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Science News Digest- 9th April 2013

In the news this week… a method to lower the fat content of chocolate, without altering the texture, researchers discuss the findings of the biggest ever social science study of class in the UK, a new fat-capturing power plant that will use London’s waste food to generate energy, and finally… does the heart have a sense of smell?

Scientists find a new way to lower the fat content of chocolate

Researchers from the University of Warwick, have reported a new way to halve the fat content of chocolate, without losing the ‘velvety’ texture. Current low-fat versions of the popular confectionary often don’t live up to expectations, as the fat content is so crucial to the texture. However, the scientists have now discovered a way to replace up to half the fat content, with water, fruit juice, or even alcohol.

The fat globules in chocolate play an important structural role. Globules are usually smaller than 30 millionths of a metre across (half the width of a human hair) and are dispersed throughout the chocolate, remaining in place as it is heated and cooled. Any substitute needs to have the same properties, and to-date, there has been only limited success at finding suitable alternatives that preserve the well-loved qualities of full-fat chocolate.

Announcing their results at the American Chemical Society conference, the scientists explained the method, which used the gelling agent agar, to displace the fat. Reports from ITV show how the team were then able to use water, fruit juice, or alcohol to replace up to half of the fat. The juice and alcohol do give the chocolate a distinct flavour, but mean that it stays firm and snappy to the bite, and still melts in the mouth.

Lead researcher, Dr Stefan Bon, believes that this could be the first step to making a healthier kind of chocolate. Speaking at the meeting, in New Orleans, he said;

“Everyone loves chocolate – but unfortunately we all know that chocolate bars are high in fat. However, it’s the fat that gives all the indulgent sensations that people crave – the silky smooth texture and the way it melts in the mouth, but still has a “snap” to it when you break it in your hand”.

An additional benefit of the technology, is that it may help prevent the formation of the unappetising white film that sometimes appears on the surface of chocolate. There are several factors that can cause this so-called “chocolate bloom” – one of which is the separation of fat, allowing it to pool on the surface. This may be caused by incorrect storage of chocolate, or be down to incorrect tempering or cooling of the chocolate during production. (Not the be confused with sugar bloom, which is the formation of a grey-white film, which can be wiped off the surface of chocolate, and is usually caused by the chocolate coming in to contact with water during storage.) The process has so far been shown as an effective way of preventing fat bloom.

The scientists admit that vodka chocolate might not be a healthy alternative – but hope that this paves the way for the production of less unhealthy snacks.

The sociology of class

This week, sociologists from the London School of Economics, and the University of Manchester, have released the results of the largest survey of social class ever conducted in the UK, which has also been one of the most widely discussed public surveys of the last few years.

Over the last decade, there has been considerable interest in the analysis of social class inequality. In conjunction with the BBC, Professor Mike Savage and Professor Fiona Devine, launched ‘The Great British Class Survey’, asking BBC audiences to complete a questionnaire covering everything from their internet habits, to their social circles. The survey aimed to analyse many different facets of class. Rather than focusing purely on the job someone does, the researchers looked at the various economic, cultural and social resources (or ‘capitals’) the people possessed. This work elaborated a new model of social class, in an attempt to provide a contemporary way to map class divisions across the country.

The three ‘capitals’ examined in the survey looked at different aspects of the respondent’s life. ‘Economic capital’ was rated on the value of the respondents home, savings, and wages. ‘Cultural capital’ was based on their interests and hobbies, whilst the ‘social capital’ was based on the number, and type of people that the respondent socialised with.

The survey overthrew the traditional upper, middle and working class definitions, instead categorising people in to seven classes, ranging from Elite, through to Precariat. In between these, the middle and working class were further broken down into the Established and Technical Middle Classes, New Affluent Workers, and Emergent Service Workers, alongside the Traditional Working Class.

Where respondents fell in these categories, was based on their scores in the three capital categories. Although wealth levels were still important, higher levels of cultural and social capital helped distinguish the Technical Middle Class from the Established Middle Class, and separated the Emergent Service Workers, from the Traditional Working Class.

Findings showed that these categories may be a useful new way to look at the class system, as only 39% of participants fell in to the Established Middle Class, and Traditional Working Class categories. The Traditional Working Class, in particular, has changed; the average age in this class was older than the other classes, as younger generations were more likely to be Affluent Workers of Emergent Service Workers.

The study also, researchers say, allows us to discern for the first time, a distinctive elite class, whose sheer economic advantage sets it apart. In contrast, it also shows the existence of a sizeable group – around 15 per cent of the population, which lack any significant amount of economic, cultural, or social capital. These were identified as the ‘Precariat’, and researchers believe that the recognition of the existence of this group, along with the Elite, is a powerful reminder that the conventional approaches to class have hindered the recognition of these two extremes, despite the fact that they occupy a very distinctive place in our society.

The full findings have been published in the Sociology Journal, and presented at a conference of the British Sociological Association.

Fat-fuelled power station

The waste from thousands of London restaurants and food producers is to be used, in what is set to be the world’s biggest fat-fuelled power station.

The Guardian reports that thirty tonnes a day of fat-based waste, such as cooking oil, will be collected from kitchens, food production plants, and pinchpoints in sewers. This will be used to fuel the plant, and is likely to supply more than half the energy the plant needs to run. The energy from the plant will be channelled to run major sewer works, a desalination plant, as well as supplying the National Grid, and utility company 2OC. 2OC has stated that no virgin oils from field or plantation crops will be used to power the plant.

The technique of capturing fat from sewers has a two-fold benefit, as currently, £1m a month is spent clearing drains of around 40,000 fat-caused blockages a year, and planners say that the plant will produce 130 Gigawatt hours (GWh) a year of renewable electricity – enough to run just under 40,000 average-sized homes.

And finally…

There is growing evidence to suggest that the nose isn’t the only part of human anatomy, that is able to sense smells. This week, the American Chemical Society heard from Peter Schieberle, from the Technical University of Munich, that such sensors are also found in the heart, lungs and blood.

As reported by Live Science, quite what the impact of this is, Schieberle isn’t sure… but further research may show scientists how other organs interact with airborne chemical compounds, that we associate with certain smells.

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