Can the whole cocoa pod be utilised when making chocolate?

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

The study aimed to develop chocolate using most of the cocoa pod. Image Source: Getty Images/TinaFields
The study aimed to develop chocolate using most of the cocoa pod. Image Source: Getty Images/TinaFields

Related tags Cocoa cocoa fruit Upcycling deforestation

By developing a chocolate bar using not only the cocoa bean but the pulp and endocarp as well, a new study aims to create a more sustainable form of chocolate.

The cocoa pod has a lot of potential. The fruit, for example, can be used in concentrate fruit juices and alcoholic drinks, and be made into snacks and ice-cream. But can this be taken full circle, using its elements to create a chocolate bar?

A new study explores the potential of developing a chocolate bar that utilises most of the elements of the cocoa pod. In a partnership between Swiss-Ghanian start-up Koa and German university ETH Zurich, the study explores whether its taste could be made comparable to that of ordinary dark chocolate, as well as whether, by utilising more of the cocoa, any real environmental impact can be seen.

How was the chocolate developed?

In order to develop the sweetness of their new chocolate, the researchers combined the cocoa pod’s endocarp (inner layer of the pod, around the seed) with pulp to create a sweetening gel. This was a substitute for sugar.

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Using more of the pod has the potential to cut down on deforestation risk. Image Source: Getty Images/Capuski

This gel does not have the sweetening power of the powdered sugar conventionally used in dark chocolate. It is able to surpass, in sweetness, only half its weight in sugar. The researchers tried several different dosings of the gel in their chocolate in order to get to the level of sweetness that they felt consumers would enjoy.

“The fibre-rich sweetening gel that we developed has to be dosed in the right amount. Too little and the chocolate is not sweet enough, too much and the chocolate is not processable anymore. It is a trade-off between adding fibres and finding the sweet spot,” Kim Mishra, one of the researchers, told FoodNavigator.

Another difficulty was the texture and look of the chocolate: the ‘snap’ and ‘gloss’ that makes consumers feel they’re dealing with the real thing. These ‘need the right tempering’ to get right.

“With our new chocolate, the same tempering can be applied as with conventional chocolate to get the perfect texture.”

Other types of alt-chocolate

It isn’t only the rest of the cocoa bean that can be utilised to develop chocolate alternatives. Alt-chocolate has also been developed using faba beans​, upcycled grape seeds, and even forgotten crops​.

The reason that chocolate producers were previously reluctant to develop a product like this, Mishra told us, is the difficulty of adding water to their product. “For typical chocolate it is an absolute no-go to introduce any moisture because chocolatiers fear that they destroy the chocolate. We played with the ‘availability’ of water and could show that you can add moisture to chocolate, you just need to control the way the moisture interacts with the chocolate.”

The chocolate was taste-tested by a panel from the Bern University in Switzerland. They found that the chocolate with added cocoa butter was perceived as significantly sweetener than the one without. The researchers speculated that fat could be a bitterness suppresser.

How does the new chocolate compare on sustainability?

According to the study, dried cocoa beans only have a 10% yield. This means, to satisfy market demand, far more must be grown, leading to a greater demand for land and a greater risk of deforestation. If the other elements of the pod were used it could, in theory, reduce this demand.  

In order to test out whether there really was an improvement in sustainability, the researchers performed a lifecycle assessment on their bar, comparing the version of their own chocolate that they saw as most acceptable, tastewise, to consumers, to conventional dark chocolate.

At lab scale, the researchers saw that their chocolate had a significantly greater global warming potential than conventional dark chocolate, and once scaled up, they predicted, it had a similar global warming potential to the European average of powdered sugar. However, it performed significantly better than conventional dark chocolate on land use and water use.

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How does the product compare to conventional dark chocolate? Image Source: Getty Images/ fcafotodigital

If a market for such a product were to develop, Mishra suggested, it would benefit cocoa farmers as it would provide them more to sell. “Farmers will be able to sell three products: the dried endocarp from the pod, the sweet juice from the pulp surrounding the beans, and the beans themselves! Hence, they will have to ‘dissect’ the whole fruit and sell the individual compartments to further process them (much like we are using pectin and sugar from sugar beet).”

If farmers are able to use all of these elements, the only part of the pod that remains is the shell, which can be used for composting.

Could it be adopted commercially?

The researchers worked with the start-up Koa, who have upcycled elements of the cocoa pod before, to develop the chocolate, and ETH has already filed a patent for the study’s recipe.

What is its potential for commercialisation? While chocolate sweetened with cocoa pulp is already on the market, the endocarp is currently not commercialised.  

Upcycled ingredients from cocoa is still new, Sarah Theodora Mills, product development and marketing manager at Koa, told FoodNavigator. “As chocolate made with cocoa pulp is still new, consumers still need to be educated on the pulp: what it is, how it tastes, and its added value.” She pointed out big name brands such as Lindt incorporating it into their own bars, as well as Koa’s own dried cocoa pulp.

Utilising the cocoa pod

The cocoa pod can be upcycled into a range of different things. For example, the cocoa fruit has recently begun to be used more frequently in beer and wine​. Koa itself have developed a fruit juice concentrate​ with cocoa.

There is a long way to go before a bar such as the one in the study could be commercialised. “Consumers are unfamiliar with the cocoa fruit, let alone its potential in chocolate. Thus, a knowledge gap that needs to be bridged by educating and exciting consumers about the fruit and its unique flavour profile,” Mills told us.

If such a bar would be released, it would also be competing with the established taste of conventional chocolate, which is not an easy task.

But Mills certainly sees a way forward, and an appeal to consumers. “It’s all about a good-tasting product, and once this is achieved, sustainable and ethical sourcing as well as the benefits to farmers​ have proven to add value. The core emphasis is the exciting and refreshing taste experience of the cocoa fruit chocolate and the supporting message is the use of the entire cocoa fruit to reduce waste and support farmers.”

Sourced From: Nature Food
'Valorization of cocoa pod side streams improves nutritional and sustainability aspects of chocolate'
Published on: 21 May 2024
Doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-024-00967-2
Authors: K. Mishra, A. Green, J. Burkard, I. Gubler, R> Borradori, L. Kohler, J. Meuli, U. Krähenmann, J. Bergfreund, A. Siegrist, M. Schnyder, A. Mathys, P. Fischer & E. J. Windhab

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