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2016-02-01 / Features

The Sweet Life

What’s not to love about chocolate? Nothing! From the chocolaty secrets science has unlocked to meeting some local chocolate makers, we took a look at one of the sweetest foods on earth — and its surprising benefits.
Maggie Anderson | photos by Matt Fern


Spending every day surrounded by chocolate, taste testing to ensure quality control, selling truffles and bonbons to the neighborhood — that might sound like a child’s dream job. But for three local adults, it’s a sweet reality.

Sam Phillips has been overseeing the production of thousands and thousands of chocolates every year since taking over Gardners Candies in 1992.  But his introduction to the sweet life started long before that. “My uncle took my grandfather’s recipes and opened up a candy store in New Jersey,” he says, “So I grew up with his business.” That’s how Phillips knew the key to running the Tyrone-based candy company — not changing a thing. “The Peanut Butter Meltaway recipe has not changed at all,” he says. “The key to the recipes is that we do not change the ingredients. Our chocolate is really high-quality chocolate. We wouldn’t dare change that.”

That means that since James Gardner got his start in 1897, all that has changed is the technology. Granted, that’s a lot of change. The candy plant employs about 75 rather happy workers who cook candy and run machines. Some candies are made with nearly fully automated equipment that stretches the length of the production room while others are almost wholly handmade.

This time of year, the plant is in full-production mode for Easter candies. For the coconut eggs, an employee pushes coconut into an extruder that punches out egg shapes. Those run down the assembly line, get a coat of chocolate on the bottom, run over a chilled area, get enrobed in chocolate farther along and then are immediately decorated with thin ribbons of chocolate. At that point, another worker checks each candy, fixing any mistakes before the eggs are sent into a 40-degree cooling chamber for 20 minutes. At the other end, the candies are picked up by two more employees and put into boxes.

But in another part of the plant, three women work to make nut-filled chocolate eggs for Easter, and they do it all by hand. “You have to pack the nut mixture in by hand so the nuts don’t float,” explains Phillips. “We do a lot of big volume stuff, but we also do a lot of small volume stuff by hand.”

About 45 miles away from the big plant is Chocolates by Leopold, with its new store in Boalsburg. By hand is the only way Leopold Schreiber has done it for 55 years. “Leo is the heart of the company,” says store manager Becky Sherman. “He started when he was 12!” And just like Gardners, the recipes have remained the same. “What we really focus on is not changing those recipes and using the best ingredients we can find anywhere in the world,” says Michelle Depue, business developer for the Montrose, Pennsylvania-based company. “So for example, we get our ginger from Australia, and we get our orange peel from Spain. We really want the best product that we can possibly make.”

Sam Phillips lifts the lid of a vat of melted chocolate.Sam Phillips lifts the lid of a vat of melted chocolate.One of those products is the best-selling butter crunch, which has a German toffee center enrobed in chocolate and covered in crushed nuts. “There are some secrets to that recipe,” says Depue. “We’ve got chocolate shops in New York City buying that from us 50 pounds at a time.” The company distributes to about 85 places from Long Island to just past State College in addition to its now three stores: the factory store in Montrose and two new stores in Boalsburg and Binghamton, New York.

To make enough chocolate for all of those retail locations, Leopold uses about 24,000 pounds of chocolate a year. “And that’s just for the outside,” says Depue. The inside, of course, can be any number of things, like a caramel made with Otto’s Pub & Brewery’s Black Mo Stout or truffles made with Pennsylvania wines.

Wine and chocolate is a winning combination, and Bill Speakman knows it. He’s the owner of the Boalsburg Chocolate Company, which also sells wine by Mount Nittany Vineyard & Winery (They’ll run a wine and chocolate pairing out at the winery oBecky Sherman of Chocolates by LeopoldBecky Sherman of Chocolates by Leopoldn Feb. 13 and 14). Speakman’s shop is located just down the street from Leopold’s Boalsburg outpost. He’s been there eight years and welcomes the newcomer.

