From M&Ms to Kisses, it seems all my favorite candies have gone over to the dark side. Is dairy next?

From M&Ms to Kisses, it seems all my favorite candies have gone over to the dark side. Is dairy next?

The darker side of chocolate ingredients presents a great deal of opportunity to all types of food formulators, including dairy processors. Experts agree that select cocoas, and the chocolates and chocolate ingredients made from them, are loaded with many good-for-you compounds. Cocoa contains several bioactive compounds including polyphenols, theobromine, phenylethylamine, anadamide, phenylalanine and tyrosine, with many others awaiting discovery. The compounds receiving the most attention are the polyphenols, which are a large class of molecules that includes numerous sub-categories such as the sub-category called flavonoids.

Flavonoids are further divided into sub-classes, including the flavanols found in cocoa. Scientists have identified several cocoa flavanols, such as epicatechin, catechin and their oligomeric forms.

Confectionery giant Mars Inc., McLean, Va., has been studying cocoa flavanols for more than 15 years, and the company says that research indicates cocoa flavanols may help improve blood vessel function and increase blood flow; reduce tendency of blood clots to form; reduce blood pressure in people with mild hypertension; and increase blood flow to the brain, which could have important implications for learning and memory.

Mars is quick to point out that the percent of cocoa mass does not indicate cocoa flavanol content. While traditional cocoa processing often destroys many phytonutrients, Mars has developed a patented and proprietary process called Cocoapro that helps retain the flavanols normally destroyed during cocoa processing.

Another cocoa ingredient that contains extraordinary levels of flavanols is branded Acticoa chocolate. Acticoa is made using a proprietary process that retains a high amount of polyphenols without compromising the enticing flavor and smooth texture of ordinary chocolate, according to the manufacturer. Dark Acticoa chocolate contains twice as much cocoa polyphenols as standard dark chocolate, while the milk chocolate variety contains as much cocoa polyphenols as standard dark chocolate and four times as much as standard milk chocolate.

Acticoa was recently studied by the independent ETAP Research Center in France. Findings not only suggest that cocoa polyphenols may improve the quality of life, especially when getting older, but they may also play a part in prolonging life. The study concluded that the lifespan of rats consuming Acticoa cocoa polyphenol powder was 30% longer than that of rats subjected to the same stress levels without being given cocoa polyphenols. 

Jean-François Bisson, director of the department of cancerology and human pathologies at ETAP says, “We have demonstrated that a cocoa polyphenol powder, orally administered before the induction of chronic oxidative stress and subsequently throughout the course of the rat’s lifetime, significantly inhibits the effects of chronic oxidative stress and increases their lifespan, particularly at the low dose of 24mg per kg body weight. To our knowledge, this is the first report proving that cocoa polyphenols produce such benefits in rats. Given the results of the present study and the findings of others, there is evidence that suggests that the daily consumption of small amounts of cocoa or chocolate rich in cocoa polyphenols may offer some protection against chronic oxidative stress and increase the lifespan of humans.”

There’s no doubt that the future of research into the potential health benefits of cocoa should focus on the mechanisms and active compounds, with well defined clinical trials key to this burgeoning segment, says a new review by Nestlé SA, Vevey, Switzerland.

In the August edition of the British Journal of Nutrition, scientists from the Nestlé Research Center, Lausanne, Switzerland, in collaboration with Medical University of South Carolina and the University of California, Davis, reviewed a decade of research on the health benefits of cocoa. They studied the broad spectrum of existing research on cocoa polyphenols. The review analyzed myriad findings on the effects of cocoa on antioxidant status, inflammation and heart disease risk in humans. It is still unclear exactly how much chocolate and what type is necessary to obtain potential health benefits. Nestlé researchers identify these gaps in existing research and recommend future research directions for the link between cocoa antioxidants and health.

Professor Gary Williamson, co-author of the review and the Functional Foods Chair at the University of Leeds explained, “High-quality research and well-planned human intervention trials are essential for furthering our scientific knowledge of polyphenols and health.”

Following the review, researchers recommend that future studies focus on specific mechanisms of action, such as inflammatory pathways, rather than direct antioxidant effects. Trials are needed to determine a relevant amount of chocolate that people can readily incorporate into their diet to enjoy health benefits. They further recommend future clinical trials that specifically evaluate effects of cocoa consumption on populations with chronic disease, elevated risk of cardiovascular disease or states of antioxidant stress.

Understanding the chocoholic

Interestingly, the urge to eat chocolate may be more of a gut feeling, according to a separate study conducted at the Nestlé Research Center. Published in the Journal of Proteome Research (November 2007), the study correlates the type of intestinal microflora in humans with their desire for chocolate. The study suggests that people who crave daily chocolate show signs of having different colonies of bacteria than people who are indifferent to chocolate.

Sunil Kochhar, co-author of the study, and his team at the Nestlé Research Center worked with 22 men, half of whom were “chocolate-desiring” and the rest “chocolate-indifferent,” and placed them on a defined diet for five days. Females were excluded to avoid the confounding effects of hormonal fluctuations. On days two and four, each subject was given either 50g of chocolate or 50g of bread. On day four, those subjects who received chocolate on day two received bread, and vice versa. Blood samples were collected at five time points after chocolate or bread intake; urine samples were collected daily.

Upon statistical analysis, the plasma metabolic profiles of those who desired chocolate could be distinguished from those who were indifferent to it. The chocolate-indifferent individuals tended to display higher levels of lipid-lipoprotein complexes, mostly in the form of plasma low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), or bad cholesterol. Those in the chocolate-desiring group had lower plasma levels of lipo-proteins, whereas the level of albumin, a protein whose roles include ferrying free fatty acids around in the bloodstream, was slightly higher.

Urinary analyses identified several metabolic differences between the chocolate-desiring and chocolate-indifferent groups, as well. It also highlighted dif-ferences in gut microflora between the two study populations, and identified differences in the metabolism of niacin and of select aromatic compounds. All of these findings point to differences between the two groups in the functionality of gut microflora.

What researchers suspect is that there may be an intestinal bacteria link with other food cravings, too. The idea could eventually lead to treating some types of obesity by changing the composition of intestinal flora.

The story on chocolate continues . . . remember when we ate it just because it tasted good?