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Research And Development Of New Applications For Chocolate Persist

Staying current with this perennial flavor means touting and creating health benefits and paying heed to global social issues.

By Deborah Cassell, Contributing Editor

Fair trade sourcing, dark chocolate and understanding the health message of flavanols in cocoa are current trends in this sweet category.

Chocolate is universally loved, hence global demand for it remains constant. It's no wonder research and development of new applications for this old flavor persist.

Fair trade sourcing, dark chocolate and understanding the health message of flavanols in cocoa are current trends in this sweet category. So are inclusions and coatings for "good-for-you" snacks, such as nutrition bars and cereals, some containing added proteins and fiber, says John Zima, director of sales for ADM Cocoa in Milwaukee (www.adm.com/en-us/products/cocoa).

Food processors are even using chocolate in ready-to-eat cereals, such as this past February's new Kellogg's Double Chocolate Krave -- "made with real chocolate," the box proclaims. Yet the indulgent ingredient adds little calories or fat to this multigrain (some of it whole grain), "good source of fiber" (3g), relatively low sugar (10g) breakfast. General Mills still makes Cocoa Puffs (with new variants Brownie Crunch and Combos Chocolate & Vanilla) and Reese's Puffs.

"Chocolate as a line extension is still appearing everywhere, from chocolate or cocoa versions of our favorite cereals to chocolate-coated granola or wellness bars to chocolate peanut butter," says Rose Potts, corporate manager of sensory and product guidance for Blommer Chocolate Co. (www.blommer.com), Chicago. "Chocolate is still the No. 1 craved flavor in the world. Coat it with chocolate and it will sell!"

Blommer's new RainForest Alliance product ranges from milk and dark chocolate to natural and alkalized cocoa powders, as well as cocoa butter and chocolate liquor.

"Due to consumers' concerns with health overall, many of our platforms and research are centered around healthy chocolates," says Laura Bergan, marketing manager-food manufacturers for Barry Callebaut USA (www.barry-callebaut.com), Chicago. Her company's latest innovations include recipes made with reduced sugar and fat and a no-sugar-added chocolate containing stevia.

In addition, the ingredient is being paired with other flavors, notes Courtney LeDrew, marketing and sales operations manager for cocoa & chocolate at Minneapolis-based Cargill (www.cargill.com). "Chocolate confections made with herbs and spices, such as lavender, are popular. Chocolate and savory combinations (such as rosemary, thyme, chili and lemongrass) are also on the rise."

Dark is still bright
Dark chocolate got a shot in the arm circa 2005 when Mars Inc. and others began connecting cocoa's flavanols with heart health. Suddenly, chocolate was a health food. And, generally speaking, the darker the chocolate, the greater the flavanols.

Mars in 2005 created a new division, Mars Nutrition for Health & Well-Being, and a product, CocoaVia, its first cocoa product marketed as a heart-healthy snack. The business unit has since morphed into Mars Symbioscience and its mission has broadened, but it keeps the gospel of cocoa flavanols as a prime message.

"Dark chocolate is still growing, as consumers have learned that it is a healthier option and is perceived to be more premium," says Bergan. "Dark chocolate is being used mainly for products that are targeted to adults versus children, as children prefer milk chocolate." So the dark stuff is showing up in premium chocolates, cookies and baked goods.

After consumers read up on what flavanols were, they turned their attention to the cocoa content of candy bars … and then to the origin of the cocoa beans.

"We saw rapid growth in dark chocolate, single-origin, high cocoa-mass products back in 2007-2008," recalls Jeff Rasinski director of commodities for Blommer. "The phenomenon was short-lived, however, as the world financial markets went into turmoil. Given the deterioration in economic conditions globally in 2008, demand for high-end chocolates [high cocoa-mass, finer dark chocolates] deteriorated quickly. Since 2008, we have been in a slow, protracted recovery."

Potts concurs, saying dark chocolate consumption peaked in 2007 as manufacturers rushed to get to market to meet the new demand. But changing demographics also are playing a role. "Our population is skewing to the more mature, and the flavor preference is darker, generally, as we get older," she says.

Cocoa prices, too, have been impacted by global factors. "Cocoa prices were at very high levels in 2011, primarily due to the economic crisis in West Africa," Bergan explains. "Cocoa bean prices have lowered since the crisis and are now fairly stable." However, cocoa beans are still exponentially higher in cost now than they were 5-10 years ago, she says.

White and 'green' chocolates
Cargill's LeDrew notes an increase in the number of premium white chocolate products. Cargill recently launched its Wilbur Pristine white confectionery coating. Under the same brand, the company is working with enhanced protein levels. Other introductions include the Gerkens range of Dutch dark premium cocoa powders and Peter's 62 percent semisweet chocolate.

"Consumers will continue to purchase premium chocolate products because they are an affordable luxury," Bergan says. Moving forward, "You will see more dark chocolate options and unique textures."

While Zima anticipates more emphasis on good nutrition and "good-or-you" products, he also expects "continued growth of ethical claims."

Indeed, sustainability will remain a hot topic, as "consumers are paying more attention to the sourcing and farming practices of chocolate producers," Bergan says. "In addition to partnering with chocolate certifying groups such as Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade, we directly partner with the cooperatives and farmers in the cocoa growing regions of the world."

For its part, Blommer has responded by investing $3.7 million in farmer training to help increase the quality and yield of crops to meet the expected 30 percent increase in demand in the next 10 years, Potts notes.

Ultimately, consumers "want to understand the story behind the food they're eating," LeDrew concludes. "As a result, global product launches with ethical claims have risen substantially from 2007 to 2011.

"In regard to cocoa and chocolate, consumers are becoming more aware of the topic of sustainability," she continues. "Therefore, the demand is growing for cocoa beans certified by organizations such as Utz Certified, Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance. Sustainably grown cocoa is essential to the economies and livelihoods of farming communities in cocoa-growing countries. This is an important factor in ingredient origination, and will continue to be important to customers and consumers."