“Everything I do is with chocolate,” says Haroon Malak, Global Chocolate Senior Scientist and Radiation Safety Officer at Mars, the company that makes M&Ms®, Snickers®, Dove® 3M® and Twix® bars, among other products.
Malak enjoyed studying chemistry at Parsippany Hills High School in New Jersey, 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.S. in organic chemistry from Rutgers University. He worked in an X-Ray Crystallography lab at Rutgers, Newark where he collaborated with colleagues and published several papers. Then he was hired by Mars 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 diffract 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 factories around the globe! Malak works with chocolate and other candies to understand the fundamental science behind making candy, addressing issues and solving problems like “Exactly how things crystallize in chocolate?” He is also a fats & oils expert who manipulates physical and chemical properties of fats & oils, making sure that each product behaves in the way consumer expect it to when they pop it into their mouth.
Malak uses tools such as time-domain nuclear magnetic resonance (TD-NMR) and differential scanning calorimeters (DSC) to characterize fats and oils. These instruments provide scientific details about the 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 physical properties of different fats & oils, Malak is a principle investigator of how moisture and oxidation can impact overall quality of the product. For example, 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 comes up with long term strategy around how to protect and prevent product from oxidizing.
Malak, who calls himself a “Negotiator 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 why specific raw ingredients from various origin melt slowly, Malak collaborated with the team and came up with design of experiment and ran a statistical analysis to collect the data. When they had the scientific results from the experiments, they found their mean (average) and standard deviation and were able to decide how to improve the slow melt rate for making a quality product.
Like many scientists Math4Science interviews, Malak wishes that he had studied more statistics, which he calls “Powerful tool to have under your belt.” He also thinks that his college should have taught more of the applications of mathematics and science in combination and how these two go hand-in-hand.
Next time you have the opportunity to study chemistry or statistics, just think of the chocolate they might lead you to….