A functional food like no other? Michelle Brisebois delves into the world of chocolate and its newest attribute: healthy.
It’s been on every Russian and American space flight. One bar contains more protein than a banana and Thomas Jefferson wrote of its superiority over coffee or tea in matters of health (I knew I liked this guy). Most women would sooner give up more carnal activities than forgo their indulgence of this sweet and Mozart made reference to it in his opera, Cosi Fan Tutte. Chocolate has enjoyed a mysterious and complicated relationship with the human race for years and, much like wine, chocolate appears to transcend other more benign food groups – it’s almost divine in its appeal.
|Compared to milk chocolate, dark chocolate stacks up much higher on the health scale, and more and more consumers are aware of that.|
Chocolate’s allure as a healing food has always been part of its lore but the perceived benefit has been primarily psychological. It’s typically been consumed as a way of rewarding ourselves for a hard day, but new research suggests that chocolate’s benefits may go far beyond this one-dimensional approach. Chocolate may actually have medicinal applications that facilitate the healing process. Most bakeries already have many chocolate menu items, so the industry is well positioned to benefit from this news, but we should proceed with caution. After all, we’re talking about “medicinal purposes” here. Do we need prescription pads to take this bold new direction?
Viewing chocolate as being truly good for us is a huge paradigm shift. Traditionally it’s fallen under the “guilty pleasure” category. It’s important to remember to condemn the sin not the sinner here; it’s not that chocolate is inherently bad, it’s what we do to chocolate in the processing that makes it a junk food. Today’s milk chocolate, pumped up with fats, oils and loads of sugar, resembles dark cocoa about as much as a Playboy Bunny resembles a real woman.
“There is a lot of confusion in the marketplace,” confirms Kelly Buckley of A Passion for Chocolate (www.apassionforchocolate.com ). “Some other companies cut costs by adding oils to chocolate already loaded with fats and sugars. Obviously it’s a concern for those promoting chocolate’s true health value that these oil-laden products will benefit from a halo effect from the media attention regarding the health benefits. Educating consumers about the difference is paramount.”
The big focus has been on the antioxidant levels of dark chocolate. Dr. Steven Warren, M.D., (of www.MyDrChocolate.com ) reports that cocoa is rich in antioxidant flavonoids called flavonols offering benefits that include anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anticancer, and antiviral properties. Promising research also suggests that the body’s utilization of insulin is improved with the ingestion of flavonols present in chocolate. This is great news for those with Type 2 diabetes. All of this information is encouraging for those who love to eat chocolate and those who love to work with chocolate but it may be a position better left to the health-care industry to promote.
“We definitely can’t make any health claims right now,” says Kelly Buckley. “Research indicates that approximately three quarters of the antioxidants are lost when the chocolate is heated so it’s not just about what’s in the chocolate but also how it’s handled. Our products are cold pressed and have other antioxidant-rich ingredients such as açaí berries, and blueberries. We’re focusing on education and tightly controlling how the product is distributed to ensure consumer education is handled with integrity.”
If you’re starting to think that tapping into chocolate’s newfound role as a healthy food is more trouble than it’s worth, think again. Maybe it’s not about making claims but simply taking a parallel path. The media attention around functional foods, nutraceuticals, and particularly chocolate will likely cause these segments to grow strictly from increased awareness. Without making any health claims, you may want to introduce more dark chocolate into your menu. Dark chocolate has a vastly different taste profile from the convenience store milk chocolate and the bakery industry would do well to focus on and celebrate these differences. In the wine industry, origin is a key trend as consumers become more intrigued with understanding why the soil, weather and geography of a vineyard makes one merlot taste completely different from another. The same principle applies to chocolate: it’s called terroir and it’s about the location infusing the food or drink with a unique taste profile. Show customers why a Belgian chocolate differs from a Swiss chocolate by holding tastings as in-store events (another tactic often used by the wine industry to great success). It’s quite probable that instead of trying to navigate the health claims of chocolate the baking industry would do better to raise the profile of chocolate from dime-store sin to premium indulgence. While the research around chocolate’s health benefits accumulates and definitive health claims become sanctioned, your customers will be spending their time learning from you to appreciate fine chocolate. By flanking the nutraceutical trend with a complementary strategy, rather than attempting to run with it head-on, you’ll be riding the wave without stepping into a regulatory quagmire. In the end, perhaps chocolate is staying true to form – always mysterious and indefinable. But always necessary.
Michelle Brisebois is a marketing professional with experience in the food, pharmaceutical and financial services industries. She specializes in helping companies grow their brands. Michelle can be reached at On Trend Strategies by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
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