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Confectionery Chemistry

Brats, cheese, milk, and beer are the foodstuffs typically associated with Wisconsin. But how about chocolates, chewing gum, and caramels?

Sandra Knisely '09, MA'13
October 26, 2015

Brats, cheese, milk, and beer are the foodstuffs typically associated with Wisconsin. But how about chocolates, chewing gum, and caramels?

For more than half a century, candy makers have been coming to campus to learn about the chemistry behind their craft. The UW Resident Course in Confectionery Technology, affectionately known as “Candy School,” brings together about twenty-five professionals each summer for two weeks of seminars and hands-on candy-making labs led by industry experts.

Why would a state university host this by-industry, for-industry program? The UW provides a neutral space for collaboration and cutting-edge experimentation for an otherwise secretive and competitive field.

“There are a number of confectionery organizations in the U.S., and all of them do some sort of education and training, but they all do it at companies, which don’t want to open their doors to competitors,” says Rich Hartel, a professor of food science and the long-time director of Candy School.

This corporate resistance to sharing knowledge was why the National Confectioners Association originally sought out a university to host a one-of-a-kind candy residence program in 1963. At the time, Chicago was a national hub for candy manufacturing, and the association pitched the candy-school concept to several institutions within a reasonable distance to the city. The UW said yes.

In the years since, UW-Madison has formed close partnerships with many major candy manufacturers. These partnerships have helped the UW to develop an undergraduate candy-science program unlike any other in the country. In fact, Badgers rarely attend Candy School because UW-trained confectioners are generally more technically savvy than many of their peers, thanks to their rigorous undergraduate coursework under Hartel.

Now a candy-making mentor, Hartel, too, was once a protégé. Candy School’s founding director, Professor Emeritus Joe von Elbe ’59, MS’60, PhD’64, led the program until the 1980s, when he put a hand on the shoulder of a then-brand-new professor with a PhD in sugar crystallization.

“He said, ‘This would be a good thing for you,’ ” Hartel recalls.

Though the director has changed, many other elements of Candy School have remained the same through five decades. “We teach the basics,” Hartel says. “The ingredients don’t change much in terms of how they work and what people like to eat.”

However, new trends do periodically emerge in the candy industry. Currently, Hartel says he’s seeing a push for more sugar-free candy options, as well as natural colors and flavorings. Manufacturers are also experimenting with “enhanced confections,” which include products such as gummy vitamins and flavored calcium supplements.

So, which sweets does the UW’s resident candy expert favor? Snickers and Reese’s. And no, he won’t say which ones he likes the least!

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