Diamond miner

Related tags Barry callebaut Cocoa Caffeine

Cocoa beans are the food industry's new diamonds. Elaine Watson meets the man who's mining their potential

Picture this business as a pile of stones, says the chief innovation officer at the world's largest chocolate company. "You pick one up, blow off the dust and realise, oh my God! I'm sitting on a diamond mine!"

Spend 20 minutes talking to Hans Vriens at Barry Callebaut, and you'll emerge convinced that the humble cocoa bean, and not the diamond, is a girl's, and an investor's, best friend.

As one of the founders of energy drink phenomenon Red Bull - he was employee number five - Vriens knows a thing or two about spotting an opportunity.

"Before I joined Barry Callebaut (in December 2005), I was looking around for a natural product that had great potential, so I looked at a variety of things with functional benefits including coffee beans, which are pretty amazing. But cocoa is in another league. It's got more than 700 compounds and 230 of them have potential health benefits. If you can harness that and take the guilt out of chocolate, the sky is the limit."

Vriens, who started his career at Mars and Procter & Gamble before joining Red Bull, says Barry Callebaut has three core strengths: its flexibility - it has more than 2,000 recipes in its library; its research and development expertise - it knows more about cocoa than anyone else; and its joined-up supply chain - it controls the process from the bean to the shelf.

Once harvested, cocoa beans are left to ferment under banana leaves before being laid out to dry in the sun. While there is a lot that can be achieved with plant breeding, the key means of preserving the healthy components in the beans is through controlling the fermentation process, says Vriens.

"There are so many exciting components in cocoa, from fibres that can be used as sugar replacers in lower calorie, prebiotic, more tooth-friendly and satiating products, to compounds that can be used as processing agents in beer."

Companies looking to develop new functional foods promoting better cardiovascular health and that reduce the risk of certain cancers should take a closer look at cocoa. Cocoa polyphenols have a significantly higher antioxidant capacity - the ability to neutralise harmful free radicals that can damage cell tissue - than pomegranates, blueberries, broccoli, and even 'superfoods' such as açai berries and green tea, claims Vriens.

Guilt free indulgence

Just 9g of Acticoa chocolate, Barry Callebaut's new antioxidant-rich chocolate, provides the recommended daily intake of polyphenols in one bite. And it silences critics that claim you have to exceed recommended levels of fat and sugar intakes in order to gain any health benefits from chocolate, says Vriens. "You'd have to eat something like 2,000 apples to get the same effect."

Given that free radical damage also accelerates the ageing process, there has been considerable interest in cocoa polyphenols from cosmetics and beauty foods companies, says Vriens. "We're in trials with some very large players in this market at the moment." Also potentially exciting is the effect of cocoa on the brain, he says. "We're just at the beginning of understanding this, but there is no doubt that chocolate affects the mood."

More than 20 clinical trials exploring the healthy effects of cocoa are currently in progress, says Vriens. "But you have to focus on what will make sense to the market. Here's why. About six or seven years ago, it emerged that cocoa polyphenols inhibited the growth of prostate cancer cells. Amazing - cocoa not just reducing the risk of, but actually helping prevent and cure, prostate cancer.

"Of course, no one actually sat back and thought, if I am diagnosed with prostate cancer, what am I going to do - buy a chocolate bar, or seek medical help? It doesn't matter whether it works or not; you have to remember why people buy foods and allocate your research and development money accordingly."

While Barry Callebaut has protected its intellectual property with an elaborate series of patents, these should not in themselves be taken as any indication of its likelihood of success in the functional foods market, says Vriens.

"You can patent almost anything; it doesn't mean that it's any good. We are excited because we have something really special, not because we've got loads of patents."

Low sugar chocolate is another diamond mine waiting to be tapped, he predicts. "Why is it that sugar-free chocolate represents something like 1.6% of the market, and yet 38% of people say they would like it if you ask them?" Aside from whether consumers are put off by laxative claims for such products since they typically contain sugar replacers such as maltitol, the marketing is all wrong, claims Vriens.

Taste and indulgence

"People are selling it as diet chocolate. Who wants to eat diet chocolate? Chocolate is about taste and indulgence. They should be taking a completely different approach." By using cocoa fibres to replace up to 50% of the sugar in chocolate, manufacturers could create new products with new claims about fibre, satiety or even prebiotic effects, he claims.

"Look at sugar-free gum. When it first came on the market, it didn't really get anywhere. Once they started the tooth-friendly marketing, it went through the roof. You have to find messages that work. I think we can do this with sugar-reduced chocolate, but we have to do something different."

Other opportunities come with texture, he says. "What's the most obvious way to create a 100 calorie pack without offering someone a couple of squares of chocolate? Aerate it. Make it bigger and lighter."

Chocs away?

As for the new European Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation, which could potentially put a spanner in the works for health claims on chocolate or other fatty and sugary products because of its controversial nutrient profiling clause, Vriens is sanguine. "I don't see this as a barrier to progress. For a start, we can still use Acticoa ingredients in so-called 'healthier' products such as iced cocoa drinks, tea, and so on. We also don't know how the nutrient profiles will work and what exemptions will be made.

"Overall, any legislation that weeds out all the crappy claims that are out there has to be good news for us. I see this as an opportunity, not a threat."

Follow us

Featured Jobs

View more


Food Manufacture Podcast

Listen to the Food Manufacture podcast