Seattle chocolate maker never makes 'mockolate' or anything just 'chocolatelike'
SEATTLE -- Andy McShea is a Harvard-trained molecular biologist using his scientific talent in Seattle to promote "true chocolate" and steer consumers away from inadvertently ingesting all that other brown sweet stuff he says often is unhealthy, ...
SEATTLE -- Andy McShea is a Harvard-trained molecular biologist using his scientific talent in Seattle to promote "true chocolate" and steer consumers away from inadvertently ingesting all that other brown sweet stuff he says often is unhealthy, morally questionable and not the real thing.
"We like to call it 'mockolate,'" says 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 know and eat as chocolate is actually a heavily industrialized and chemically adulterated "chocolatelike" version of the dark, bittersweet substance originally concocted by the prehistoric 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," says 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 when he took on the role of chief operating officer at the newly launched Theo Chocolate company based in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood.
A number of companies sell chocolate confections out of Seattle. 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 we buy wrapped in foil and decorative paper. 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 to so much improve chocolate using science but to develop new technologies that can shine a bright, transformative light on the murky world of global chocolate commerce.
"Much of the chocolate business is still pretty exploitive, oppressive," says McShea. Consumers, for example, usually cannot be confident 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, says Kirsty Ellison, spokeswoman for one local competitor. Ellison says Seattle Chocolates, her employer, buys fine chocolate from a European distributor who works with cocoa farming communities worldwide to reduce the risk of exploitation.
"But it really isn't very well policed overall," she says. Ellison says Theo's more comprehensive (if more expensive) approach to promoting fair trade and organic chocolate is "very cool."
She says Seattle Chocolates recently had its Tukwila production plant certified as organic to also explore offering this as an option.
Fran Bigelow, founder and president of Fran's Chocolates, says her company uses some organic ingredients in its confections but is unable as yet to only buy certified organic and fair-trade chocolate that also is of consistently high quality.
"That's something all of us in this business would like to do," says Bigelow. Most of the finer chocolate probably could be certified as organic and fair-traded right now, she says, because farmers have to maintain a certain quality of bean to sell to high-end manufacturers. But there isn't a reliable international regulatory system for independently guaranteeing the quality and ethical production of chocolate, Bigelow says.
"What Theo is trying to do is quite admirable," she says.
McShea, as someone who has worked in both 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 give poor farmers, and consumers, more power and information to help make the chocolate market more socially responsible.
Genetic tests can determine where beans come from, he notes. Chemical analyses can determine purity or even the levels of healthy antioxidants. Most people, he says, are aware of the studies in medical journals supporting the potential health benefit of certain antioxidants in chocolate.
One of the most prevalent chemicals in chocolate is known as epicatechin, McShea says, which has been shown to be both a powerful antioxidant and a vasodilator (it opens blood vessels and improves circulation).
"Unfortunately, a lot of these chemicals are removed or reduced during many of the processes used in the industrial manufacture of chocolate," he says.
It is the antioxidant chemicals that give a bitter taste to chocolate, he says, 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 says.
"This industry is so interested in being able to keep altering what's in chocolate that Hershey's is lobbying to relax the (legal) definition of chocolate," McShea says. "Hershey's doesn't really make chocolate anymore."
Kirk Saville, spokesman for the Hershey Co., the nation's largest chocolate manufacturer with 13,000 employees and $5 billion in annual revenue, responds that his company certainly does make chocolate.
"We have a broad portfolio of products and have been making the world's best for more than 100 years," Saville says. Hershey supports the Food and Drug Administration's current definition of chocolate, he says, adding that it was the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association that had lobbied for relaxing the legal definition. Saville does acknowledge, however, that Hershey is a leading member of both industry organizations.
Clearly the folks at Theo are biased and trying to convince people their chocolate is best so they'll buy it. But they could do this without a lab, without trying to change the way we think about chocolate or working on new scientific tools. McShea also is 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 says. Giving poor farmers an inexpensive "dipstick" test to better track the fermentation process should be possible by adapting existing technologies, McShea says, 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 says.
The Super Molecular Chocolate Lab at Theo's also is used for simply dealing with the ongoing complexities of making chocolate, of course. After completing the fermentation on the farm (which, unlike for beer and wine, happens spontaneously rather than from introduced yeast), the cocoa beans are shipped to Seattle.
Assuming the beans pass quality testing, they then go through a lengthy process of multiple roastings, grindings, a curing process known as "conching" that takes place over a period of days, further refinement with precise mixtures of sugars or milk powder and a "tempering" process needed to bond the cocoa particles with cocoa butter. Surprisingly, water never is introduced to this process because water and chocolate, like oil, do not mix.
"There's a lot of chemistry that goes into making chocolate," McShea says. "It's actually incredibly complex."
And it's even more complicated when the goal here is a bit more than making a chocolate bar. If McShea has his way, Theo's Super Molecular Chocolate science will help to launch the next food revolution out of Seattle: coffee, beer and now chocolate.