What’s not to love about chocolate? Even chocolate-lovers may be more lovable!

A study published in 2012 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that people who love sweets are likely to be more agreeable. This may be caused by a change in brain chemistry. The consumption of chocolate floods the brain with dopamine which lights up the reward center of the brain and lifts mood.

In the book “Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good,” author Barb Stuckey writes that chocolate is one of nature’s most perfect foods. “One of the most seductive qualities of good chocolate is that it melts precisely at human body temperature, which provides a textural experience unlike any food.”

Eating chocolate may also improve physical health. A substantial amount of research shows that cocoa flavanols may help control blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health overall. Eating chocolate may also help control blood sugar. And preliminary research suggests that cocoa flavanols may boost brain health and memory. Scientists aren’t sure how it happens, but surmise that cocoa flavanols may increase blood flow — and therefore oxygen — to the brain.

Could there be even more reasons to love chocolate? Health and Wellness Editor Karen Giles-Smith convened a virtual roundtable of suppliers to find out. Here’s what they had to say about chocolate trends and technologies.

Dairy Foods: It seems that chocolate milk and chocolate ice cream will never go out of favor. Do these products hold their own or is it necessary to continually make them fresh and exciting for consumers?

Mark Freeman: Consumers’ preferences change. As consumers recognize darker chocolate’s healthier nature, we’ve seen a steady shift from milk chocolate toward dark chocolate. In dairy applications, we see this trend carrying over with the development of more intense chocolate and cocoa levels in ice cream coatings, chocolate inclusions and chocolate ice cream.

Rose Potts: Chocolate ice cream is a perennial favorite — but even within “plain” chocolate ice cream there are two camps. One group of chocolate ice cream consumers wants a very light, chocolate milk flavor, whereas the other group has a preference for a very deep, rich, devil’s food cake color and flavor.

Chocolate in ice cream has definitely exploded with inclusions in the last few years — from velvet cake pieces to mini bon bons. Also, Oreo-type flavors and inclusions are quickly moving to the top of consumers’ preferences.

Courtney LeDrew: There will always be a place for chocolate milk in the marketplace. However, as the pressure to improve kids’ dietary quality continues to increase, there will be a push for reformulations to meet various nutrition criteria such as less added sugar and fewer calories.

Rick Stunek: We have done a lot of reformulation of chocolate milk based on various fat and sugar levels. We have also expanded the category to include chocolate combinations such as mocha, chocolate-peanut butter, chocolate-raspberry, etc.

John Pimpo: I think consumers are willing to pay more for premium chocolate ice cream. You can easily make a cheap, flavorless product but the ice cream makers who take the time to make it right are reaping the benefits. If you have a good enough base with quality ingredients, you will have a customer for life.

Stephen Platt: Chocolate has become an area of great interest in ice cream in the last five years as the requests for milk and dark types with a focus on cocoa regions intensify. We have also worked on ways to add complexity to our chocolate products. For example, Star Kay White has experimented with adding ingredients such as sea salt, caramel, coffee and spices to provide interesting, trendy chocolate-driven ice cream flavors.

Anton Angelich: Many popular, long-established iconic food products exist; however America’s taste experiences are also evolving. As Starbucks has changed America’s roast preferences in coffee, the increasing popularity of dark chocolate, and its positive health associations, makes room for the parallel development of dark chocolate milks and ice creams.

Dairy Foods: Is there anything new in terms of chocolate and cocoa ingredients in milk and ice cream? New trends? New technologies?

Freeman: Consumers are clearly looking for more authenticity from their food, and chocolate is no different. As cocoa sustainability is a major concern, programs that support the livelihoods for cocoa farmers are seen more and more on packages of chocolate-containing foods. Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade and UTZ are recognized certification schemes which promote cocoa farmer livelihood, but even programs like Barry Callebaut’s Quality Partner Program are used more frequently to show the nexus between the chocolate consumers are enjoying and the needs of cocoa farmers.

Marie Loewen: We are seeing a lot of interest in natural, wholesome ingredients in the dairy arena. This excludes alkalized cocoas in some cases, but otherwise it’s a trend that lends itself well to chocolate ingredients.

