Milk, dark or progressive?
That pinnacle of sweet indulgence, chocolate, has enjoyed an increase in popularity ever since it was found to be "good for you." Cocoa contains high levels of antioxidants like epicatechin, a flavanoid linked to cardiovascular health, and studies show dark chocolate in moderation may lower LDL cholesterol.
But it's also taken on social health as well, with a huge jump in the use of fair trade and organic marketing. In an increasingly common paradigm, it's the boutique manufacturers leading the way.
With most cocoa coming from Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil and Cameroon, there's a lot of poverty and child labor behind that delicious crop. Fair trade is a big issue in chocolate, as well as coffee, tea and some fruits. The Fair Trade Federation lists as "the sweetest" chocolate companies Sweet Earth Chocolates, Equal Exchange and Divine Chocolate. They're "most committed to sustainability and improving the livelihoods of cocoa farmers globally."
Agostoni Chocolate in March began offering probiotic-containing chocolate mini-disks as an inclusion or private label product. The probiotic is GanedenBC30.
Products from NibMor Chocolates, Huntington, N.Y., "are 100 percent USDA organic, contain no refined sugars, are dairy free, gluten free and are non-GMO," says Heather Terry, vice president of product development. Small-operation chocolatiers center their competitive spirit on appealing to the global-health side of marketable ingredients, and they employ that with surprising success.
Boulder, Colo.-based Justin's Nut Butter, which makes organic peanut butter cups, has recurrent social health campaigns, donating large portion of gross sales to non-profit charities such as Conscious Alliance.
Operations like Katherine Anne Confections, Chicago, carve out healthy wholesale and retail niches through use of organic ingredients and novel sweeteners, such as "local wildflower honey." Adds NibMor's Terry, "Our bars, which come in four flavors, are sweetened with agave nectar, coconut palm sugar and maple sugar. These are full of trace vitamins and minerals such as magnesium and potassium. Maple sugar is also higher in calcium."
Alternate ingredients also can tie into the groundswell of allergen avoidance – consumers allergic to gluten or peanuts. Another new Boulder, Colo., "peanut butter cup" crafter avoids peanuts for sunflower seed butter. Seth Ellis Chocolatier makes these aptly named "Sun Cups" as well as other boutique specialty chocolates.
"We think of healthier desserts and confections in terms of different sources of sugar and more nutritious fats, but coloring naturally is equally important," says Mark Goldschmidt, technical director for Sensient Colors, Milwaukee. "There's mounting interest in natural colors for confections so premium confection brand developers are interested in natural colors as they search for ways to deliver claims and have more simplified ingredient statements to highlight the benefits of their products, including the use of natural ingredients."
According to Goldschmidt, more mainstream confection brands are considering natural colors for line extensions or re-branding efforts to achieve such natural claims, something already commonplace in the EU.
"In contrast to beverage applications, confection products have a very low water activity," he continues. "An environment low in water activity allows for enhanced stability. A challenge exists in that liquid natural flavors are comprised of polyethylene glycol, glycerine or high amounts of acid. This composition is not friendly to confection products that require panning."
Natural colors for confectionary products by Chr. Hansen, New Berlin, Wis., come in both water- and oil-soluble formats, with the latter able to be customized for fat-based desserts. Typically, natural colors of yellow, red, green and violet can be sourced via turmeric, natural carotene, carmine, chlorophyll and anthocyanin -- but also caramel and carbo vegetabilis, a vegetable-based natural charcoal, are used. The company has a confectionery pilot plant in operation to help processors derive solutions for naturally coloring desserts and sweets.
For red colors, another source of natural colorant comes via adding superhealthy superfruit powders. Decas Botanicals Synergies, Carver, Mass., has enjoyed success in supplying vibrant reds from cranberries and other berries while imparting sweet-tart flavors to baked applications and fruit-based confections. All while significantly raising health profiles of products with high antioxidant profiles.
Bonbon or pill?
The boundary between confection and functional food has been blurring lately. When companies such as McNeil Nutritionals, Ft. Washington Pa., released Viactiv, a calcium-infused chocolate fudge chew, the gates flew open for such purpose-driven sweets.
Adora Chocolate calcium supplements flipped the paradigm by coming not from a big pharmaceutical manufacturer like McNeil but from Thompson Chocolates Inc., now Thompson Brands, a 130-year-old, Meriden Ct.-based boutique chocolatier.