People have been promoting the health benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa for years. But new research goes a step further, elevating cocoa beans to the status of a super fruit, rivalling blueberries, cranberries and pomegranates.
The researchers compared commercial fruit powders and juices with various cocoa and chocolate products and found, for example, that dark chocolate had the greatest antioxidant capacity of almost all the products tested. The sole exception was pomegranate juice. In addition, the total flavanol content of cocoa powder was significantly greater than all of the other fruit powders tested. The team from The Hershey Center for Health & Nutrition published their findings in the Chemistry Central Journal. They also confirmed the importance of the treatment method. Some cocoa is treated with alkali to mellow the flavour a process known as dutching and this has a huge impact on the nutrient profile. "Alkalisation is generally done to make cocoa powders darker and remove some of the innate bitterness of cocoa," says researcher Debra Miller, director of nutrition for The Hershey Company. "However, some of the compounds that are associated with the health benefits in cocoa are among those naturally bitter components."
Alkalisation also makes cocoa powder more soluble, which means that dutch cocoa most often crops up in beverages. "Nearly all chocolate is made mostly from natural [untreated] chocolate liquor," says Miller. "However many food products that contain cocoa powder, especially beverages, do contain alkalised cocoa powder." Other producers agree that it takes careful processing to preserve cocoa's potential health benefits. Barry Callebaut has been marketing its flavanol-rich Acticoa range for 12 years, with skin hydration the latest in a list of science-supported benefits that includes improved memory and heart health.
"First you need a bean with a lot of antioxidants and then you need to go through every step of the process and adjust each stage to preserve them," says Hans Vriens, chief innovation officer. Barry Callebaut reports that the Acticoa approach preserves around 80% of the cocoa polyphenols from harvesting to storage, compared with 30% in some products. "There's a lot of interest [in Acticoa] among our customers, although the possible health claims restrictions in Europe mean that people are reluctant to do too much in that market. There's more activity in Asia and the Americas."
These restrictions refer to an EU proposal to ban health claims on products that have unfavourable nutritional profiles. Chocolate could fall foul of the anticipated restrictions. A highly politicised debate is raging and no date has been set to introduce profile-based restrictions, even though the profiles were due to be introduced in 2009 (see www.foodmanufacture.co.uk). It's not just the European Commission that's been looking at the health implications of our love affair with confectionery. The UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) came up with targets in 2010 to reduce the saturated fat content of chocolate and other sweet treats. The FSA guidance urges manufacturers to cut saturated fat levels by 10% by 2012, relative to a 2008 baseline. The most high-profile response emerged in August 2010, when Mars announced that iconic brands such as Mars, Snickers, Milky Way and Topic would all have 15% less sat fat by September. The firm boasted that the reformulated products contain between 35% and 45% less saturated fat per 100g than the average of the top 25 brands in the UK.
Other manufacturers have also been doing their bit. For example, ADM has reformulated its chocolate-flavoured ice cream coverings to eliminate coconut oil, which is high in saturated fat. "The new vegetable fat system used in the ice cream coatings is a high-quality, functional alternative to coconut oil," ADM said. "The new fat contains around 43% less saturated fat than coconut oil, yet offers the same characteristics in a chocolate-flavoured ice cream coating."
But there is a limit to how far manufacturers can reduce saturated fat in 'real' chocolate. As Vriens explains: "In real chocolate the fat is cocoa butter, which means it contains stearic acid: a saturated fat. We have rules that say we must use cocoa butter to call a product chocolate. If you then say we can't use saturated fat you're saying we can't make chocolate. It makes more sense to work on reduced calorie and smaller portion sizes." Cargill is leading the low-cal charge. Its low-calorie chocolate is set to hit the shelves this year, although it won't say which manufacturers it's working with.
"Unlike chocolate made with alternative sweeteners, our reduced-calorie bar, made using Cargill's Zerose erythritol zero calorie sweetener, can achieve a calorie reduction of 30%," says Blanche Olry, research and development manager at Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate. "As a result, it will be able to carry the EU-approved 'reduced calorie' claim, the first chocolate to do so. This reduction is double that of any other chocolate on the market and is equivalent to a saving of up to 160 calories for a 100g bar."
2011 is also expected to be the year that the stevia extract gets approval from Europe as a sweetener, paving the way for a new family of lower-calorie chocolate products. Stevia-based sweeteners are intense, so the bulk provided by the sugar in conventional recipes must be replaced in stevia-sweetened chocolate formulations. Barry Callebaut is working on recipes for different applications, using bulking agents such as fibres or starch as appropriate.
A partnership with Belgian company Cavalier Chocolate has been announced to launch no-added sugar products using stevia extract and a fibre-rich sweetener solution that can be substituted 1:1 for sugar. According to Vriens, the breakthrough has been to counter the liquorice aftertaste of stevia.
These developments are the tip of the iceberg as activity has ramped up following the downturn. Niche products are appearing, such as Barry Callebaut's toothkind chocolate, and reformulations are gaining momentum, such as the latest lactose-free offerings, which are predominantly aimed at the market for inclusions and coatings. "Almost half of our customers are working on free-from alternatives," says Vriens.
According to Mintel, there were seven European launches of low/no lactose chocolate products by early February 2011, compared with 15 for the whole of 2010. Similarly, five reduced fat products were launched in early 2011 compared with nine in 2010, and 20 low sugar launches compared with 82 in 2010.
The rise of "ethical" chocolate continues to be big news, with 451 launches in 2010 and 2011 looking to follow suit, with 49 new products announced in the first few weeks of 2011.
Ethical concerns tie in with the long-term security and sustainability of supplies and the need to support farmers and promote good practice. "We have seen increased interest from customers and consumers in supply chain integrity. They demand ethical business standards, direct access to quality raw materials, sustainable sourcing and processing excellence," said ADM.
"Assuming that demand does regain its normal pre-recession growth, the world will need an additional 700,000 to 1Mt of cocoa by 2020. This means global supply will have to increase significantly," says Harold Poelma, md cocoa, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate. "It is our core belief that the majority of the increase in demand can be met by improving yield from existing sources in west Africa, having seen good examples of higher yields as a result of training farmers to make better use of their farms' potential."
Nevertheless, Cargill is investing in developing new cocoa origin countries, such as Vietnam, where its training programme aims to help growers reach 100,000t of cocoa by 2020.
Barry Callebaut has come up with a novel approach to improve quality and yield. Its Terra Cacao process improves the fermentation of cocoa beans after harvesting. Rather than relying on the natural microbial population to start the process, farmers douse the beans with a solution containing 'good' bacteria, which promotes the formation of desirable aroma compounds and suppresses off flavours.
Vriens says it's a quality initiative with a significant impact on yield: "Fermentation takes four days instead of six or seven so farmers get paid quicker. It also reduces the number of beans we reject from about 15% to zero, so they get paid for 100% of the crop. It's a sustainable way of helping farmers and helps achieve processing savings. The chocolate also tastes better, with no off-notes."
Terra Cacao made its official debut in January 2011, but it has already been used to ferment about 5,000t of beans in the past year.