Positive science results are helping cocoa flavonols make progress in the market, and resolving issues around supply, around sustainability, and even around basic analytical methods could open the field of opportunity even wider, experts say.
First, there is the issue of what consumers understand when the talk turns to cocoa and/or chocolate and health benefits.
“In terms of the market, what is the consumer recognizing? Is it cocoa flavanols, is it a specific flavanoid? That has hasn’t been fully well established yet, but it has been quickly moving toward an understanding and definition,” Brian Schanenberg, PhD, quality, food safety and regulatory manager at Mars Botanical told NutraIngredients-USA.
“Everybody want to get in on the gourmet chocolate/dark chocolate/high percent cacao thing,” Risa Schulman, PhD, a food scientist and consultant, said. Currently, many of the natural chocolate bar launches seem to be leaning on high cocoa content claims as a measure or quality, and only secondarily as a vaguely defined connection to health benefits.
Candy bar, or health product?
But are the benefits of cocoa flavanols –in blood pressure management, in circulatory system health, in endothelial health–best delivered in a supplement, or in a confection like a chocolate bar? And will freighting a candy bar with health messaging, whether connected to the flavanols themselves or additional functional ingredients such as probiotics or what have you, merely serve to confuse the consumer?
The chocolate bar delivery mode is what currently has market traction, but it’s a hard case to make that the benefits of the ingredient must necessarily be wrapped up in a sugar- and fat-laden package, Schulman said.
“The journal articles are definitely calling for (flavanols to be delivered in a supplement). They always say, ‘We caution against people eating a chocolate bar every day,’” she said.
A number of cacao-based supplements are on the market, such as Reservage Organics' CocoWell line and a new supplement launch aimed at circulation support for diabetics called ProActive Life.
Then there is Mars’ own CocoaVia line (on which Schulman did some of the development work during her time with the company). The product has only 30 calories per serving, and is offered in stickpacks as a flavoring for milk, smoothies, etc. As part of a deliberate development process, the product is just beginning to be offered in stores.
“Whereas before we have only been available online, now we are in some of the stores like Vitamin World,” said Marlene Machut, cocoa flavonols science communications directors for Mars.
“We have achieved our target at year end which very good for us.”
The sustainability question
Clouding all the good news is a lingering question about sustainability. Hershey’s, one of cocoa’s Big Three along with Mars and Barry Callebaut, recently suffered a sustainability black eye when Whole Foods Markets announced plans to drop the company’s Scharffen Berger gourment chocolate line over child labor concerns.
“It has been an issue in the industry for quite some time because cocoa is not farmed in the way that other commodities are,” Schulman said.
With other commodities you have might have a massive farming company that plants many hectares of a monocrop. With cocoa a very large proportion gets supplied by family farms. A family farm could be ten trees on a property in Ivory Coast or in Indonesia,” she said.
It’s more difficult to control and certify issues such as the use of child labor and the application of sustainable farming practices in such a diffuse market, Schulman said. But that doesn’t mean certifying organizations, such as Rainforest Alliance, aren’t having a positive impact. It’s just that the market has a very long way to go to achieve full certification.
“Right now the amount of commodity cocoa available in the world that can be certified is 5%,” Schulman said.
A final hurdle for the widespread application of cocoa flavanols is there is as yet no accepted method for measuring flavanol content in these products. The supplements mentioned above, with the exception of the Mars product, call out amounts of cocoa powder on the labels without specifying the amount of cocoa flavanols. Mars specifies 250 mg of cocoa flavanol content per serving in its CocoVia supplements, and not coincidentally, Mars has published an analytical method , though it has yet to be adopted as an industry standard.
“I think it’s wide open for somebody to take advantage of that niche,” Schulman said.
“Once the industry agrees to use either Mars’ method or another method, then you can start to put on package that a serving contains, say, 350 mg of cocoa flavonols, and have that be comparable to a number on somebody else's package.. That’s what the consumer really needs to look for, not ‘75% cacao.’”