A review paper published in the International Journal of Food Science and Technology, suggests sugar or starch may help cocoa flavanols get to the right point in the GI tract to be absorbed more readily.
However, Dr. Duane Mellor, co-author of the paper and senior lecturer in human nutrition at Coventry University, told ConfectioneryNews, this is still theoretical and there is a caveat.
“The sugar may cause an increased spike in insulin, and the insulin may cancel out the effects of the polyphenols on blood pressure.”
But if sugar is problematic for chocolate carrying a health claim, why not look to other sweeteners?
Dr. Mellor’s review paper said the bioactive effects of chocolate with sugar alternatives such as stevia is largely unknown.
“Although these points are potentially academic, as the quality of the research data counts for nothing, if the resultant food product is unpalatable to the consumer,” it said.
Synergy of ingredients
Dr. Mellor said it was crucial for any company looking to commercialize flavanol rich chocolate to understand how the mix of ingredients effects the flavonoids.
The researcher, whose work has previously been funded by Nestlé and Barry Callebaut, said: "When we're looking to reformulate products we need to look at the holistic message.
“Not just the total energy content, the total sugar content for global health reasons, but looking how it impacts on the function of the product.”
Health claim ‘lacks meaning to the consumer’
In the EU, Barry Callebaut has exclusivity on the only health claim for dark chocolate until around March 2018.
A study by a team at the University of Frieburg, University Hospital of Basel and the University of Bonn last year claimed Barry Callebaut’s health claim ‘should be revised’ because 100 mg of the specific flavanol epicatechin is needed to achieve the desired health effect. They said 200 mg of total flavanols – including catechin and other phenolic compounds only contains 46 mg of epicatechin. Barry Callebaut said at the time its claim was granted thorough procedure requiring sound scientific evidence.
The claim, won in 2013, originally read that 200 mg of cocoa flavanols provided by 2.5 g of Barry Callebaut’s Acticoa cocoa powder or 10 g of Acticoa dark chocolate: "help maintain endothelium-dependent vasodilation which contributes to normal blood flow."
The EU later allowed the claim to read: “contributes to normal blood circulation by helping to maintain the elasticity of the blood vessels.”
Dr. Mellor said: "However, such claims lack meaning to the consumer...So, putting it on the pack is almost impossible,”
The bitter problem
He said chocolate products making cocoa flavanol health claims today are quite niche because companies are struggling to overcome the bitter taste.
"For chocolate in particular the problem is that because these compounds of interest are quite bitter you rarely get a commercial product that has a significant amount of flavonoids."
Barry Callebaut has licensed its health claim to only a handful of chocolate brands, including Vandenbulcke's ChoVita and the Good Chocolate Company's brand Lavlé.
No top 10 chocolate players has yet licensed the claim. Mars – very active in cocoa flavanol research –has been focusing on use in supplements.
‘You’re always going to have a problem’
Dr. Mellor said: "You're always going to have a problem having such a luxurious food with a high fat and sugar content with a health claim."
He added current research into cocoa flavanols is predominantly industry financed "so there's always going to be criticisms of it, linked to potential conflicts of interest".
Dr. Mellor said he doubts the EFSA cocoa flavanol health claim will ever be extended to include a wider range of chocolates, such as milk chocolate.
International Journal of Food Science and Technology
‘Sugar and cocoa: sweet synergy or bitter antagonisms. Formulating cocoa and chocolate products for health: a narrative review’
Authors: Duane D. Mellor, Daniel Amund, Ekavi Georgousopoulou, Nenad Naumovski.