Pimpo: It’s the pairing of inclusions with chocolate where we see trends. Many customers are choosing a chocolate base of ice cream with our chopped peanut butter cups when previously they tended to choose a vanilla base.

We are now seeing a trend to match dark chocolate with caramel sea salt, whereas the traditional marriage has been with milk. Also, milk chocolate pretzel nibs have been successful with a trend again to match pretzels with dark chocolate for 2014.

Platt: The availability of cocoa from different growing areas is resulting in opportunities to develop signature chocolate products. In addition, pricing is allowing us to be more creative with our finished products.

Stunek: Most of the strong trends have to do with sweetening school chocolate milk. The use of the sweetener modulators stevia and monk fruit juice to lower the sugar and calorie content is moving forward rapidly.

Dairy Foods: What are the applications for chocolate and cocoa in cheese, yogurt and other dairy products?

Loewen: As the yogurt market has become more saturated, we’ve seen more innovative entries into this area, and many of them have included chocolate chips as an inclusion or topping. Since the yogurt is cold, the chocolate chips add a lot of contrast with their rich, chocolate flavor and crunchy texture.

Stunek: Cocoa is used in yogurt, but only to a limited degree because the pH of the yogurt is not highly compatible with cocoa.

LeDrew: Working with cocoa powder in fermented dairy products, such as yogurt and cheese, can be challenging as a result of the acidity caused by lactic acid bacteria. Cocoa powder can add buffering capacity which means the cultures have to produce more acid to reach 4.6 pH. This gives a higher titratable acidity and a tart flavor.

When cocoa powder is used with fermented dairy products, the best option is a higher alkalized cocoa powder that is dark and strong in flavor. When formulating with a higher alkalized powder, a lower percentage of powder can be used in the recipe without impacting flavor. This can help alleviate some of the off-flavor profiles generated in chocolate flavored fermented dairy products.

As an alternative option for yogurt, chocolate particulates can be used as an inclusion which consumers can add prior to consumption.

Dairy Foods: In terms of formulating milk-coffee beverages flavored with chocolate, how does chocolate react with milk and with coffee? Are there additional aspects that should be considered?

Freeman: Since the growth of the premium coffee industry, chocolate and coffee have become a very popular combination. Consumers find the smooth, rich flavor of chocolate combined with the more acidic coffee notes to be an appealing treat. Then, by top-noting with other flavors like hazelnut, a large variety of creations is possible.

Potts: In coffee beverages, chocolate is usually added in the form of syrup comprised of cocoa and water. In this way, cocoa can be added to the coffee in measured (compatible) doses in order to attain a rich mocha flavor.

LeDrew: In coffee beverages, the boldness of the coffee flavor often minimizes the effect of the powder or chocolate that formulators are trying to deliver. Most baristas will use syrup that has chocolate or cocoa as part of the formula. In addition, cocoa extracts can be added directly to the formulation of the milk-coffee beverage to help boost cocoa impact to the desired level.

Stunek: Cocoa and coffee go together like beer and football. Mocha is one of my favorite flavor combinations. At coffee shops, I order it 80% of the time. The only question for formulators is: What is the target for balancing cocoa and coffee? Everyone has a different idea on mocha. Some like more cocoa than coffee or vice-versa. Know your market and search for consumers’ preferred balance.

Angelich: Iced coffee is one of the fastest growing beverage categories today. In developing a chocolate- or mocha-flavored coffee, a dairy can create its own signature taste by adjusting the chocolate/mocha taste by level of impact from slight to strong in relation to the coffee, and by choosing a chocolate character that could be dark, milky, caramelly, nutty, fruity, etc.

Dairy Foods: Chocolate milk is well-known as a recovery beverage. Should processors develop different flavor profiles for different ages — adults in particular? What might this mean for formulations?

Angelich: Chocolate is one of the world’s most universally accepted and desired taste preferences. This can enhance the baby-boomer consumers’ acceptance of fortified and nutritionally complete beverages.

