Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

I Love The Smell Of Chocolate In The Morning

Friday, August 12th, 2011
Ed Engoron, Co-Founder of Choclatique
Author of Ed Engoron’s Choclatique, Running Press, 2011

Do you want to feel better? Just a whiff of chocolate can do it.

Just before you ripped the wrapper off your chocolate bar yesterday, did you take a moment to have a good sniff of the unwrapped bar?

While just eating chocolate is enough to put most of us in a good frame of mind and now latest research suggests “odor du chocolat” – just the smell of it – can improve your mood.

This happy news comes from the Human Olfaction Laboratory at Middlesex University, where Neil Martin, a reader in psychology, investigates the effects of room smells on human behavior. In his laboratory, Martin has a square box called an AromaCube, which heats up “odorants” and percolates the smell around the room. That is where Chocolate smells like a “great tasting” theory.

From that box, Martin discovered the power of chocolate in an experiment where he filled rooms with three smells, one of chocolate, a “malodor” of machine oil, which most people find unpleasant, and a lemony, pleasant-but-alerting odor, then monitored testers’ moods.

The aim was to compare the effects of pleasant and unpleasant ambient odors on stress, anxiety, depression and mood. The results proved that that the smell of chocolate really does make people less stressed and anxious, and more relaxed.

Chocoholics will also be pleased to hear about some of Martin’s earlier research. In another study he looked at the effect of chocolate on brain activity. People were presented with a range of smells, some artificial food odors and some real food odors, with both samples including chocolate. He used electroencephalography technology to record his participants’ brain waves as they sniffed the air, and found that in both experiments, the chocolate smell consistently led to a reduction in a particular type of brain activity called theta, which is thought to be an index of attentiveness. Theta levels dropped significantly across both indexes when testees smelled chocolate.

The experiment also shows there is no need for chocolate snobbery. We all know connoisseurs say posh chocolate, with a higher cocoa content, is better for your health, and it might be in some ways, but when it comes to the aroma of chocolate and its resultant relaxing effect, it was found it was the same however much milk the bar contained.

But some of his other scent findings provide more significant practical effects. It seems that scent can affect employment. One study found that a combination of perfume and formal dress worn by an applicant led interviewers to rate them as less warm, more manipulative and less presentable. The study also showed people perform less well on cognitive tasks and report more symptoms of ill health when smelling a “bad” smell.

As a result, people should be aware of their “olfactory environment” to control their feelings. People can use scents to improve alertness, well-being and reduce anxiety. “For example, another study showed that women in a dentist’s waiting room scented with orange reported less anxiety than those in an unscented counterpart.

In another experiment, PlayStations were loaded with a car rally game to test the effect of a lemon smell on driving ability. Men and women were invited to play the game on three different levels and in three different environments, one in an odorless room, one smelling of lemon, and one of machine oil.

The results showed that participants were consistently able to brake more safely and appropriately in the presence of the lemon scent. It’s perhaps because the smell is citrusy and alerting, and suggests that dangling a lemon-scented air freshener in the car could make you a better driver.

The psychology of aromas is like a Rubik’s cube—hard to pin down and more difficult to describe. The problem is science doesn’t really understand smells yet. We have vague terms for them, and say things like “it smells like this or that,” but we don’t have chemical terms for most odors.

One thing is certain, however. The effects of most smells tend to be short-lived. With the exception of chocolate, we get used to odors very quickly and after a while the odor disappears because we become habituated to it.

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Chocolate Milk—The Better Energy Drink

Thursday, April 14th, 2011
Ed Engoron, Co-Founder of Choclatique
Author of Ed Engoron’s Choclatique, Running Press, 2011

The Olympic Games have been tarnished with controversies over blood doping, steroids, performance improving drugs and supplements. Even athletes who have taken an over the counter cold medication have been disqualified for a medal.

What I learned when researching for my new book, Choclatique, that the American swimmer Michael Phelps, who won fourteen career Olympic gold medals—the most of any Olympian—figure it out. He played it safe by drinking chocolate milk between races in Beijing.

In a recent study if was found that chocolate milk may be as good, or even better, than sports drinks at helping athletes recover from strenuous exercise. Chocolate milk has the optimal ratio of carbohydrates to protein, which helps refuel tired muscles. And let’s face it: it tastes much better than those sugary-sweet, expensive sports beverages.

So, say no to Monster and Red Bull, and yes to chocolate milk. That’s what two University of Connecticut researchers, studying the effects of different beverages on young people has concluded. Nancy Rodriguez, who researches the science of endurance sports, says chocolate milk has proved to be an effective post-workout drink for restoring muscle tone. The study, funded by the National Dairy Council and the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board, was focused specifically on what chocolate milk can do for athletes.

So what does chocolate milk do that plain white milk doesn’t? Rodriguez says, “The chocolate adds a little more sugar, and hence carbohydrates. Carbs—that’s still the energy that helps the muscle do the work. But you want milk to rebuild the muscle.” Rodriguez cautions that the extra sugar isn’t optimal for everyone, but athletes can benefit from it.

For the study, moderately trained male runners ran for 45 minutes at least five days a week for two weeks. Some drank chocolate milk while others drank a carb-only drink such as Gatorade or Powerade; each drink had the same number of calories. Breath and blood samples taken after the first and second weeks indicated that the chocolate milk drinkers had greater muscle rebuilding.

