Choosing quality cocoa gives you something to talk about.

Formulating dairy foods to be chocolate in flavor is no longer as simple a task as it once was, as additional chocolate descriptors have become one of the hottest marketing tools in today’s food and beverage industry. From being “dark” and “rich in antioxidants,” to “grown in a specific region,” to being “green,” “organic” or “fairly traded,” today’s chocolate dairy foods can be more than just, well, chocolate. 

Silver and gold . . . and cocoa

During the reign of the great Mexican Emperor Montezuma, cocoa beans were valued like gold and silver. Legend has it that Montezuma sent cocoa along with precious metals to meet the ship of explorer Hernando Cortez, who soon afterwards became addicted to a bitter chocolate drink developed by Aztec society. This drink was believed to enhance sexual prowess, impart wisdom and provide great energy. Cortez managed to learn the formula for this drink, which was guarded by the Aztecan upper classes, and brought it back to Spain.

The story continues. The Spaniards did not initially care for this invigorating drink; however, using 15th century food science, they blended the cocoa with hot water, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon, creating a delicious new hot drink sensation.

It was in 1753 that the tree from which cocoa beans come received the scientific name Theobroma cacao. “Theobroma” translates to “food of the gods,” while the word “cacao” dates back to the Aztecan word “cacahuatl,” which is what they called their invigorating chocolate beverage.

Jump forward some 250 years to when scientists started validating what the Aztecans knew simply by regular consumption. Today, most of America has heard that chocolate possesses an array of health benefits.

Cocoa and health

Chocolate is viewed by the majority of Americans as a pleasure food, and many people incorporate chocolate and foods made with chocolate into a healthy, varied and balanced diet. Could possibly some day medical experts recommend regular consumption of chocolate for its health benefits?

The January 2008 edition of the British Journal of Nutrition included a review of scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of cocoa. The authors wrote: It has been over 10 years since the first mention in a medical journal about cocoa and chocolate as potential sources of antioxidants for health. During this time, cocoa has been found to improve antioxidant status, reduce inflammation and correlate with reduced heart disease risk; with these results, and its popularity, it has received wide coverage in the press. However, after 10 years of research, what is known about the potential health benefits of cocoa and what are the important next steps in understanding this decadent source of antioxidants?

What is known is that cocoa, and the chocolate products made from cocoa, contains flavonoids. These phytochemicals, when ingested, have been shown to positively benefit the human body. Further, as it turns out, cocoa beans are one of the richest food sources of flavonoids.

The term flavonoid is an umbrella term for a large group of plant compounds that can be subdivided into various subclasses. Flavonoids are widely distributed in plants and scientists estimate that there are 6,000 to 20,000 individual flavonoid compounds in nature. Many flavonoids are subject to scientific research because of their health benefits and potential medicinal use.

Flavanols represent a sub-class of flavonoids. Scientists have identified several cocoa flavanols, including epicatechin, catechin and their oligomeric forms. A growing body of evidence indicates that flavanols, found naturally in unprocessed cocoa and to varying degrees in processed cocoa products, may be linked to a range of circulatory health benefits. In fact, research indicates that some processed cocoa products have higher epicatechin activity than red wine and black and green teas. 

Specifically, research indicates that cocoa flavanols may assist in reducing cardiovascular disease risks by helping improve blood vessel function and increasing blood flow; reducing tendency of blood clots to form; reducing blood pressure in people with mild hypertension; and increasing blood flow to the brain, which could have important implications for learning and memory.

A brainy game

The August 2008 issue of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, links cocoa flavanols to a possible increase in blood flow to the brain. The researchers suggest that long-term improvements in brain blood flow could impact cognitive behavior, offering future potential for debilitating brain conditions including dementia and stroke.

In a scientific study of healthy, older adults ages 59 to 83, Boston-based Harvard medical scientists found that study participants who regularly drank a cocoa flavanol-rich beverage had an 8% increase in brain blood flow after one week, and 10% increase after two weeks. In this first-of-its-kind study, the researchers found both short and long-term benefits of cocoa flavanols for brain blood flow, offering future potential for the one in seven older Americans currently living with dementia. When the flow of blood to the brain slows over time, the result may be structural damage and dementia. Scientists speculate that maintaining an increased blood flow to the brain could slow this cognitive decline.

