Willy Wonka and his fabulous confections

Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: the science of his sweets

Image credit: Rex

Imagine being able to recreate the magical confectionery that resides in the pages of Roald Dahl’s much-loved children’s novel. Some are still impossible for now, but there are companies that claim to be able to make some of the fantasy a very sweet reality.

The edible garden

“Everything inside is eatable. I mean edible. I mean you can eat everything.”

The visual feast of Willy Wonka’s garden is something that all film-lovers remember. The bright, fantastic colours, shapes and textures and the fact you could nibble away at all of it and it tasted great? That’s incredible. So could modern-day Wonkas make it happen?

The answer is that it’s entirely possible to make a static edible garden. Sugar can be very pliable - it can create flowers and ornaments and hot spun sugar can make sculptures. There are plenty of sugar artists who design beautiful and realistic work.

Yet there would be challenges of potential contamination, with visitors stepping on confectionery and touching and eating the product. Sam Bompas, director of Bompas & Parr, says you would have to “make sure that you lower the risk by working with low-risk foods. Confectionery is really good because it has loads of sugar in it and low available water value, so it’s difficult for bacteria to grow on it.”

Charlie Francis, owner of Lick Me I’m Delicious, a company that specialises in experimental food installations, says the idea behind the garden of Willy Wonka is that it grows: “This means it takes you to the world of genetically modified (GM) plants and things like that.

“The question is whether we create something completely new which grows by itself, or you could create some form of machine that extrudes candy flowers and plants.”

He says another route you could take is making plants sweeter and altering what plants currently do.

“Think about brussels sprouts. If you imagine what they tasted like - they were very bitter when I was growing up - they’re now very sweet. That’s not down to GM, that’s selective breeding. If you took that to extremes, you could take a tomato and make it so sweet it could taste like cake.”

Another way is making the garden out of selective breeds from around the world, like the real-life ice cream banana. Francis adds: “If you wanted to go crazy on it, how about you get a load of scientists and do selective breeding and modify plants to try and create a real garden which actually has fruit that tastes of sweets.”

He also suggests taste enhancers such as the miracle berry (Synsepalum dulcificum), a naturally occurring fruit. It contains a glycoprotein called miraculin, which binds to the tongue’s tastebuds when it is eaten. “It inhibits your sour taste buds and makes everything taste sweet, so if you had something like a lemon plant in the garden, ate this berry and then bit into the lemon plant, it would taste sweet. Other taste modifiers can inhibit bitterness.”

Francis adds that “it’s probably the way I would go down. I would make a real-life garden. The point of Roald Dahl’s garden, even though it looked beautiful and weird and wacky, was that it was real. You could go in there and take some gloopy stuff, which would then flower to make a new bloom with more gloopy stuff.

He says you don’t need to make it look necessarily beautiful. “Think about it, if you have a strawberry, it’s already sweet and lovely, could you make it more sweet and gloopy?”

Everlasting gobstopper

“They’re completely new! I am inventing them for children who are given very little pocket money. You can put an Everlasting Gobstopper in your mouth and you can suck it and suck it and suck it and suck it and it will never get any smaller!”

Gobstoppers are pretty laborious when you try to get through them. It takes hours, even days, to finish the sweet beast. It may feel everlasting, depending on the size. Yet an actual gobstopper that lasts forever? Is it doable?

Andy Baxendale, technical director at Sweetdreams Ltd, says that it’s possible to make a longer-lasting large version, but still not everlasting. It could be made to last by adding edible slow-dissolving polymeric compounds - for example long-chain sugars or starches. This would slow down the dissolution process and make them last a long time.

Sam Bompas suggests the everlasting aspect could be done through electronic stimulus on the tongue. Charlie Francis concurs: “When you talk of some tastes, like salt, your body is aware of the salty flavour through electronic sensation in your tongue; that’s the way your brain takes in data.

“Our electric lollipops trick your body into experiencing a taste without giving you any food. I can imagine you can do an electronic everlasting gobstopper which gave you a taste sensation and you could embed it with a scent. To get the taste you would have to change the electrical wavelength to stimulate different tastes.”

