Chocolate Cause

by Cathy Sivak
Contributing Editor

Cocoa’s combination of taste, health and social connotations makes a convincing case.

Demand for cocoa and chocolate continues to rise thanks to direct links to seemingly polar opposite consumer attractions: indulgence, health benefits and social consciousness.
“Chocolate is a flavor that everyone enjoys. Consumers are following the emerging science around the benefits of the cocoa bean and trying new and exciting flavors, especially those with high cocoa content,” says Chicago-based Rich Benson, director of research and development, Barry-Callebaut NA, Pennsauken, N. J.
Consumer interest in health benefits, origins and taste profiles of different chocolates is reaching wine connoisseur status. Culinary events are offering chocolate tastings complete with “flights,” similar to wine tastings in their educational efforts. “Dark chocolate can offer many of the same types of antioxidant benefits that are found in red wine,” says Scott Johnson, product development manager for Cargill Cocoa and Chocolate, Lititz, Pa.
“While some adults may revisit dark chocolate as a result of the highly publicized antioxidant claims, they will continue to purchase dark chocolate as their palates grow in sophistication,” says Melissa Althen, director of R&D for Parker Products Inc., Fort Worth, Texas. “There is an overall trend for more complex flavors and more bang for the buck, and dark chocolate is more comparable to fine wine in its multiple layers of flavor.”
Chocolate tastings tap into consumer interest in the biggest niche growth area in cocoa and chocolate: specific certifications and designations, from organic to Fair Trade to an origin-country specific trend patterned after the coffee bean industry with Columbian, Venezuelan and Madagascar chocolates with distinct taste profiles.
“These ‘special chocolates’ have shown growth rates far exceeding the category. They also command a premium price with the consumer and can move a brand to a different space,” Benson says.
Meanwhile, consumers want to be left with a good taste in their mouths when it comes to chocolate. Paralleling organic marketing efforts is promotion of fair labor practices through groups like the World Cocoa Foundation. The foundation promotes long-term sustainability and quality of life for cocoa farmer through practical and cost-effective methods such as farmer field schools, explains Rose Potts, the East Greenville, Pa., facility-based sensory programs manager for Blommer Chocolate Co., one of the foundation’s founding companies.
The organization is additionally considering creation and implementation of an on-package World Cocoa Foundation seal comparable to the fair trade seal. “The major cocoa and chocolate manufacturers are being highly pressured to examine their social responsibilities,” Althen says.
The country’s aging demographic is yet another point in the chocolate column’s favor. Taste buds change and are lost as a natural part of the aging process, and the threshold for tasting bitterness rises, Potts explains. “That means that we can take more intense products with high-intensity sensations — peppers, cinnamon or more cocoa mass — than when we were younger,” she says. “It’s all about the dark chocolates. People that have never tried dark before are trying it now.”
Health Halo
A seemingly endless stream of chocolate-wellness link studies are finding that the benefits of chocolate’s antioxidants may include staving off pre-effects of Alzheimer’s disease, decreasing risk of heart disease through reduction of high blood pressure and even fighting cancer. “We’re not touting that cocoa or chocolate is a magic elixir or the fountain of youth,” Potts says. “But our environment and diets chip away at our wellness every day; so it’s nice to have a choice of something that you can take to build yourself up.”
For instance, while potential benefits to HDLs are not yet on the product claim spectrum, the steric acid component of chocolate’s saturated fat actually has a neutral effect on cholesterol, and may even raise good HDL levels to improve lipid balance. Industry insiders are working to create best practices for consumer education efforts, with potential for nutrition label annotation, Potts notes.
Health-halo carryover from the confectionary category for dark chocolate has lagged somewhat in the dairy category. The hold-up is creating suitable formulations for antioxidant effectiveness combined with sourcing and pricing challenges.
“It’s a matter of selecting the appropriate cocoa versus the appropriate process and then optimizing what cocoa works best,” says Marie Cummings, manager of food applications and product development at Philadelphia-based David Michael & Co. She notes that dairy formulation with chocolate requires assessment of dairy fat levels, sweetener types and required amount cocoa for the desired flavor profile.
“It’s difficult to get real large quantities of those kinds of ingredients in chocolate milk or ice cream, plus it’s a cost factor,” says Rick Stunek, director of marketing at Benjamin Forbes Chocolate, Cleveland. “The development and marketing teams need to determine what level of dark chocolate use is its going to push ingredient cost up to the point where the retail price will become a barrier,”
Dark-chocolate milk is seeing the start of play in flavored milk rotations, particularly for school lunch programs. Suppliers are fielding requests for dark-chocolate smoothies and dark chocolate is increasingly found in ice cream variegates or inclusions with high cocoa solids content to boost antioxidants.
“Consumers’ palates are becoming more sophisticated and they are looking more for different and exciting flavors, while simultaneously looking for something indulgent that they can feel better about eating,” Johnson says.
