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Scientific approach to ‘true chocolate’

Seattle company aims for organic, fair-trade

SEATTLE – Andy McShea is a Harvard-trained molecular biologist using his scientific talent to promote “true chocolate” and steer consumers away from all that other brown, sweet stuff he says is often unhealthy, morally questionable and not the real thing.

“We like to call it ‘mockolate,’ ” said McShea, his British accent rising with indignation. “Most of the stuff sold as chocolate out in the world today is not really chocolate.”

Rather, he contends, most of what we eat as chocolate is actually a heavily industrialized and chemically adulterated “chocolatelike” version of the dark, bittersweet substance originally concocted by ancestors of the Mayans and Aztecs. They used it as a hot, magical drink to fight fatigue or to honor the gods during religious ceremonies.

“Chocolate is a very old food,” said McShea, a former Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center scientist with expertise in genetic and chemical analysis. He abandoned a routine research career to open his “Super Molecular Chocolate Lab” in 2006 and became chief operating officer at Theo Chocolate, based in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.

A number of Seattle companies sell chocolate confections. But only Theo’s – named for Theobroma cacao, the botanical name for the cocoa tree – locally manufactures chocolate starting from its basic bean beginnings and carrying it through to the waxy, shiny end product. It is the only full-scale chocolate maker in the Northwest, and is aiming to offer solely organic and fair-trade chocolate.

McShea’s motto (sewn onto his Super Molecular lab coat) is “Better Science Through Chocolate.” The counterintuitive word order is meant to emphasize his goal is not so much to improve chocolate using science, but to develop new technologies that can shine a transformative light on global chocolate commerce.

“Much of the chocolate business is still pretty exploitive, oppressive,” said McShea. Consumers usually can’t be sure they are not supporting abusive labor practices when they buy chocolate. “The beans come from everywhere, including some places where children are working under pretty bad conditions.”

That’s true, said Kirsty Ellison, spokeswoman for Seattle Chocolates. She says her employer buys fine chocolate from a European distributor who works with farming communities to reduce the risk of exploitation.

“But it really isn’t very well policed overall,” she said. Ellison said Theo’s more comprehensive (if more expensive) approach to promoting fair trade and organic chocolate is “very cool.” She said Seattle Chocolates recently had its Tukwila production plant certified as organic.

McShea, who has worked in the local biotech industry and with the Department of Defense to develop highly sophisticated analytical tools, has ideas about how science might be used to make the chocolate market more socially responsible.

Genetic tests can determine where beans come from, he noted. Chemical analyses can determine purity or even levels of antioxidants – a health benefit of chocolate backed by studies in several medical journals.

One of the most prevalent chemicals in chocolate, epicatechin, has been shown to be both a powerful antioxidant and a vasodilator, opening blood vessels and improving circulation, McShea said.

“Unfortunately, a lot of these chemicals are removed or reduced during many of the processes used in the industrial manufacture of chocolate,” he said.

It is the antioxidant chemicals that give a bitter taste to chocolate, he said, which many chocolate makers remove by “Dutching” – adding alkaloid chemicals to neutralize the antioxidants and make it sweeter. Other chemicals are added or substituted (such as replacing costly cocoa butter with cheaper animal or vegetable fats) simply to increase the profit margin, he said.

McShea is also working with a colleague at the University of Washington to develop a simple test farmers can use to judge the critical stages of fermentation that must be handled correctly to transform cacao into fine chocolate.

“It’s very difficult to manage,” he said. Giving poor farmers an inexpensive “dipstick” test to better track the fermentation process should be possible by adapting existing technologies, McShea said, and could immensely improve their incomes by reducing the amount of harvested beans that now go to waste.

“I can’t talk about it much right now, but it’s a project we’re moving forward on,” he said.


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