Change of heart

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition Chocolate

Traditional cocoa processing methods destroy flavanols
Traditional cocoa processing methods destroy flavanols
A joined up approach to research means cocoa flavanols are poised to become the next big heart health ingredient, writes Lynda Searby

Health ingredients looking to establish credibility, win consumer trust and secure claims could learn a lot from cocoa flavanols.

Since 2009, a consortium of eight ̶ including Mars, Germany's Heinrich-Heine University and the UK's University of Reading  ̶  has been beavering away to advance research linking flavanols to cardiovascular health benefits. In this time, the project, branded Flaviola, has made great strides in understanding how flavanols work and how best they can be delivered via the diet.

For example, scientists at Heinrich-Heine University have been investigating the effects of flavanols on vascular function in healthy humans. Although this research is not yet fully completed, the researchers have already found that flavanols exert significant beneficial effects on vascular function in healthy young and elderly males and females, and that diets rich in flavanols have the potential to protect the vascular system from damage  ̶  important for cardiovascular disease prevention.

New light on flavanols

These findings were presented at the Flaviola international workshop in January. Also discussed was research that has shed new light on the types and amounts of flavanols in cocoa, as well as the impact of food processing on the flavanol content of products.

This research, led by the University of Reading, created novel analytical tools to measure flavanols in foods and during food manufacture. Dietary intervention studies were conducted to investigate the absorption, metabolism and excretion of flavanols. The main conclusions were that flavanols undergo extensive metabolism in the body following consumption, and that standard food manufacturing processes decrease the amounts of flavanols in foods.

"Traditionally, the manufacture of cocoa products involves fermentation, alkalisation [dutching] and roasting steps, which can result in a significant loss of flavanols,"​ explains Professor Marc Merx, Flaviola coordinator and professor at Heinrich-Heine University. "In addition, a significant amount of the naturally present (-)-epicatechin is transformed during traditional food processing into (-)-catechin, a flavanol that is only a very minor component in unprocessed cocoa. Previous research has shown that (-)-epicatechin is the most absorbed by the body, almost six times more than (-)-catechin."

For food, supplement and ingredient manufacturers looking to harness the heart-healthy benefits of cocoa flavanols, the impact of processing on flavanol content is a major obstacle.

One company that has developed a solution is cocoa and chocolate producer Barry Callebaut, whose trademarked Acticoa technology prevents the flavanols from being destroyed during processing.

"Cocoa flavanols are usually destroyed for the most part during the conventional chocolate-making process"​ says Raphael Wermuth, the firm's head of media relations. "We've developed a process that maintains up to 80% of cocoa flavanols."

This was key to Barry Callebaut becoming the first firm to receive a positive European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Opinion for a cocoa flavanols health claim. The claim confirmed that: 'cocoa flavanols help maintain endothelium-dependent vasodilation, which contributes to normal blood flow'.

Essentially, it says cocoa flavanols improve blood vessel function. However, before Barry Callebaut can use the claim, it has to be authorised by the European Commission.

"The claim is still in consultation. We are awaiting the official authorisation and the final approved details. The decision should be published in the spring,"​ says Laurence Vicca, communications and projects manager at Caobisco, the trade association for the European chocolate, biscuit and confectionery industry. The opinion is clearly a coup for Barry Callebaut, but how will it be used in practice?

Barry Callebaut is hopeful that the claim will boost the market for dark chocolate with a healthy dimension.

"More and more, consumers are looking for dark chocolate offering additional, healthy benefits. We see considerable market potential for such products,"​ says Wermuth.

Market analysts, however, aren't overly optimistic about the prospects for 'functional' dark chocolate.

"While some consumers are already aware of dark chocolate's potential health benefits, chocolate always has, and probably always will be, consumed as a treat,"​ says Lauren Brandy, ingredient analyst at Euromonitor International. "I suspect dark chocolate is unlikely to become a 'health food' because of this claim approval. The specific wording of the claim may also make it hard for a lay person to understand."

She also points out that in the largest European chocolate market the UK  ̶  only 10% of chocolate bars consumed are plain dark, with milk chocolate products being the most popular in Europe. And with the claim specific to Barry Callebaut's Acticoa products, her closing comment is that "we're not going to be seeing health claims on a Mars bar any time soon".

Similarly, Innova Market Insights analyst Natalie Tremellen expects the positive EFSA opinion to provide a stimulus for more functional product development in future, but predicts that the industry may remain niche for some time because, ultimately, chocolate is consumed for pleasure.

"It may take considerable time for consumers to come round to associating chocolate with health benefits, even though they are scientifically proven,"​ she notes.

She suggests that supplements may be a more convincing vehicle for delivery of cocoa flavanol benefits, "as it is similar to taking medication on a regular basis for disease prevention".

Lucrative markets

Laura Jones, food science analyst at Mintel, agrees that with the challenges around repositioning chocolate as a 'good for you' product, fortifying other functional food and drink formats with established healthy images may be more lucrative.

"Other categories that could be explored include functional beverages, cereal bars, cereals and yogurt," she suggests. Examples already exist, including The Fuel Station's Loaded Chunky Granola, which contains 70% cocoa chunks said to deliver beneficial flavanoid antioxidants​" (source: Mintel GNPD).

Even if the market opportunity is there for cocoa flavanol products with heart-health related claims, acting on it involves crossing a minefield, as illustrated by a case involving Hershey that is unravelling in the US. The chocolate giant is facing a lawsuit over 'misleading' flavanol antioxidant labelling claims on some of its products.

Although the case is outside EU jurisdiction, it underlines the need for ensuring products live up to claims.

In its opinion on the Barry Callebaut claim, EFSA ruled that the claimed effect could only be obtained through 200mg of cocoa flavanols daily, which is equivalent to 2.5g high-flavanol cocoa powder or 10g high-flavanol dark chocolate.

However, measuring the quantity of flavanols in the finished product may be easier said than done, due to shortcomings in existing methods, as Merx explains. "Most methods employed for the analysis of flavanols generally give only partial information: either they measure only some of the range of flavanols present in foods such as cocoa, or are non-specific and measure chemical aspects of the flavanols but not flavanols specifically and, as such, are unable to distinguish among the diverse range of flavanols present."

In 2009, Mars developed an improved method for the analysis of flavanols in cocoa in order to address this gap. The method was more reliable, easier-to-use and enabled a detailed view into the range of flavanols in cocoa. Over the subsequent two years, this method was extensively tested among 12 international laboratories, and went on to be approved by the world-recognised analytical methods validator AOAC as a First Action Official Method.

"With this accreditation, there is now the opportunity for wider use of this method among manufacturers. This has the potential to enable consistency in the labelling of cocoa flavanol content of products, which does not exist,"​ says Merx.

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