers can intelligently design dark chocolate to reduce the overall fat content.
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"We believe dark chocolate can be produced in a gradient-layered architecture with fat covering the surface of chocolates and particles to offer the sought-after self-indulging experience without adding too much fat inside the body of the chocolate."
The researchers believe the physical techniques used in the study could be applied to the investigation of other foodstuffs that undergo a phase change, where a substance is transformed from a solid to a liquid, such as ice cream, margarine or cheese.