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The man who ruined chocolate

On the 75th anniversary of Milton Hershey’s death, a look back at his questionable legacy

Despite an adequate understanding of desserts, why can’t Americans manufacture a decent bar of chocolate?
Despite an adequate understanding of desserts, why can’t Americans manufacture a decent bar of chocolate? (Alamy)

In the days when consumer choice in India was severely restricted, even inexpensive gifts from relatives settled abroad felt special. Foreign chocolates topped my list of desirable presents, their creamy lusciousness outclassing local brands that sacrificed texture to retain their form at high temperatures. Family members indulged my chocolate fixation, allowing me a lion’s share of any confections that made their way to our home from alien shores.

At eight or nine years of age, I made my acquaintance with products of the company founded by the American businessman Milton Hershey, who died 75 years ago this week. An aunt visiting from California brought for us a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, and a glance at the tiny modak-shaped candies told me they were going to be delicious. I marvelled at the way a tug of the little paper tag jutting out at the top of each Kiss unravelled its aluminium foil cover, exposing the treat underneath. I popped one into my mouth and rolled it over gently with my tongue, extracting the maximum taste with minimal diminishment of volume. To my horror, the visual enticement turned out to be a deception. The chocolate was coarse-textured and had a sour undertaste to which the only analogue I could think of was vomit.

The Kisses remained undevoured for longer than any chocolates had done in my presence, although I soon arrived at a level of acceptance because they were, after all, sweet and cocoa-flavoured and cute-looking. Years later, on my first visit to the US, my confusion was compounded. Americans obviously had an adequate understanding of desserts. They had created the best ice-cream chains in the world, and every city had stores offering fabulous cookies, muffins, pastries and cheesecakes. How could they accomplish all this, yet be unable to manufacture a decent bar of chocolate?

An invention known as the world wide web, new at the time, offered a means to receive answers to pressing questions of this sort. Having typed a query into a search engine, I discovered that hundreds of people across the globe, from Manila, from São Paulo, from Kinshasa, had pleaded for a solution to the same troubling mystery: Why did American chocolate taste like puke?

The answer lay in the dream of one man, Milton Hershey, who made a fortune manufacturing caramel before focusing on creating an American milk chocolate that would match the achievements of European pioneers like Rodolphe Lindt, Henri Nestlé and George Cadbury. By 1900, after much trial and error, he had readied his signature product, a 5 cent bar that would become synonymous with chocolate across the nation. The problem Hershey faced was that the US was larger and warmer than North European countries and, as his ambitions expanded, he had to source perishable milk from long distances.

Although the formula he settled on remains a trade secret, the expert consensus is that he employed a process called lipolysis to stabilize milk. A side effect of lipolysis is the creation of butyric acid, a chemical first identified by a French chemist in the early 19th century as the molecule responsible for rancid butter’s repellent smell. Butyric acid, as it happens, also gives vomit its distinctive acridity. And there it was, thanks to the internet, problem solved.

Except, it wasn’t. The truly astonishing development in the story came later, once sophisticated cold chains had been established in the US, ensuring products like fresh milk could be transported without spoiling. By that time, the familiar Hershey taste was so closely associated with chocolate in the American mind that the company began adding butyric acid to its mix. The bug had become a feature. To make things worse, new brands of chocolate sought to emulate the tangy Hershey taste by creating their own upchuck-flavoured concoctions.

This history raises a further question: If American kids love Hershey bars, who is to say they are savouring an inferior product? De gustibus non est disputandum, goes a Latin saying. Its conventional English translation is, “there is no accounting for taste”, but that phrase is always accompanied by a roll of the eyes and shrug of the shoulders. The Latin original is less judgemental, asserting simply that taste should not be disputed. It is a lesson worth internalizing because, particularly in gustatory matters, snobbery is often a form of narrow-minded cultural chauvinism.

And yet, a part of me is convinced that tastes, while obviously subjective and culturally coded, also have a degree of universality. Most people like sugar and salt for a reason, and are disgusted by particular smells for a reason as well. Both feelings have adaptive benefits, although salt and sugar cravings, which evolved in an environment of scarcity, have become a health curse for the affluent in modern times. Since rancid butter and vomit evoke disgust across cultures, logic dictates that chocolate products containing butyric acid will lose out to those that don’t, all else being equal.

All else was not equal because Hershey had history on its side. The conditioning of generations of American children drove the firm’s dominance of the market before European brands arrived, attempting to grab a share. It is instructive, however, that Americans eat only half as much chocolate as the average Swiss citizen, whereas, with any comparable metric, they are at the head of the gluttony chart, or near the top.

Americans consume more calories per capita than any nation except Austria. More ice cream than any country barring New Zealand. In guzzling carbonated soft drinks, they are beaten to first rank by Mexico, but very narrowly. And they eat far more sugar than anyone else, a good 20% more than the nearest competitors. If their chocolate gorging lags behind Austrians, Germans, the Irish, Brits, Swedes, Estonians, Norwegians, Poles, Belgians, Finns, the Dutch, Danes, New Zealanders, Australians, Czechs, Slovaks and Russians, it must be a consequence of Milton Hershey’s legacy. Youngsters will always love chocolate, but if it comes with a faint scent of vomit, they will only love it to a certain degree.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

Clarification: In response to this column, Hershey India has clarified that its founder, Milton Hershey, used fresh milk for Hershey’s chocolates—and the company continues to use fresh milk. The company says lipolysis takes place during the processing of milk; it does not stabilise the milk but is, in fact, a flavour reaction. It says it does not add butyric acid to its mix, but that as “a natural reaction lipolysis creates butyric acid in the milk chocolate production”.

The company adds: “Hershey chocolates have not become so popular and loved by consumers around the world by accident. They are by far the most popular chocolate products across North America and growing around the world because they have a delicious and desirable taste that is preferred by many consumers.”

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