“The totality of the research on cocoa flavanols is impressive. This is just one more study adding to an increasing body of literature connecting regular cocoa flavanol consumption to blood flow and vascular health improvements throughout the body,” says Harold Schmitz, chief science officer at Mars Inc., Hackettstown, N.J. “Though more research is needed, these findings raise the possibility that flavanol-rich cocoa products could be developed to help slow brain decline in older age.”

The collective research, according to the researchers, demonstrates that the vascular effects of cocoa flavanols are independent of general “antioxidant” effects that cocoa flavanols exhibit in a test tube, outside of the body. While research aimed at studying the potential role of cocoa flavanols in the context of blood vessel and circulatory function continues, a number of previously published studies already suggest that the consumption of cocoa flavanols can have important beneficial effects on the function of the body’s network of blood vessels.

The body of research suggests that cocoa flavanols may provide a dietary approach to maintaining cardiovascular function and health. It  also points at new possibilities for cocoa flavanol-based interventions for vascular complications associated with cognitive performance, skin health and age-related blood vessel dysfunction.

Highlights from the U.K. review

Keeping in mind that chocolate and cocoa are two different terms and they are not interchangeable, there has been varied research in the two and scientists are trying to bring it all together.

Cocoa is the non-fat component of cocoa liquor (finely ground cocoa beans, also sometimes referred to as cocoa mass) that is used in chocolate making or as cocoa powder ingredient. Cocoa liquor contains about 600 components, a fact that helps explain chocolate’s complex nature. This includes being about 55% cocoa butter. Chocolate refers to the combination of cocoa, cocoa butter, sugar and other ingredient such as milk (as in the case of milk chocolate) to form a  solid confectionery product. The amount of cocoa mass in a chocolate bar typically ranges from 7% to 15% in milk chocolate and 30% to 77% in dark chocolate.

The British Journal of Nutrition review indicates that multiple approaches have been used to investigate the mechanism of action of cocoa polyphenols including clinical, preclinical and in vitro studies. Cocoa polyphenols have been investigated predominantly for their effect on the vascular system, with nitric oxide concentrations being a central target. One of these effects is on endothelial function, which is an extremely promising biomarker to calculate heart attack risk. Several clinical studies have shown improved endothelial function after cocoa consumption, but it is not known if these improvements are due to a subtle combination of mild effects rather than a single-targeted effect. Other effects related to reduced cardiovascular disease risk include decreased susceptibility of low-density lipoprotein to oxidation, and inhibition of platelet activation and aggregation. Although many different biomarkers have been measured, the results consistently show changes in biomarkers related to oxidative status and/or vascular function.

Scientists concur that it is difficult to establish how much chocolate and what type to recommend for health benefits. High cocoa content dark chocolate tends to be richest in polyphenols, although each chocolate is different in polyphenol content. Research indicates that the percent of cacao or cocoa mass in chocolate and cocoa products is not indicative of cocoa flavanol content. Rather, it is how the cocoa is processed. Thus, percentage of cocoa content should be considered a guideline only to polyphenol content.

“Contrary to popular belief, you cannot assume that dark chocolate contains high levels of flavanols,” says Bruce Suezaki, general manager, Mars Botanical, Rockville, Md. “The percentage of cocoa in a product is not a reliable estimate of the flavanol content. What matters most is cocoa processing and product design-from the pod to the package.”

Further, according to the review authors, there are no long-term intervention studies addressing the health benefits of chocolate consumption. Most previous short-term studies have given a single large dose of chocolate, which is probably more than one person would normally consume.

The reviewers recommend that since cocoa is accepted as a dietary source of polyphenols, future studies should focus on specific mechanisms of action, i.e., inflammatory pathways, and not direct antioxidant effects, with more diversification on non-vascular end-points. Human intervention trials should be conducted that use a relevant amount of chocolate, an amount most people could readily incorporate into their diet. In addition, the composition of the cocoa or chocolate must be carefully defined with regard to the proportions of polyphenols in the monomeric, oligomeric and polymeric forms, as well as the concentrations of the fats, sugars and other components such as proteins from milk solids. There is also the question of attributing the beneficial effects to individual cocoa polyphenols, or cocoa as a whole, as other compounds in cocoa are known to be bioactive, such as theobromine and caffeine, which is present at levels of approximately 1.2% and 0.2%, respectfully.