Giant to tiny Wonka bar

“The very first time I saw ordinary television working, I was struck by a tremendous idea. ‘Look here!’ I shouted, ‘If these people can break up a photograph into millions of pieces and send the pieces whizzing through the air and then put them together again at the other end, why can’t I do the same with a bar of chocolate?’”

Andy Baxendale, technical director at Sweetdreams Ltd, says this technology “is possibly still a little in the future. This involves matter transfer in the original film; however, scientists have recently transferred a photon (light particle) from one place to another, which forms the basis of matter transfer. A bit more work is needed to be able to send chocolate bars through the ether, though.”

Reddit user CalibanDrive disagrees, commenting that “it’s pure fantasy. The way the camera is described to work is that it is simultaneously a Star Trek-like transporter and a Honey! I Shrunk the Kids!-like shrink ray.”

“Like a transporter, it appears to convert matter into information/energy, move that information/energy to a different location and then reassemble it back into matter. This alone is pretty much impossible, but on top of that it purportedly ‘shrinks’ the object being transported, which is also pretty much impossible. It’s not explained how it shrinks the object. Does it remove excess free space between atomic particles? Impossible. Does it edit out extraneous particles, thus only transporting a small percentage of the original mass? One can imagine this would simply kill the kid who was transported.”

Fellow redditor Frnklfrwsr adds: “If a kid [Mike Teavee] has been shrunken down to 1:100 their original size, oxygen molecules in the air around them will not have shrunk, but alveoli in their lungs have shrunk. They are no longer able to absorb oxygen molecules that are, from their perspective, 100 times too big.”

Essentially, if you shrink a person, they’ll asphyxiate.

CalibanDrive says that would happen “unless the ray doesn’t actually shrink the actual person 1:100, but rather reconstructs a mouse into a vaguely and superficially humanoid shape.”

Fizzy lifting drink

“Oh, those are fabulous!” cried Mr Wonka. “They fill you with bubbles, and the bubbles are full of a special kind of gas, and this gas is so terrifically lifting that it lifts you right off the ground just like a balloon, and up you go until your head hits the ceiling - and there you stay.”

If this was available now, we wouldn’t need aircraft.

Baxendale believes this is entirely possible if enough helium gas could be compressed into a fizzy drink to lift a person, as it is the lightest. “Hydrogen would be better, but is rather flammable and could have disastrous effects if consumed then exhaled near a naked flame.

“Once the drink containing said gas is imbibed, the gas would have the effect of turning the person into a human balloon. However, what effect this would have on the imbiber’s shape and size is unknown.”

Francis disagrees: “The physics of it is impossible with any gas we have. If you donned a suit or did something else you could do it.”

He adds that you need have external parameters to reduce the variable amount of lift that’s required. “The fan on the top of the Willy Wonka lifting room [in the film], I’d probably have a fan on the bottom of it, so if you walk in you’re already starting to float a bit then you’d nudge yourself over with the drink.

“You’d ideally want the drink to initiate it; you’d have to drink a lot of it to make it work. You’d have to drink so much, to actually make yourself lighter than air.”

Lickable wallpaper

“I must show you this. Lickable wallpaper for nursery school walls. Go ahead, try it. The oranges taste like oranges, the raspberries taste like raspberries, the snozzberries taste like snozzberries.”

When thinking of the practicalities of lickable wallpaper, you don’t really want to go ahead and enjoy the tasty wall whilst sharing your spittle with other people. It’s a health and safety nightmare.

Francis says due to the hygiene issues, you’d probably have to print the flavourful wallpaper on a brass backing. “Brass is self-sanitising; brass knobs were used in hospitals because they would disinfect themselves due to the oxidisation process. But it takes seven hours.”

You’d have to wait a long time between lickings. He also suggests UV light.

Baxendale suggests that using a starch-based paper which has been soaked in a flavour and then drying it is a good foundation for lickable wallpaper.

Three-course meal gum

Baxendale theorises that flavours are available now which could be used for an extremely palatable three-course meal gum. “They would need encapsulating so that the starter flavour came out first, the next would have a thicker encapsulation which would dissolve more slowly, until finally the pudding would have the greatest amount of encapsulation and thus come out last.”

