“Everything I do is with chocolate,” says Haroon Malak, Analytical Support Scientist and Radiation Safety Officer at Mars, the company that makes M&Ms®, Snickers®, and Twix® bars, among many other products.
Haroon enjoyed studying chemistry at his New Jersey high school, where he got to do experiments which involved making shaving foam. He was inquisitive about “the chemistry behind everything” and also about human biology. In college, after considering becoming a doctor, he majored in organic chemistry. Then he received an M.A. in organic chemistry from Rutgers University. He also began work in X-Ray Crystallography and was hired by Mars, first as a contractor and then full time.
Ever see a model of a molecule? Models like the ones you may have seen are giant compared to the real molecules that make up everything around us. They help us imagine the structure of different molecules (like glucose and water molecules, for instance). Scientists like Malak shoot X-rays into crystals to discover new molecules and investigate how their atoms are arranged in space. They figure out which molecules are in different substances. What better place to do this than in a giant chocolate factory! Malak works with chocolate and other candies to understand the fundamental science behind making candy, addressing questions like “Exactly what happens as sugar dissolves into water?” He examines melt properties, making sure that each product behaves in the way you expect it to when you pop it into your mouth.
Malak uses tools such as time-domain nuclear magnetic resonance (TD-NMR) and differential scanning calorimeters (DSC) to characterize fats and oils under different conditions. These instruments mimic the texture and other properties of fats and oils in a person’s mouth. Different oils melt at different temperatures. Cocoa butter, for instance, has a high melting point (around 93.2 degrees Fahrenheit or 34 degrees Celsius). But olive oil remains liquid unless brought to a much lower temperature, because it has a lower crystallization point.
In addition to examining the melting points of different oils, Malak investigates the moisture and oxidation of ingredients, in order to protect their quality. If you leave oil out in the open or heat it under harsh conditions, it oxidizes (some of its molecules lose electrons). Oxidation makes oil or butter rancid, giving it a bad taste or smell. To make sure this doesn’t happen to candy, Malak checks that the oils Mars uses don’t oxidize under the different conditions they might encounter.
Malak, who calls himself a “delegator and a problem-solver for the issues around the global chocolate communities,” travels to Mars’s factories not just in the United States but in countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America, where he helps coordinate the scientific aspects of the process of making chocolate and attends conferences. For example, when someone at a factory asked him whether some of the oil they planned to use was good, Malak had them take a certain number of samples of the oil to test for oxidation and run a statistical analysis to determine its quality. When they had the scientific results from the samples, they found their mean (average) and standard deviation and were able to decide whether it was safe to use the oil for making a quality product.
Like many scientists Math4Science interviews, Malak wishes that he had studied more statistics, which he calls “very, very powerful.” He also thinks that his college should have taught more of the applications of mathematics.
Next time you have the opportunity to study chemistry or statistics, just think of the chocolate they might lead you to….