Donna Berry  
Product Development Editor

Chocolate milk is one consumer favorite in the midst of an identity crisis. Long a staple of most children’s school lunch, chocolate milk has been banned from many districts, despite the knowledge that many kids won’t drink white milk as an alternative and thus are not receiving essential nutrients.

On a different playing field, chocolate milk is being embraced by sports enthusiasts as an economical recovery drink, as the formulation provides a balanced ratio of protein to carbohydrates, making chocolate milk a great way to recover after weight training and power exercise.

And then there’s the heart-health link, with studies showing that consuming chocolate and cocoa flavanols can reduce one’s risk of heart disease and stroke. (But don’t consume too much because chocolate and cocoa can pack on the calories and contribute to unnecessary weight gain, which has the opposite effect on heart health.)

Interestingly, a recent analysis conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge in England and presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress, Aug. 27-31, in Paris confirmed that a number of studies show that eating chocolate has a positive influence on human health. Researchers analyzed results from seven studies involving more than 100,000 participants with and without existing heart disease. For each study, they compared the people with the highest chocolate consumption against those with the lowest consumption. Five studies reported that higher levels of chocolate consumption were linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Further, the highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with a 37% reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29% reduction in stroke compared with lowest levels. The studies did not distinguish between dark or milk chocolate, and included consumption of chocolate bars, drinks, biscuits and desserts.

The potential health benefits of cocoa-containing products are beginning to expand beyond heart health. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (January 2011), for the first time, cocoa flavanols have been shown to exert a positive effect on select gut bacteria in humans. This new study now suggests that cocoa flavanols may also exert a prebiotic effect, much like soluble fiber.

And a study in the December 2009 volume of Journal of Proteome Research suggests that daily consumption of 40 grams of dark chocolate significantly changed a person’s metabolism, as well as changed the metabolism of the gut microflora. The implications of the study are that subtle changes in dietary habits, such as eating dark chocolate, can benefit both host and microflora metabolism with potential long-term health benefits.

It is important to point out that these benefits are associated with cocoa, not chocolate. Cocoa is a component of chocolate, which means that chocolate ingredients are a diluted source of cocoa and marketers who want to make cocoa content claims must ensure that the chocolate ingredients being flagged in product formulations contain a high percentage of cocoa flavanols.

All of this research presents opportunities for dairy processors to explore the addition of cocoa to products other than school milk. Not that they should give up on chocolate school milk. In fact, the contrary is true. Fluid milk processors should be exploring lower-fat, lower-calorie flavored milk options for school. For example, Prairie Farms Dairy, Carlinville, Ill., not only reformulated its school chocolate milk to be fat-free with lower-sugar, the company also added a chocolate variant: Cookies’N Cream. (See New Product Review on page 25.)

Ingredient innovations

Regardless of the delivery vehicle and how the product is marketed, many dairy processors manufacture some chocolate dairy foods. In recent months, a number of ingredient suppliers introduced innovative chocolate ingredients that address various issues in the marketplace - from price sensitivities to allergens to sugar content. 

For example, one supplier launched a tailor-made cocoa replacement solution using a high-quality carob powder ingredient. This solution allows dairy foods manufacturers to make significant cost savings in the total recipe cost, as the low-cost ingredient possesses a familiar cocoa-like flavor and color, and can be used as a partial cocoa replacement in various applications, including mousse, ice cream and dairy-based beverages. By adjusting the temperature and roasting conditions during the production of the carob powder, the company can modify the color to range from light to dark brown, and the flavor from sweet to having a strong, unsweetened taste profile.

Another supplier offers a cocoa extender that can replace up to 30% of the cocoa powder used in ice cream, yogurt, beverages, puddings and toppings. It can replace both Dutch and natural cocoa and comes in natural and artificial forms. (Keep in mind that use of such cocoa replacements disqualifies the food product from being associated with cocoa flavanol-related health benefits.)

Recognizing that a large percentage of the U.S. population has food allergies or sensitivities, one supplier introduced a line of organic chocolate ingredients that are made in a dedicated facility that does not process any major allergens, including dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, soy, wheat or other known sources of gluten such as barley, rye, oats and triticale. Produced by a family-owned cocoa processer in the rainforests of South America, these single-origin, premium-organic chocolate ingredients range from chocolate chips and wafers to covertures and cocoa powder. These products are also free of soy lecithin, a common emulsifier used in the majority of chocolate products. All of these chocolate ingredients are available as Fair Trade - a growing area of demand.

Another area of increased interest, which complements the lowering of sugar contents in school chocolate milk, is using alternative, low- and no-calorie sweeteners with cocoa. One supplier replaced all of the sugar in a line of chocolate ingredients with an all-natural sweetener solution comprised of dietary fibers, the natural sugar alcohol erythritol and a stevia-based sweetener. The chocolate can be used in multiple applications, including molding, enrobing and inclusions for ice cream. The no-sugar-added chocolate contains no artificial sweeteners and does not produce a laxative effect when consumed, according to the company.

From reducing costs to lowering sugar to keeping chocolate milk in schools, dairy processors have many chocolate and cocoa ingredients from which to choose to meet their formulation and marketing needs.

Brewed Cocoa Beverage

Honest Tea, the nation’s top-selling organic bottled tea company, which is based in Bethesda, Md., and is part of The Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, introduced Honest CocoaNova, a line of low-calorie brewed cocoa beverages. Though the beverage contains no dairy, it is a product that a dairy could manufacture, right alongside chocolate milk and iced tea.

Honest CocoaNova is described as a brewed cacao infusion that contains antioxidants and theobromine, a caffeine-like substance naturally found in dark chocolate. The main ingredient in the drink is certified-organic, Fair Trade-certified cocoa beans, which are roasted and ground into a natural cocoa powder. This powder is then brewed through a patent-pending process to create Honest CocoaNova. Each 10-fluid-ounce bottle contains approximately 50 milligrams of theobromine.

“Everyone has tasted cocoa, but Honest CocoaNova is cocoa as you’ve never known it. It has a rich, satisfying flavor with only 50 calories per bottle,” says Seth Goldman, president of Honest Tea. “We’ve been working on this concept since 2006 and can’t wait to see how consumers respond.”