The cocoa ingredient production process is critical to maintain antioxidants, from bean origin to fermentation to drying to roasting to processes that lead to the finished chocolate product. “Subtle process differences for milk and dark chocolates are needed to maximize the polyphenol content of the finished ingredient,” Benson says.
The actual level of beneficial antioxidants in chocolate is not found in a “darkness” parameter; rather, its the particular cocoa/chocolate liquor used that has the greatest polyphenol content impact, he notes, citing Barry-Callebaut’s proprietary chocolate-making process designed to retain efficacy of cocoa bean polyphenols.
Meanwhile, in the dairy processing stage, be aware that “antioxidants are somewhat effected by handling and environment that they have,” says Blommer’s Potts, citing handling abuse from heat processing. Formulation is also important to viability, as evidence shows a favorable effect of sugar carbohydrates on cocoa antioxidants’ functionality.
Flavor for Fortification
Culinary chocolate trends with a spicy edge are being showcased by suppliers. While the mass market may not see a chipotle-infused, nutritionally fortified ice cream in the near future, experimentation with “ethnic” drinking chocolates with antioxidant benefits is getting closer. “It’s not unusual to see something like an ‘Aztec drinking chocolate’ — essentially a decadent drinking chocolate that’s combined with spices such as chili or cinnamon to give it a little edge,” Cargill’s Johnson says.
Chocolate continues its role as a flavorsome pairing with fortified products as well as those designed with simply taste in mind. “We all know that chocolate is a great masker of flavors; with vitamins and minerals added, the cocoa flavor helps with masking with off-flavors that are associated with some of the nutrients,” Potts says. 
Nutritionally fortified and/or health-focused, dairy-based products are likely to continue to monopolize product development team efforts.
As overall consumer interest in functional dairy products grows, potential exists for “functional chocolate” concepts utilizing chocolates with higher than standard antioxidant levels, Benson says. “Start with the best cocoa products possible to meet flavor as well as nutritional targets,” he says.
Still Sweet
No- or low-sugar formulators have long known it critical to find the appropriate cocoa for the type of sweetener and fat to create pleasing taste profiles and a low glycemic count. “The gap between the flavor profiles of entirely sugar-free and full-sugar products is narrowing all the time,” Johnson says.
Today’s R&D departments are going a step further, experimentation with sweeteners  such as sugar alcohols that offer low glycemic counts and lasting energy, Cummings notes.
“The first generation of no- and low-sugar products used polyols, which can have laxative effects, and, frankly, the taste profiles were not matching the original targets,” Benson says. “Second-generation reduced-sugar products are using fiber addition to provide a positive benefit, and we are also finding the taste profiles are greatly improved.”
Use of inulin is typically limited for flavor impact, but cocoa adds to palatability, Blommer’s Potts notes. “You can add more inulin sugar replacer at a higher level with a chocolate flavor profile versus some other flavors.”
Supply & Demand
As the growing range of cocoa is essentially limited to few miles on either side of the equator, cocoa supply is often sporadic. The expected cocoa market deficit this year means tight supply and price volatility will continue, with preliminary reports indicating expected price increases, suppliers agree. Adding to supply challenges is war on the Ivory Coast, one of the main cocoa growing areas, notes David Michael’s Frank Calabro, confections-senior food technologist.  
The emergence of single-origin and high cocoa solids chocolate bars means the cocoa market is struggling to meet increased demand for the fine cocoa grades utilized in dark chocolate. On the positive side, new cocoa fields are in development in New Guinea, Australia and Hawaii, Calabro notes.
Chocolate providers additionally face ongoing scarcity of milk powders and correlating record-high global prices. International dairy demand is not only diverting U.S. milk powder supply to export markets, but is also creating “tremendous price volatility” for dairy proteins, says Tom Hodge, purchasing manager for Cargill Cocoa and Chocolate.
Sourcing and pricing can raise hurdles to product development, but chocolate flavorings can ensure both economics and consistent taste profiles, suppliers agree. For instance, cost and supply restraints on single-origin source cocoas have led to development of chocolate flavorings to take the place of up to 30 percent of cocoa in a formulation.
The worldwide organic chocolate market is growing fast, albeit from a small base. Because only a handful of countries produce substantial organic cocoa volume, there simply isn’t enough to go around.
Suppliers remain diligent in efforts to continue to grow the pool of organic chocolate products while serving market demands. For instance, Parker Products produces several organic chocolate grinds for ice cream manufacturers, and is creating organic cocoa inclusions such as pralined cocoa nibs with an eye on tapping into the highest concentrations of naturally occurring antioxidants. 
Add ongoing demand from newly achieved critical mass, purchases of niche organic players by large processors and the rollout of Wal-Mart’s new organic milk line, and the sum is new expansion and income opportunities for cocoa farmers with previously limited markets — an outcome that satisfies world opinion as well as market demand.
Cathy Sivak is a freelance journalist and a former editor of Dairy Field.