To conclude, the polyphenol content of chocolate and cocoa shows significant variation. The chocolate industry has profited from the wave of positive health effect of cocoa, with some producers stressing polyphenol content on their labels. Choosing cocoa and chocolate ingredients that have quantified and consistent levels of bioactive polyphenols is a way for dairy foods manufacturers to create a point of differentiation in the crowded chocolate dairy foods marketplace.

A note on cocoa butter

Nothing melts in your mouth like chocolate-that’s one of the reasons so many people love it. Chocolate’s creamy, melting qualities come from cocoa butter, the naturally occurring fat found in cocoa beans.

Cocoa butter has unique nutritional characteristics relative to other fats. Regardless of its crystal structure when solid, cocoa butter is a triacylglycerol (three fatty acids attached to a glycerol backbone) as are the majority of other dietary fats. What makes it unique is its component fatty acids. More than 95% of the fatty acids in cocoa butter consist of the monounsaturated fatty acid called oleic acid, which is the predominant fatty acid also found in olive oil, and the saturated fats stearic and palmitic acids.

There is no other natural fat like cocoa butter. As a result of its relatively high concentration of stearic acid, it has unique dietary properties compared to other fats that are highly saturated. Specifically, stearic acid has been shown to not elevate serum total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol as do other saturated fatty acids.

Further, cocoa butter is solid at room temperature and melts rather quickly in a 90°F to 93°F temperature range, just below body temperature (98.6°F). This distinction is responsible for chocolate’s pleasant, melt-in-your-mouth sensation. When liquid cocoa butter becomes solid, it contracts slightly, which keeps it from binding to a mold. This important property allows chocolate to be easily removed from molds, enabling the formation of chips and shapes for inclusion in ice cream.

Interestingly, Mars issued a statement in September reaffirming its industry-leading announcement made last year to use only 100% cocoa butter. The company said that it refuses to “lower the bar” on chocolate and pledged to continue to make pure, authentic chocolate with 100% cocoa butter for its U.S. chocolate products.

The chocolate leader took a firm stand last year by opposing changes to the standard of identity for chocolate that would allow manufacturers to make chocolate with cocoa butter substitutes and still call it “chocolate.”

“Mars U.S. chocolate products are pure, authentic chocolate and they’re going to stay that way,” says Todd Lachman, president of Mars Snackfood U.S. “We simply won’t compromise the purity and authenticity of our chocolate by diluting it with a cocoa butter substitute.”

Cocoa: Sustaining Opportunity

From keeping cocoa butter in the standards for chocolate to investing in third-world countries where cocoa beans are grown, there are lots of politics surrounding this trendy good-for-you food.

ADM Cocoa, Milwaukee, Wis., believes that by working with cocoa grower cooperatives, non-governmental organizations, academia, industry partners and governments, the company can help improve the lives of cocoa farmers and the communities in which they live. The company’s goal is a sustainable cocoa supply chain that brings value to cocoa farming communities as well as those further along the chain, in accordance with legally and socially acceptable practices.

Indeed, cocoa farmers around the world face many challenges. An estimated one-third of the global cocoa crop is destroyed by pests and disease each year. Many cocoa farmers have limited access to the latest agricultural technologies and planting materials, while few have business training to help them effectively market their product and manage their operations. Beyond economic and operational limitations, many cocoa farming communities face challenges of poverty and disease.

An example of ADM’s investment in the agricultural processing value chain is the company’s soon-to-open, state-of-the-art cocoa processing facility in Kumasi, Ghana. The facility will use the latest technology in cocoa bean processing. It will diversify and expand ADM’s global cocoa origination and processing operations, bringing value to customers by offering cocoa products from a single-source origin.

Further, the company is dedicated to research and development, in making improvements in cocoa ingredients to better serve its customers. “To meet our customers’ needs for unique, new ingredients that can help them differentiate their products in the marketplace, ADM Cocoa recently introduced a line of bright red and bright brown cocoa powders,” says Anthony Sepich, director of sales, North America. “These new powders have a vibrant color and superior flavor, making them exceptionally suited for a number of dairy applications including chocolate milk, puddings, ice creams and premium desserts. The powders respond to consumer preference for visually appealing, great-tasting, indulgent products.”

Relaying a green message

Barry Callebaut, Chicago, has acquired a 49% stake in Biolands, Africa’s largest exporter of certified organic cocoa based in Tanzania, after purchasing 100% of Biolands’ top-grade cocoa for the past eight years.

