Scientists uncover why chocolate feels so good to eat - and how it could be made healthier

Scientists think that the melting of fat in our mouth when we eat chocolate is a key part of its incredible appeal.
Scientists think that the melting of fat in our mouth when we eat chocolate is a key part of its incredible appeal.   -  Copyright  Canva
By Giulia Carbonaro

Scientists think that the secret appeal of chocolate can be harnessed to trick our minds to be content with healthier options.

Scientists believe they have discovered the secret power of chocolate - that unique characteristic that makes many of us feel like we’re almost addicted to it.

Forget its taste, or its divine smell - the texture alone can keep us hooked, according to a team of experts at the University of Leeds, in the UK.

Chocolate has a way of melting in the mouth that other similarly delicious sweets and food just don’t have. The secret, scientists say, is that there’s a fatty film coating the harder centre in chocolate which, oddly enough, our mouths can’t get enough of.

In their study, published in ACS Applied Material and Interfaces, the researchers analysed the process that takes place when we eat chocolate, focusing on texture rather than taste.

They found that the fat contained in chocolate plays a key function almost as soon as it comes into contact with the tongue - something the experts call “the chocolate sensation”.

After that, solid cocoa particles are released and they’re also important to the tactile sensation, so the fat deeper inside the chocolate plays a more limited role - and the researchers think it could be reduced without negatively impacting the overall experience.

“If a chocolate has 5 per cent fat or 50 per cent fat it will still form droplets in the mouth and that gives you the chocolate sensation,” Anwesha Sarkar, a professor at the university’s School of Food Science and Nutrition, said in a statement.

“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,” she added. “We are showing that the fat layer needs to be on the outer layer of the chocolate”.

That initial smoothness is something that chocolate brands actively seek and promote. Take the commercials for some of the most famous chocolate brands in the world, which often feature a person popping a piece of chocolate in their mouth, and the world suddenly coming to a halt the moment it touches their tongue.

These ads work because most of us chocolate lovers know that feeling and the lingering pleasure that comes with it.

Towards ‘healthier’ chocolate?

And yet that melt-in-mouth feeling is not really helping us live a healthier life. In fact, it’s doing quite the opposite, forcing us to desperately chase that moment of bliss and self-indulgence.

Dark chocolate, which has less fat than milk chocolate and is, therefore, healthier, is not as popular because it doesn’t give us that same melt-in-mouth feel: in the study, it’s described as having a certain grittiness and producing a pasty, mouth-coating feeling which is not as appealing to most of us.

The scientists at the School of Food Science and Nutrition in Leeds are not suggesting that you give up that mouth feel. 

They’re instead hoping that their discovery can be used by chocolate brands to make chocolate healthier while maintaining that smoothness that we love so much.

The goal would be to recreate that melting sensation in healthier chocolate, which despite containing less fat would feel just as satisfying as high-fat chocolate.

The study is the first of its kind to study how chocolate interacts with our tongue during the first stage of eating chocolate, which scientists call “the licking process” or “the solid lubrication of chocolate” and say “remains principally unexplored”.

The researchers now hope their findings could be of use with other products such as ice cream, margarine or cheese.

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