“The more the merrier!” Like Phillips, Speakman has been in the business a while. “I’ve been doing chocolate since I got out of college,” he says. “It was my first job. I was a candy buyer for a department store.” So he knows what’s important.

“The first thing is the chocolate itself,” he says. Most candy companies don’t make the chocolate themselves — someone else takes the cocoa beans and roasts, grinds and mixes them to form the confection. Speakman’s chocolates are made to his specifications using Peter’s Chocolate from Lititz at an Asher’s Chocolates plant in Lewistown. “When we started, it was the Goss Candy Company,” he says. “When Asher’s bought it, they kept some of the old Goss recipes. They still make it the way they always made it.”

Speakman’s best-selBill Speakman of Boalsburg Chocolate CompanyBill Speakman of Boalsburg Chocolate Companylers are sea salt caramels, and he prefers dark over milk chocolate. “In most states, dark chocolate outsells milk, but not in Pennsylvania,” he says.  Phillips also prefers dark chocolate, noting that Gardners’ mix is 52 percent cocoa. But his favorite candy is the famous Peanut Butter Meltaway.  “We sell much more peanut butter than the average candy company,” he says. So it’s a good thing that they can make them fast — the Meltaway machine can make about 16,000 pieces in an eight-hour shift.

Even with that large output, there’s a lot of quality control. “This is what’s great about working here,” says Phillips as he passes his finger under a stream of melted chocolate to get a taste. “All the employees can nibble all they want. Everybody is a taste tester.” And does he ever feel a little like Willy Wonka? With a smirk, Phillips says, “Kind of.” •SCM

This Is Your Brain On Chocolate

There’s a well-known line by humor writer and self-professed chocoholic Dave Barry: “Your hand and your mouth agreed many years ago that, as far as chocolate is concerned, there is no need to involve your brain.” And it is seemingly true that your hand defies logic in repeatedly reaching for chocolates with little thoughtful interruption from the brain. But recent research is showing that your brain is definitely involved when it comes to chocolate.

“There’s actually a body of science underpinning one of your most favorite foods!” says David Stuart, former director of research for The Hershey Company.  Scientists are finding that certain naturally occurring compounds in the cocoa bean may translate to health benefits. “Green tea, wine, in particular red wine, as well as grapeseed extracts and the skins of many of the berries contain similar compounds,” he says, “And it’s turning out that a lot of the science is pointing in the same direction, which leads scientists to believe that there are common natural compounds in foods causing these effects.”

Red wine is widely believed to improve heart health, and chocolate is showing similar effects. “Key polyphenols cause vasodilation and lowering of blood pressure,” says Stuart. “We also found [in a study at Penn State] that the polyphenols in cocoa would suppress enzymes that create the first compounds in the inflammatory pathway, the same pathway that aspirin works on.” Though there’s not enough of the compounds to cause pain relief, the fact that chocolate might have an effect on inflammation is just another of its positive properties.

One of the major compounds found in chocolate, theobromine, is toxic to dogs, but for humans, there are a number of benefits. The molecule is related to caffeine, which is also present in chocolate in very small amounts. But theobromine is not a stimulant, like caffeine.  Rather, theobromine works like the polyphenols, on the inflammation pathway. It can also aid in relieving asthma symptoms.

But the most recent and exciting studies have to do with chocolate and the brain. In 2012, a study that involved mildly cognitively impaired elderly people showed that, when put on a cocoa regimen for five to six weeks, they performed better in both reaction time and memory recall tests.  Even further, says Stuart, “There’s a group at Mount Sinai that is working on early-stage Alzheimer’s in rodents, and they are finding that the plaques that are associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s disassociate after consumption of chocolate and cocoa. That would suggest that there is something in the chocolate that can go into the brain that may help fight this disease.”