The Biolands enterprise is one of the largest organic smallholder cocoa programs in the world. Starting in Tanzania in 1999, Biolands has applied a bottom-up cooperation model, working directly with smallholder farmers to ensure fair prices are paid to the farmers and to improve the quality of cocoa and the farmers’ quality of life. This approach guarantees full traceability for every bag of cocoa sold by the 20,000 participating farmers, enabling consumers to know this cocoa has been produced in a sustainable and responsible manner. Biolands cocoa is certified organic by Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology IMO, one of the most renowned international agencies for inspection, certification and quality assurance of eco-friendly products.

Through a bean collection system reaching the villages, farmers are paid directly at delivery. A second payment is made after the season. In addition to providing training in cocoa growing, technical advice and supplies, Biolands has supplied more than 600,000 cocoa seedlings to help improve farms.

“For many farmers, this is the first time they are being treated seriously as partners-as partners who are expected to produce a good product in return for a better price. They feel that their cocoa and their work are valued,” says Eric Smeets, founder and managing director of Biolands. “Without Barry Callebaut’s steadfast commitment to buy cocoa from us at a fair price, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve our mission, which is to empower local farmers.”

Patrick De Maeseneire, CEO of Barry Callebaut, says, “Biolands’ proven track-record based on the direct involvement of cocoa farmers has convinced us to strengthen our relationship. Biolands will now replicate their concept in other countries. In our own project in Ivory Coast called ‘Quality Partner’ program we work top-down, i.e. through farmer cooperatives. We intend to test the two models in the field-with the goal to contribute to a sustainable cocoa industry and improve the livelihoods of cocoa farmers and their families in the most effective way.”

From cows to dairy foods and cocoa beans to chocolate, when you choose quality over price, you’ve got something to talk about!

Sidebar: Using Cocoa and Chocolate in Dairy Foods

In the middle of the 18th century, the Swiss began experimenting with chocolate. Switzerland, at the time, had cows but did not have abundant commodities of chocolate and sugar. It was in 1875 that Vevey, Switzerland, resident Daniel Peter figured out how to combine milk and chocolate to create milk chocolate. Peter’s proprietary milk crumb, which is cooked sweetened condensed milk and chocolate liquor, revolutionized the manufacturing process of chocolate., Today, Peter’s tradition and name lives on as part of the ingredient portfolio of Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, Lititz, Pa.

Cocoa and milk, ah, it was and remains a perfect marriage. This milk chocolate relationship conveniently makes dairy foods and chocolate a “match made in heaven.”

“Cocoa can be blended with other flavored powders for application in all types of dairy products, not just milk,” says Rick Stunek, director of marketing, The Benjamin P. Forbes Chocolate Co., Broadview Heights, Ohio. “Dairies can design their own flavors, or they can choose from a wide range of existing products.”

John Sweeney, director of technology at Cargill, adds, “When using cocoa powder to add chocolate flavor to beverages and dairy products there are two main options available: natural cocoa powder or alkalized cocoa powder [also called Dutch chocolate]. Natural cocoa has a rich flavor while alkalized cocoa brings out more color and flavor in the application.”

Fluid milk remains the largest volume dairy food to include cocoa ingredients. “When deciding upon the right cocoa powder blend for flavoring milk, there are many variables to take into account,” adds Stunek. “The cocoa that tastes best in whole milk may not complement a nonfat beverage. Also, heat process (HTST vs. ESL vs. UHT) impacts the chocolate flavor profile, as does sweetener.”

Distribution is another factor to consider. For example, school milk must be competitively priced, which is why lower-quality cocoa ingredients are often used for school distribution. “But for institutional sales, where many times this product is being consumed by hospital patients experiencing an appetite loss, the chocolate milk must taste outstanding,” says Stunek. “Quality varies with retail product. To keep prices low on a multi-serving, family-style package such as a half-gallon, a lower-quality cocoa might be used. But with single-serve beverage that demand a premium in the impulse market-quite possibly even making a flavanol content claim-a higher-quality, substantiated cocoa ingredient should be considered.”

Sweeney explains, “Cocoa powders can contain a variety of fat contents but the most common percentages are 10% to 12% fat or 22% to 24% fat, which may contribute to the mouthfeel of the product. Cocoa powder can also contain lecithin, which aids in the dispersion in beverage applications. The amount of cocoa powder that a product developer will use depends on the application. Milkshakes can contain 1% to 2% cocoa powder, whereas ice cream can contain 2% to 4% cocoa powder.”