Chocolate Heaven
by Lori Dahm
The word on the street has paved the way for chocolate to be the new health tonic.
The news in chocolate today is all about health. Publicity in the market at large has effectively communicated the beneficial antioxidant properties of the polyphenol content in chocolate, and consumers have responded by giving a green light to chocolate manifestations of all types.
The results of this carte blanche attitude toward chocolate are twofold. For one, products that are chocolate laden and have a significant chocolate content are extremely popular and continue to grow in demand. But the other result is that a market is developing for healthier products of a chocolate nature, both in the flavored milk and ice cream categories.
It is this latter development that presents the bigger challenge to dairy manufacturers and suppliers of these cocoa and chocolate ingredients. Formulations designed to have a lowered sugar content or lowered fat content require an adjustment on many levels — from processing parameters to cocoa ingredient selection to sweetening agents.
Navigating the difficulties of using cocoa and chocolate ingredients in these healthier propositions is best left to the suppliers who continue to be the experts in the field. The world of cocoa ingredients in formulations has always been an extremely complex one, and the breadth of knowledge in place at the ingredient suppliers is formidable, while technological developments continue to raise the bar.
In Milk
While the antioxidant properties of the polyphenols in chocolate has been known for quite some time, recent breakthrough research has discovered that the polyphenol components unique to the cocoa bean have additional cardiovascular health benefits. Called flavanols, these substances have been documented to help improve blood flow and circulation and can foster a decreased tendency to form blood clots, in addition to the antioxidant properties which help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.
That the consumer body at large has heard about this research is largely due to the education and publicity campaign spearheaded by Masterfoods USA, Hackettstown, N.J., in regard to the company’s CocoaVia line of chocolate products which boast an amplified level of flavanols due to a proprietary cocoa bean processing method. The effects of the CocoaVia message have been broad in their reach, as consumers have eagerly jumped on the chocolate-for-health bandwagon, embracing chocolate products overall for their health benefits.
“I think we will see a trend of more flavor and more cocoa use going forward to amplify chocolate flavor in part to perhaps boost perceptions of cocoa antioxidant content such as is being touted in certain dark chocolates,” says Steve Laning, director of technical services at ADM Cocoa, Milwaukee.
In addition to chocolate-laden products carrying a health halo of sorts, another development is that manufacturers are being asked to improve the overall nutritional profile of products that already include chocolate or cocoa ingredients, particularly in the area of chocolate milk for schools. Perhaps in response to the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, many school districts are determined to offer chocolate milk products that have a reduced sugar content. However, such products present significant formulation challenges.
“A lot of school districts are starting to mandate nutritional aspects for chocolate milk in schools, such as a maximum sugar or carbohydrate load on the nutritional label, or an all-natural product,” says Rick Stunek, director of marketing at Forbes Chocolate, Cleveland. “But when you lower the sugar content in chocolate milk it becomes less sweet and it is necessary to carefully balance the amount of cocoa in the product so that it doesn’t come across as bitter to a kid’s palate. If it doesn’t taste as good to them, they won’t drink it.”
When the sugar content is lowered, alternatives include aspartame as an artificial sweetener, or sucralose and maltodextrin. Solutions are often a combination of the varying sweetening agents. But the alternative sweeteners don’t provide as clean or sweet a taste in chocolate milk as natural sugar.
The challenges in creating chocolate milk for such nutritionally rigorous school milk programs are no small matter. Balancing the cocoa ingredients opposite a lower sugar content is difficult, particularly if a school district is asking that no artificial sweeteners be used. And the requests for all-natural chocolate milk products for schools prohibits the use of vanillin, which is a commonly used artificial vanilla flavor and is a cost-effective way to round out the chocolate notes in these products.
“Striking the balance of ingredients between cocoa and lowered sugar and other flavors used like vanilla is a huge challenge, particularly because the school boards want to have the product remain affordable and also want all-natural or lowered sugar parameters,” Stunek says. “Chocolate milk has always been a favorite in schools, but once you turn it into something that is not as special, it affects the dairy industry negatively.”
The Retail World
Trends in chocolate milk products continue to be relatively stable at the retail level. Regional preferences continue to drive the differences between fat content and chocolate flavor around the nation, with rich and indulgent chocolate milk products appearing in the Northwest and upper Midwest, slightly sweeter milk chocolate products in the South, and the Northeast preferring a more mild milk chocolate flavor.
The West seems to be most open to chocolate milk diversity, with all variations upon chocolate milk making an appearance on the retail shelf in these regions. The one nation-wide truth is that achieving stabilization in chocolate milk is always a very complicated proposal.
 “Countless aspects of the chocolate milk application affect stabilization, including pH, the fat content of the milk, the protein content of the milk, the interaction of the gum with the milk protein, the fat percentage of the cocoa ingredient, the heat processing treatment and more,” Laning says. “Stabilization is easily the most complex part of chocolate milk.”
Although suppliers typically have a good handle on how their cocoa ingredients will react with all of the various aspects of a dairy’s chocolate milk production process, usually at least one trial run is necessary to observe how all of the processing parameters meld and affect stability.