In Europe scientists are doing human brain scans with an MRI and finding that with enough cocoa, the hippocampus — the area of the brain associated with memory — shows more activity.  Even laboratory snails improved in memory in a simple maze test when given epicatechin, one of the polyphenols found in high amounts in cocoa.

In addition to memory, chocolate may also be able to improve your mood. “With a lot of things in the body, you will have competing hormonal systems, like insulin to lower your blood sugar and glucagon to raise your blood sugar,” explains Stuart. “In stress, we’ve got relaxing hormones and we’ve got tension or stress hormones, like cortisol. There has been one report showing that humans have lower cortisol levels after consuming chocolate.”

As a caution, Stuart notes that some of these are preliminary studies that haven’t gone through enough rigorous, human clinical trials.  But it’s still exciting research.   And with further research it may just prove what you always knew — eating chocolate does make you healthier and happier.

Planting a New Future

Mark Guiltinan and Siela Maximova are cocoa scientists — which is just as cool as it sounds. At the Guiltinan-Maximova Lab at Penn State, they worked to sequence the cocoa genome and develop new ways to grow the ancient plant. “Basically we’re trying to find out what are the most important genes that are responsible for traits like disease resistance and flavor, and then give that information to breeders so they can breed better plants,” says Guiltinan.

“We knew we had a lot of work to do when we started the project,” says Maximova, “but we really didn’t fully understand the scope. Now we know that there are about 28,000 genes in cacao, and we could only guess at the function of about half of those.”

Through their travels to cocoa-producing countries in Africa and Central and South America, they began to see a vision for projects worldwide with long-term impacts. “It’s kind of a whole new direction for us,” says Guiltinan. “We’re going into Colombia and Peru and actually working more with projects that are going to directly help farmers to get better yields and better quality cocoa.”

These projects will bring together scientists and farmers to improve the crops — and potentially have an impact on the countries’ economies. “The short version of the story is that in Colombia, guerrillas for over 50 years have been destroying the countryside, murdering and drug trafficking,” says Guiltinan. “We all hope that the peace agreement will be signed soon, then people will put down the guns and will need jobs, and one of the most important areas for job creation is agriculture.” A key to this plan is that cacao grows in the same places where coca, the plant from which cocaine is extracted, is being grown.

“Both countries right now are minor players in world cocoa production, but they have great potential to produce a lot more,” says Maximova. “Penn State faculty will help to train students in how to do basic and applied research and train the future generation of cacao plant scientists and breeders.”

The Love Connection

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”
—Charles M. Schulz

As anyone looking forward to Valentine’s Day knows, chocolate and love seem to go hand in hand. The sweet treat has been claimed as an aphrodisiac for centuries. But is there any actual scientific evidence to back up this claim? Maybe, maybe not. The connection between chocolate and love could just be a relationship we’ve taught ourselves over time — or that any number of smart marketing campaigns have taught us — but you can make a scientific case for it in looking at the individual compounds. The serotonin and theobromine in chocolate have effects that can mirror, shall we say, amorous feelings.

“Dark chocolate consumption could result in enhancing signaling through the nitric oxide pathway, similar to Viagra,” notes Maximova, which, of course, simply refers to the vasodilation properties of certain compounds found in cacao beans. Another molecule in chocolate, anandamide or AEA, derives its name from a Sanskrit word meaning “joy, bliss and delight.” “When people fall in love, levels of this go up,” says Guiltinan, “But the problem with this is, if you measure the amount in chocolate, it’s less than in salami.”

So it’s hard to attribute a love connection to chocolate chemistry alone. Take Stuart’s 7-year-old grandson and his love of Hershey Kisses. “He loves to pull that tassel out and then carefully take the foil off.  He then likes to pop them, one by one, into his mouth and feel them melt.  Then he grins,” says Stuart. “He’s going through a ritual that he learned at any early age. So, there is so much more to some of these foods than just the chemicals in them.”

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