Freeman: In light of the huge variety of recovery drinks on the market, there is very good potential for increasing varieties of chocolate milk to meet the expectations of athletes who rely on these beverages.

Loewen: We are slowly seeing increased entries into the milk-based recovery beverage market, and chocolate is a popular flavor. Developing a richer, dark chocolate flavor profile for adults would definitely differentiate a brand. We would suggest using alkalized cocoa in these formulations, which provides a darker color as well as rich flavor. With a darker profile, it could be a lower-sugar offering, which is also hot right now.

LeDrew: For recovery beverages targeting adults, a flavor profile with lower sweetness and a higher cocoa impact is desired. This could result in a formulation using more cocoa powder and less sugar to impart a stronger cocoa flavor.

Stunek: If you are making a dedicated recovery beverage, it’s going to be driven more by the desired nutritional panel than by age group. Since the target market is usually above the age of 14, you are already dealing with more mature tastes.

However, if you are using standard chocolate milk after a workout (which is a very good idea), adults will generally like it less sweet than kids. The problem is that most dairies are not going to produce two different skim or 1% chocolate milks for the store shelf.

Dairy Foods: Are dairy customers requesting or requiring that cocoa be sustainable or fair trade?

LeDrew: Yes, more and more customers are eager to understand where the products they purchase come from and how they’re produced. The Cargill Cocoa Promise brings together all of our global activities and strengthens our commitment to a sustainable cocoa supply chain. We want to make a difference in three key areas: improving the lives of cocoa farmers; supporting cocoa farming communities; and investing in the future of cocoa farming.

Freeman: While one major ice cream company has promoted sustainability, the rest of the industry is watching, but hasn’t made the move yet. We are seeing this trend more intensified in confections where the end product is a higher level of cocoa content.

Pimpo: Some customers are looking for this and we have accommodated their requests. We are also seeing an increase in the amount of requests for organic and all-natural.

Don Heffner: I do believe that the area of fair trade and sustainable products will drive more creativity as developers become more aware of the availability of raw materials.

Dairy Foods: What’s on the horizon for chocolate, cocoa and dairy that may affect the dairy industry in 18 to 24 months?

Freeman: The future is bright for chocolate and dairy as the cost of cocoa has dropped so much over the past couple years. When cocoa prices were high, the dairy industry cut back on cocoa usage to keep costs under control. Now with lower cocoa costs, dairy processors can increase usage levels which will create the deeper chocolate-flavored products that consumers desire.

LeDrew: Although there will always be a market for highly indulgent products, there may be a greater push from consumers for more balanced, functional dairy products. Adding ingredients to bolster health claims in order to create functional foods is a growing trend — consumers want to be able to indulge while doing something good for their health.

For dairy products, this may mean formulating chocolate milk with less sugar and fewer calories, or creating a protein milk beverage targeted toward active adults.

Stunek: For skim and 1% milk, the answer is reduced sugar, reduced sugar and reduced sugar.

Angelich: Tea is the world’s second most-consumed beverage after water. Adding the high degree of acceptance of chocolate, Virginia Dare’s beverage laboratories have taken the pairing of chocolate and tea and put them together in one delivery form: chocolate tea. It’s something special and unique, building upon the best of both origins.   

Meet the Panel

  • Anton Angelich, group vice president – marketing, Virginia Dare Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Courtney LeDrew, marketing manager, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, Lititz, Pa.
  • Don Heffner, director of sales, Star Kay White Inc., Congers, N.Y.
  • John Pimpo, sales manager – East, Gertrude Hawk Chocolates, Dunmore, Pa.
  • Marie Loewen, R&D scientist, Blommer Chocolate Co., Chicago
  • Mark Freeman, vice president of sales, Barry Callebaut, Lancaster, Pa.
  • Rick Stunek, marketing & sales, Forbes Chocolate, Broadview Heights, Ohio
  • Rose Potts, corporate manager of sensory and product guidance, Blommer Chocolate Co., Chicago
  • Stephen Platt, vice president of sales, Star Kay White Inc., Congers, N.Y.