One new development affecting the retail world of chocolate is the increasing cost of vanillin, often used to round out the chocolate notes in the milk application. A current shortage of vanillin is causing an increase in price, and at some point there is a cost benefit to developing formulations that use less vanillin and vary the cocoa ingredients, such as more cocoa powder or different types of cocoa powder to offset the flavor difference.
And while chocolate soy drinks continue to grow and be a popular use of cocoa ingredients, the category of chocolate-flavored energy drinks and fortified milk-based beverages is not quite registering as a force.
“We seem to periodically get a glimpse that milk-based energy drinks and fortified drinks will be a strong growth area in the future, but as of yet this remains a niche and hasn’t been a significant category,” Stunek says. “It’s still a very small portion of the overall chocolate beverage market. Just the amount of chocolate milk consumed by kids every day exceeds by vast amounts the energy fortified drinks with cocoa ingredients market.”
Screaming
Chocolate ice cream continues to the most popular variety after vanilla, and most chocolate ice cream products use cocoa powders of varying alkalization and fat content to derive the chocolate taste and the dark or light brown color. The most commonly used cocoa ingredients in chocolate ice creams are the 10 to 12 percent fat variety. Most often, superpremium ice creams use premium alkalized cocoas, which can be of fat levels as high as 22 to 24 percent.
“Many variables go into how cocoa is used in the different market segments of ice cream, and it all depends upon the flavor profile a manufacturer is trying to achieve,” Stunek says. “For example, if a manufacturer is creating a superpremium ice cream but wants a milk chocolate-like effect, they could choose a medium alkalized cocoa powder but increase its use level significantly, which would result in a really good-tasting chocolate ice cream that is different than the other products out there.”
The new slow-churning technology that can create lower-fat ice creams through a distribution of the fat molecules through more of the ice cream mix has had minimal impact upon the use of cocoa ingredients in such applications. “Technically speaking, with a lowered fat content as a goal, most slow-churn ice creams are likely to employ the lower 10 to 12 percent fat cocoas,” Laning says.
One new development in the world of ice cream and cocoa and chocolate ingredients is the use of chocolate liquor in ice cream formulations to impart a decadent and rich chocolate taste and an indulgent eating experience; the liquor yields the ultimate in a smooth and creamy sensation.
“The use of chocolate liquor in combination with a cocoa ingredient adds a chocolate flavor to ice cream that you can’t achieve with cocoa alone, and is very much considered a superpremium product,” Stunek says. “Although this development is slowly becoming more fashionable for manufacturers who really want to make an impact, chocolate liquor ingredients cost much more and are time consuming and complicated to process, which is why this is generally done on a small scale and isn’t seen extensively in the market.”
Premium chocolate liquor is an extremely expensive ingredient, although the taste sensation of its ultra chocolate and smooth creamy mouthfeel might be priceless. The costs to the manufacturer go beyond the price of the ingredient and includes the processing considerations for using a liquid ingredient.
Such manufacturing considerations include getting the liquor to the proper liquid state for the ice cream processing, getting the ingredient thoroughly mixed and managing the interaction with the cocoa ingredient and the stabilizers so that all components of the ice cream are combined in the appropriate ratios. Using a liquor ingredient means that there are more and more issues to coordinate in the ice cream product, and the process becomes difficult in large scale.
Of course, the use of chocolate inclusions continues to be a popular way to increase the chocolate load in a chocolate ice cream product, and ingredients today run the gamut from fudge brownies to textured chocolate variegates and candy pieces.
“The consistent trend in the ice cream case is that manufacturers are challenged to come up with something a little different and unique compared to the other ice creams that are out there. Many manufacturers do this through novel inclusions, but this must be balanced by cost, too, and how much they can afford to put into a product,” Stunek says. “With dozens of brands of ice cream, what makes one ice cream stand out? Is it the price point? The packaging? The finished product itself? Marketing ice cream is a difficult job.”
The convergence of chocolate for health and healthier chocolate products is debuting in the ice cream category through new technologies for inclusion of ingredients which yield a lowered fat content in chocolate inclusions.
For example, Kerry Sweet Ingredients has developed several chocolate inclusions that offer low fat content, such as the company’s new Low-fat Fudge Brownie Dough inclusion. The piece not only boasts a lowered fat content in itself, but also aligns with the trend toward batters and doughs as inclusion pieces and doubling up the chocolate quotient in an ice cream through such inclusions.
“Consumers have become very savvy in terms of nutritional knowledge, and want products that help maintain a healthier lifestyle. At the same time, a good-for-you product also must have great taste because in the consumer’s mind, there is no reason to settle — indulgence and nutrition must go hand-in-hand,” says Karen Holliday, senior marketing manager of Kerry Sweet Ingredients, New Century, Kan. “That is why demand for products that provide a more balanced nutritional profile and still offer that feeling of ‘treating yourself’ is increasing. A lowfat cookie dough or reduced-sugar caramel that offer the same great taste meet both of these needs.”
For when all is said and done, such healthier ice cream options will only resonate with consumers if the ice cream remains one that tastes of indulgence and decadence.
“What is hitting home right now with consumers is the potential health benefits of chocolate and the flavanols, Stunek says.. “When consumers like a product and they hear that it may be good for you, they remember it. And this seems to be propelling the bright future of chocolate.”