By Laura Yates
Chocolate lovers are in luck. Ohio University alumnus W. Jeffrey Hurst, a senior staff scientist with The Hershey Co., will indulge the campus community in chocolate's rich history at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Walter Hall 235.
Hurst, who earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the university in 1969, also will participate in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry's 2008 Colloquium Series at 4 p.m. Tuesday in Morton Hall 127. The department and Kennedy Lecture Series will co-sponsor Hurst's visit.
Long before KitKats and M&Ms, cacao -- the bean used to make chocolate -- was being savored by Mesoamericans in Belize, says Hurst, who started working with archeologists to test for the chemical compound's remains in ancient pottery in the 1980s. The team used high-performance liquid chromatography to identify a compound specific to cacao, proving Preclassic Mayans consumed the treat as early as 600 B.C.
Hurst's team was the first to scientifically prove the ancient sweet tooth. However, the treat wasn't for everyone -- nor was it your typical Hershey bar. In Mesoamerica, only the warrior class and elite consumed cacao, which also was used as currency, Hurst says.
"Take baking chocolate, break it up, throw it in the blender and add hot water. That would get you close to Mesoamerican chocolate," Hurst says.
Hurst, who has delivered more than 200 presentations and publications, describes himself as a self-taught food chemist. "Originally, the only thing I knew about food was that you ate it," says Hurst, who teaches part-time at Penn State.
Hurst's more recent work was done in the lower Ulua Valley in northern Honduras. There, chemical analysis showed cacao beverages were enjoyed as early as 1100 B.C., nearly 500 years earlier than previously documented.
His exploration of ancient chocolate, which is supported by Hershey but is not his primary responsibility, began as one of his many side projects. His daily work at Hershey involves separation science, the evaluation of new analytical technologies and the exploration of food allergens.
"You can't be one dimensional," he says. "The more you know, the more involved you get, the better you are going to be."