Products designed to boost immunity are rapidly emerging as key drivers of the functional foods market.

Not only are chocolate-flavored products such as milk, ice cream and even yogurt yummy treats, they are also full of tricks…well, more accurately, surprises, as cocoa is associated with an increasing number of health and wellness benefits. But of course, not all chocolate is created equal, and dairy product formulators are learning that it pays to use high-quality cocoa when developing premium, value-added products.

Loving chocolate

A recent study showed that moderate chocolate consumption is linked to lower risks of heart failure. Reported in Circulation: Heart Failure, a journal of the American Heart Association, Dallas, researchers found that women in Sweden who ate an average of one to two servings of high-quality chocolate per week had a 32% lower risk of developing heart failure. Those who had one to three servings per month had a 26% lower risk. However, those who consumed one serving or more daily did not appear to benefit from a protective effect against heart failure. In other words, there is truth to the old adage, “too much of a good thing.”

The lack of a protective effect is probably due to the additional calories gained from eating chocolate instead of more nutritious foods, according to Murray Mittleman, lead researcher of the study and director of the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit at Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “You can’t ignore that chocolate is a relatively calorie-dense food and large amounts of habitual consumption is going to raise your risks for weight gain,” says Mittleman. “But if you’re going to have a treat, dark chocolate is probably a good choice, as long as it’s in moderation.”

High concentration of compounds called flavonoids in chocolate may lower blood pressure, among other benefits, according to mostly short-term studies. However, this is the first study to show long-term outcomes related specifically to heart failure, which can result from ongoing untreated high blood pressure.

Mittleman adds that differences in chocolate quality affect the study’s implications for Americans. Higher cocoa content is associated with greater heart benefits. In Sweden, even milk chocolate has a higher cocoa concentration than dark chocolate sold in the United States.

Premium chocolate's origins

Premium chocolate starts with high-quality cocoa beans that are processed in such a way to preserve their inherent antioxidants. Numerous suppliers are engaged in efforts to improve the world cocoa supply.

In mid-September, researchers from Mars Inc., McLean, Va.,  the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), Washington, D.C., and IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown, N.Y., released the preliminary findings of their breakthrough cacao genome sequence and made it available in the public domain. This is the result of a joint-research endeavor to improve the cocoa growing process and represents a successful private/public partnership for the benefit of the world’s cocoa farmers, and a more sustainable world cocoa supply.

Cocoa comes from the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao. The tree seeds are processed into cocoa beans that are the source of cocoa, cocoa butter and chocolate. But fungal diseases can destroy seed-bearing pods and wipe out up to 80% of the crop, causing an estimated $700 million in losses each year. With worldwide demand for cacao now exceeding production, there is no room for such loss.

Scientists worldwide have been searching for years for ways to produce cacao trees that can resist evolving pests and diseases, tolerate droughts and produce higher yields. Researchers have been testing new cacao tree varieties developed with genetic markers. But having the genome sequenced is expected to speed up the process of identifying genetic markers for specific genes that confer beneficial traits, enabling breeders to produce superior new lines through traditional breeding techniques.

Sequencing cacao’s genome also will help researchers develop an overall picture of the plant’s genetic makeup, uncover the relationships between genes and traits, and broaden scientific understanding of how the interplay of genetics and the environment determines a plant’s health and viability. The results of the research are available to the public with permanent access via the Cacao Genome Database ( to ensure that the data remains perpetually open without patent, as well as to allow scientists to begin applying the findings immediately to crop cultivation efforts.

“As the global leader in cocoa science, we understand the importance of not only investing in this research, but making it publicly available for all to benefit,” says Howard-Yana Shapiro, global head of plant science and research at Mars. “As a private company, Mars is in a unique position to drive and fund fundamental science that will support its long-term focus and vision. Although it may not benefit the bottom line in the short term, in the long run, it will ensure mutually beneficial results for the company, cocoa farmers and tree crop production in key regions of the world.”

And of course, long-term, this research benefits Americans - from kids trick or treating to those who pump iron - as chocolate improves the appeal of all kinds of dairy foods.   

Refuel with Chocolate and Dairy

High-performance athletes, and those who aspire to achieve this distinction, are quickly learning that chocolate milk and chocolate-flavored, dairy-based beverages are a nutritious and great-tasting option to help them train longer and harder. Unlike fruit-flavored, non-dairy sports drinks, chocolate dairy beverages deliver a unique blend of nutrients including calcium and vitamin D for bone health. After all, strong bones are essential to a powerful workout.

The Milk Pep organization promotes regular chocolate milk as the best beverage for refueling, as it is an affordable, great-tasting beverage that is readily available. Some beverage manufacturers have taken the concept further, adding value in terms of package, shelf stability and nutrition composition.

For example, a little more than a year ago, Attitude Drink Co., Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., introduced Phase III Recovery. This low-fat, chocolate-flavored dairy beverage sports the “Real Seal.” It starts with Grade A milk that undergoes a proprietary ultrafiltration process to concentrate milk’s inherent nutrients, resulting in a high-protein beverage (35 grams of protein per 14.5-ounce container) for recovery after intense exercise. It is also a good source of 18 vitamins and minerals and contains 29% less sugar than regular flavored milk, which is accomplished through the use of sucralose.

Most recently, Apure Foods Co., Wheat Ridge, Colo., a wholly owned subsidiary of The Hershey Co., Hershey, Pa., which was formed in April to develop and deliver food and beverage products with enhanced nutritional and wellness benefits, rolled out reGen. This muscle recovery drink is designed to harness the antioxidant benefits found in natural cocoa with the nutrients athletes need to recover their muscles following a grueling workout.

reGen is powered by natural cocoa, with more than two tablespoons (12 grams) in each 200-calorie, 11-ounce serving. Research shows that consuming natural cocoa can help maintain healthy blood flow, which may enhance the delivery of carbohydrates and protein during muscle recovery, and may enable a more efficient removal of the “waste” products produced during exercise that can lead to post-training muscle soreness. reGen also contains the scientifically recommended 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, optimal for recovery. Each serving contains 35 grams of carbohydrates to 11 grams of protein from whey and casein.

Many chocolate-flavored beverages utilize alkalized cocoa, for improved flavor, color and solubility; however, alkalization can significantly reduce cocoa’s antioxidant power, according to the company.

Scientists from the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition worked with the reGen team to develop a unique patent-pending process that incorporates the large amount of natural cocoa found in each serving of reGen without using alkalized cocoa.

According to clinical testing, study participants who consumed the reGen beverage experienced an average of 25% improvement in their muscle recovery compared to the leading carbohydrate and electrolyte beverage. In the same clinical study, when participants consumed reGen they experienced an average 9.7% increase in endurance versus when they consumed an identical beverage without cocoa.