Bompas’ company already makes artisanal gum, so is well-versed in the art. He suggests the flavours are encapsulated in a fatty envelope and the gum would be made by “mixing rumbas (non-nutritive, non-digestible masticatory product) with flavourings, some of which are micro-encapsulated to delay release, sugar and sweeteners.”

Francis reckons you would do the three courses with heat. “You could have different ingredients which are activated at different heat temperatures as you chew.

“Our company makes port and blue-cheese ice cream. The port is the ice cream and it has small tiny pieces of globules of stilton within it. As the cheese is fat-coated and cold, you don’t taste it, but then as it warms up in your mouth, the flavour profile comes through. That’s probably the easier way of doing it. You’d have to work with a flavour house for a three-course meal gum.”

Cavity-filling caramels

“Cavity-filling caramels - no more dentists.”

Francis has a dental background and believes this is doable by using the same enamel repairing compounds found in some toothpastes, but “you wouldn’t have any sugar in the caramel. Sugar causes bacteria in your mouth which creates the plaque that attacks your teeth. You’d create a caramel which was using a sweetener or taste modifier to make it taste sweet. Then you’d put some enamel-building properties in the caramel.”

Toffee-apple trees for your garden

“Toffee-apple trees for planting out in your garden - all sizes.”

Baxendale has an animated idea for the toffee-apple tree, by adding a small toffee dispenser over every apple on a tree. “They could be rigged so that once an apple falls it is attached by a short thread to a flap on the toffee dispenser which then dumps a wad of toffee onto the apple.” He adds that with this extra weight, the thread would be designed to snap, thus propelling said toffee-coated apple to the ground.

Similarly, Francis theorises a toffee-coating sprinkler which goes off every day and sprinkles the apples in toffee.

Chewing gum that never loses its taste

“He can make chewing-gum that never loses its taste.”

Baxendale says that chewing gum doesn’t lose its taste; rather, “the sugar is dissolved in the consumer’s mouth which gives the illusion of all the flavour being used up. By supplying extra sugar to be popped in when the flavour has gone, it makes the flavour return. Try it - it really works.”

Francis has a method for the gum, but says it is rather grim. “I wonder if you could create an enzyme that gives your saliva a flavour, I have no idea how that would be or how you’d do it.

“Chewing gum makes you salivate. The one thing your body will always produce is saliva. Saliva has certain chemicals in it which makes it what it is. If you can make some type of reaction, an endless reaction to whatever is in the gum and whatever is in your saliva. That would be the way I’d do it.”

Chocolate waterfall

“The waterfall is most important! It mixes the chocolate! It churns it up! It pounds it and beats it! It makes it light and frothy! No other factory in the world mixes its chocolate by waterfall! But it’s the only way to do it properly! The only way!”

Bompas & Parr installed Mt. Rocky, the world’s first chocolate-based climbing wall and largest scratch-n-sniff structure at Alton Towers. The tall wall featured a cascading four-tonne chocolate waterfall flowing at a rate of 70,000 litres an hour, chocolate grotto and scratch-n-sniff chocolate scented seating areas.

Francis, whose company had a chocolate tap (“a small version of the waterfall,” he quips), says you would need to keep the chocolate warm to stop it setting - for tempered chocolate, which is more pliable, it would have to be 32°C, while for flowing the temperature would need to be around 40°C.

Roald Dahl and Willy Wonka

The story behind the confectionery

'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is a 1964 children's book by celebrated British author Roald Dahl. The story follows 11-year-old Charlie Bucket and his adventures inside the chocolate factory of mysterious chocolatier Willy Wonka.

Dahl was initially inspired by his childhood experience of chocolate companies. Confectionery maker Cadbury's [now just plain Cadbury] would often send products to schoolchildren for review in the 1920s and the rivalry between Cadbury's and Rowntree's - they would use spies, posing as employees, to steal trade secrets - all helped fuel Dahl's creative process.

In the novel, Charlie Bucket lives in poverty with his family, but is a humble and happy child. He finds one of five Golden Tickets to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory in the wrapping of a Wonka Bar. What follows is a wonderful adventure in the wacky, colourful factory. The other four winners of the Golden Tickets happen to be horrible children, whose selfishness and greed leads to some serious, albeit hilarious, life lessons.

The story is also known through two film versions, released in 1971 and 2005.

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