By Rob McMahon
By Rob McMahon
Fact…or devilish fallacy?
A chocolate a day keeps the doctor away? It sounds like a cruel joke. But, imagine biting into a chocolate chip cookie, and savouring not only the taste, but also the health benefits.
Recent scientific research is finding that by changing the manufacturing process, or adding nutritional supplements, chocolate can become, if not as healthy as an apple, more nutritious than one might think. And with cocoa and chocolate as popular baking ingredients, current research into their health benefits provides opportunities for the baking industry.
Companies such as Lallemand and Barry Callebaut are already releasing chocolates that include health benefits. In an e-mail interview, Dr. Leah Porter, vice-president of scientific affairs at the U.S.-based Chocolate Manufacturers’ Association (CMA), wrote that the attention being paid to functional chocolate products provides opportunities to dispel myths about chocolate – as long as it’s consumed responsibly.
“Contrary to popular beliefs (or urban legends), chocolate does not trigger acne, allergies, migraine headaches, hyperactivity, cause dental caries or contain excessive amounts of caffeine,” wrote Dr. Porter.
One of the key health benefits of chocolate is high levels of flavanols – a type of flavonoid. Recent research points to the antioxidant activity of flavonoids, which also appear in foods such as tea, grapes and grapefruit. According to “Benefits of Cocoa Polyphenols,” a paper written by Dr. Porter, the antioxidant activity of these compounds appears to slow down the aging process and prevent cardiovascular diseases.
The emerging field of functional chocolate provides a cocoa-infused health kick. Though the field is too new for a formal definition, the Institute of Food Technologies defines functional foods as “foods (and food components) that provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition (for the intended population).”
While he doesn’t have any direct experience with “functional” chocolates, Dr. Joe Mazza, from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said there is no doubt the field of functional foods is growing. Researchers, consumers and industry are all interested in exploring the benefits of such products. While no regulatory system is currently in place in Canada to define what products are legitimately “functional” foods, Dr. Mazza said Health Canada is working on designing a system at present.
“[People are] looking at things we have not really looked at before,” said Dr. Mazza. “When you put all the elements together (consumer, research and industry interest) the field looks very promising.”
Chocolate-maker Barry Callebaut agrees. The company is researching the field of functional chocolate, and said it will
continue to develop products that combine taste with lower levels of sugar or fewer calories. Callebaut’s ACTICOA® chocolate restores many of the nutritional benefits of cocoa that are lost during processing.
ACTICOA utilizes a production process that doesn’t add extracts or other chemical substances to the chocolate – thus preserving the natural antioxidants present in cocoa, while retaining the taste and texture of “regular” chocolate. Callebaut states its production process preserves up to 70 per cent of the naturally present polyphenols, and claims ACTICOA dark chocolate contains twice as many cocoa polyphenols than standard dark chocolate, while ACTICOA milk chocolate has four times more than standard milk chocolate.
In an e-mail interview, Herwig Bernaert from Callebaut wrote that ACTICOA has a higher polyphenol content and antioxidant activity than other chocolates available in the market, and these polyphenols can be easily absorbed into blood – after two hours in most cases.
Since ACTICOA is the same as regular chocolate in terms of taste and texture, it can be used in the same ways – in products from ice cream to cookies. As well, it retains its benefits when baked.
However, the field of functional chocolate hasn’t been without controversy. In the U.S., Masterfoods, which produces M&Ms® and Mars® bars, has promoted a product called CocoaVia®. Upon release in March 2006, Masterfoods claimed CocoaVia contained plant flavonols, believed to reduce cholesterol and promote a healthier heart.
Last June, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to Masterfoods over these health claims. According to a NutraIngredients-USA.com article, the FDA challenged the company’s marketing of CocoaVia as “healthy.” In the letter, reports NutraIngredients-USA, the FDA called the product line “misbranded,” condemning CocoaVia’s claims that it “promotes a healthy heart.” The FDA stated that high levels of saturated fat in CocoaVia make these claims untruthful, and also raised concerns about high levels of folic acid in the product.
ACTICOA has similar levels of saturated fats to those of other chocolate products, wrote Bernaert. He said that due to high levels of polyphenols in ACTICOA, people can eat a smaller portion size in order to gain the same benefits as regular chocolate – 10 g versus 40 g. Of course, it could be argued portion sizes are controlled by whomever actually munches on the chocolate. Barry Callebaut is aware of the FDA’s concerns, wrote Bernaert.
“That is why today we are also working on reducing the negative perceived ingredients in chocolate, [for example] sugar and fat,” he wrote. “Today, Barry Callebaut can offer a superb tasting chocolate with 40 per cent less sugar.”
Two years ago, Montreal-based Lallemand (a subsidiary of American Yeast Sales) began working on a probiotic-infused chocolate mixture. Probiotics, most often found in dairy-based products such as yogurt, are healthy when consumed regularly, and provide “good bacteria” to balance the amount of “bad bacteria” in the gut. They can be used as a therapeutic supplement when treating gastrointestinal disorders and as a daily preventive measure.
After Lallemand developed chocolate-coated medicinal probiotics for children, the company discovered that chocolate was a useful material for delivery of probiotics. Aware of the growing interest among consumers in healthy and functional foods, including one study that predicted the U.S. market for functional foods would reach $300 million US by 2008, the company decided products such as probiotic-infused chocolate icing were a huge growth opportunity.
“It became a no-brainer,” said Jim Kopp, Lallemand’s senior vice-president of nutritional baked goods products. “Our study looked at incorporating probiotics into food applications, because we’re a major producer and supplier for the pharmaceutical and dietary supplement industry.”
Lallemand’s Probiotic Project aims to fuse probiotics with products such as pastry custard, praline and chocolate that are added to baked goods. According to Kopp, the probiotic-infused products have thus far shown great potential for maintaining bacterial viability over normal storage periods. The company is providing some bakeries with a spray topping that can be applied to bread or rolls after baking, and before packaging.
“If a customer is looking at two products: one with probiotics, and one without … they’ll take the one with probiotics,” Kopp. “It’s like vitamin C in orange juice … [Customers] look at what brand of orange juice gets them the most vitamin C.”
With more companies conducting research on how to add health benefits to baked goods and other food products, many believe the functional foods industry is expanding fairly aggressively. Such developments are putting to rest the time-worn adage that it’s impossible to have one’s chocolate cake, and eat it, too.
“Few established industries learn that their foods deliver health benefits, and fewer still have a chance to add ‘health benefits’ to an already popular product,” wrote Dr. Porter. “[Therefore, we believe] there will be growth opportunities for the cocoa and chocolate industry.”