Most important, she said, is for athletes to realize that milk—whether plain or sweetened—is as good and often better than many of the significantly more expensive products sold at nutrition stores. Many of the products marketed to athletes for energy and endurance are just souped-up versions of old-fashioned milk. Despite the many claims of supplements, it’s hard to beat all-natural.

Milk also has bioactive compounds—things that we don’t really know, but probably provide some nutritional value. Likewise, chocolate has over 300 beneficial chemical compounds which appear to complement milk.

And stay away from energy drinks like Red Bull, warns Yifrah Kaminer, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at University of Connecticut. He published an article in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America in July on the dangers of caffeine for young people.

Kaminer said that 30 percent of young people between ages 12 and 17 regularly consume large quantities of energy drinks. Some of the super-caffeinated drinks, like Spike Shooter and Wired x505 (a whopping 500 milligrams of caffeine), carry warning labels that the product isn’t recommended for anyone under 18.

“Energy drinks’ much-touted exotic ingredients—taurine and guarana—give the drinks mystical flavor and image,” Kaminer said. But it’s really caffeine and sugar that do all the heavy lifting. Caffeine levels in energy drinks can range from 80 milligrams in an 8.2-ounce can of Red Bull to 300 milligrams in an 8.4-ounce can of Spike Shooter. To compare, a small McDonald’s coffee has 100 milligrams, while a large Starbucks has 330 milligrams and a 12-ounce can of Coke has 34 milligrams.

“The big difference between coffee and energy drinks,” Kaminer said, “is that young people are more apt to consume energy drinks. Also, they tend to drink many of them.”

So, stick with no or low fat milk—chocolate milk—for improved muscle tone, building and peak performance… and go for the gold!

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Unwrapping the Chocolate Genome

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010
— Ed Engoron, Co-Founder of Choclatique

After more than 10 years of teamwork planning and two years of mapping genes, two separate research groups have announced the complete sequencing of the genomes of two of the major cacao tree varieties.

Much of the world’s chocolate comes from cocoa beans harvested from the Theobroma cacao tree. The Forastero variety—used mainly in the bulk of the world’s chocolate production, and Criollo—used for its exceptionally fine taste.

Unfortunately, almost all cacao trees are highly susceptible to disease and cacao growers are constantly fighting plant plagues and the disruption of the sources of supply.

Brazil’s cacao crop, which once dominated the world market, was been decimated by a fungal blight known as witch’s broom. The fungus probably co-evolved with the cacao tree in Amazonia. Once the domesticated trees were cultivated in fields of genetically similar plants, the fungus had a field day and spread uncontrollably.

So far, witch’s broom and its equally destructive cousin, frosty pod, have not spread to cacao trees in Africa, where 70 percent of the world’s cacao is now grown. The old world cacao fields are not disease-free, however. Other fungi, such as black pod, as well as viruses and insect plagues have also affected cocoa bean crops in Africa and now in the newer plantations in Southeast Asia.

Cocoa bean shortages resulting from these plagues cost farmers an estimated $700 million in losses each year and are of particular to concern to larger candy companies which account for more than three-quarters of all the chocolate products sold in the United States each year.

To help ensure the health of cacao trees all over the world, two years ago Mars and Hershey announced separate plans to fund the sequencing of the cacao tree genome. The group that received funds from Mars and the U.S. Department of Agriculture went after the Forastero genome while Hershey partnered with Penn State University and CIRAD, a French agency based in Paris that studies agricultural issues in developing countries, to work on the Criollo genome.

The goal isn’t to produce genetically modified candy bars. Rather, by sequencing the cacao tree genome, geneticists are providing plant breeders all over the world with a powerful new tool known as marker-assisted selection (MAS) that can be used to accelerate the breeding process for disease resistance and other valuable traits like drought tolerance and even flavor and texture.

Having the cacao genome in hand could also provide a unique opportunity to study genetic interactions between pathogens and hosts. Since scientists already have the genomes of witches broom and frosty pod allowing them to find the genetic triggers underlying the infection, that could be a very useful weapon in fighting disease.

However, even with these advancements, there is much work that remains to be done. The next step, identifying molecular markers, is a complicated and painstaking process. Sequencing is the easy part. Assembling the genome and identifying the markers is really the art form. It’s kind of like assembling a 3-dimensional jigsaw puzzle—one for each of the 10 chromosomes in the cacao genome, each comprised of 40 million puzzle pieces.

In the end, a team of 60 scientists working at 20 different institutes in six different countries were able to assemble 76 percent of the Criollo genome and identify 96 percent of the genes. The Forastero genome project met with even greater success, with 92 percent of the genome assembled, including 35,000 genes.

While the two simultaneous projects might recall the infamous race between Celera Genomics and the publicly financed Human Genome Project to sequence the human genome, both cacao genome groups compliment each other for providing the opportunity to compare the two closely related Forastero and Criollo varieties.

The Forastero genome recently became available online and the Criollo sequence will be posted on the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) website, also home to the human genome.

Both groups intend to continue perfecting their respective sequences, while moving into the next stage of translating the roughly 420 million-unit DNA sequences into heartier cacao plants around the world.

It’s not only about helping chocolate manufacturers make better products; it should also help farmers create a more reliable crop that can be grown in an environmentally sustainable way.

That’s great news for 3.5 million substance farmers who depend on growing cacao for a living, and for chocolate-loving people who can look forward to enjoying great chocolate for years to come.

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