Scientists develop better-for-you chocolate, and it’s better for the planet

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Chocolate is mostly energy dense, and high in sugar and saturated fat. Can scientists reformulate for a better-for-you alternative? GettyImages/Eva-Katalin
Chocolate is mostly energy dense, and high in sugar and saturated fat. Can scientists reformulate for a better-for-you alternative? GettyImages/Eva-Katalin

Related tags cocoa Chocolate Confectionery

Healthier and more sustainable chocolate? While it sounds almost too good to be true, that’s exactly what scientists have created in Switzerland.

Chocolate is not known for its ‘green’ credentials, with cocoa coming under fire for links with deforestation and forced labour in sourcing countries.

Nor is the confectionery considered a healthy snack; in many chocolate products the primary ingredient is not in fact cocoa, but sugar, which is often accompanied by high levels of saturated fat and low levels of fibre.

But in Switzerland – where people eat more chocolate per capita than anywhere else in the world – scientists have been working to reinvent chocolate with both health and sustainability in mind.

Making an unhealthy treat healthier

To some, chocolate is a snack​. To others, it well and truly falls under the confectionery banner for ‘treat’ occasions only. This is because chocolate rarely scores well in the nutrition stakes.

Although cocoa beans themselves contain health-promoting compounds such as flavonoids – which have been linked to improved cardiovascular health – chocolate products are commonly high in sugar and saturated fat.

The average sugar content of chocolate confectionery products in the UK in 2017 was 47.3g per 100g.

Chocolate is also energy dense (an average chocolate bar comes in at 250kcal), meaning that excessive consumption can result in excess weight – a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Researchers at the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health at ETH Zürich believe they’ve found a way of improving the nutritional profile of chocolate, by reducing sugar and saturated fatty acid content, while increasing fibre.

Less sugar and saturated fat, more cocoa shell powder and pulp juice concentrate

The approach focuses on the cocoa pod component in the chocolate. When cocoa beans are harvested, residual cocoa pod husks (which make

cocoa Narong KHUEANKAEW (2)
Scientists are experimenting with 'whole-fruit cocoa'. GettyImages/Narong KHUEANKAEW

up to 75% of the cocoa pod) are often discarded. Researchers at ETH Zürich are using this cocoa pod – and more specifically the endocarp, or final layer of the ‘shell’ surrounding the cocoa beans and pulp – that has been extracted, dried, and milled it into a powder.

The cocoa bean pulp is also harvested and pressed for its juice, making for two new ingredients: an endocarp powder and a cocoa pulp juice concentrate. By heating and mixing the two together, a gel is created that can be added to cocoa mass from cocoa beans.

The scientists then used the sweetened gel to replace some of the powdered beet sugar traditionally used in chocolate production. Whereas conventional dark chocolate may contain between 30-40% powdered sugar, the researchers’ creation contains just 5-10%.

According to a sensory panel, the new sugar-reduced formulation (which contains 20% gel) was judged to be as sweet as conventional dark chocolate. It also allowed for higher fibre and reduced saturated fatty acid content.

Better for the planet and better for cocoa farmers

While achieving a better nutritional profile is a big win, it’s not the only one.

The scientists also conducted a cradle-to-factory life cycle assessment of the new formulated chocolate product revealing it could reduce land use and global warming potential compared with average European dark chocolate production.

Cocoa products tend to be at the higher end of the environmental impact scale, thought to range from 1.25kg to more than 46.7kg CO2e per kg of dark chocolate. Most of these emissions are attributed to cocoa cultivation.

In standard cultivation methods, just 10% of the dry beans per cocoa pod are used, which means farmers often seek greater surface area to produce higher yields. This can result in land use change in biodiverse regions, which is why cocoa is one of the commodities impacted by the European Union’s incoming deforestation regulation​.

But if more of the cocoa pod is used – such as the pulp and cocoa pod husk, as suggested by ETH Zürich researchers – significant environmental impacts during the cultivation phase could be achieved.

cocoa farmer Media Lens King
Not only is the production method thought to be better for the environment, but also better for smallholder farmers. GettyImages/Media Lens King

At the same time, the process provides opportunities to diversify farmers’ income, which could offer potential socioeconomic benefits for cocoa-producing regions. “Farmers can not only sell the beans, but also dry out the juice from the pulp and the endocarp, grind it into powder and sell that as well,” said lead researcher Kim Mishra.

“This would allow them to generate income from three value-creation streams. And more value creation for the cocoa fruit makes it more sustainable.”

According to the researchers, the development of what they refer to as ‘whole-fruit chocolate’ formulations offer an opportunity to improve the entire cocoa value chain, from environmental sustainability to consumer health and smallholder farmer income diversification.

When will healthier, more sustainable chocolate hit shelves?

ETH Zürich has already filed a patent for the healthier, more sustainable chocolate recipe. The university is hoping food manufacturers will develop this kind of chocolate, but told us the licensing would need to be negotiated with Koa, the start-up that suppliers the endocarp to researchers.

But commercialisation is not just around the corner, suggested Sarah Theodora Mills, product development and marketing manager at Koa.

“Consumers are unfamiliar with the cocoa fruit, let alone its potential in chocolate. Thus, [there is] a knowledge gap that needs to be bridged by educating and exciting consumers about the fruit and its unique flavour profile,” she recently told FoodNavigator​.

chocolate grdenis
GettyImages/grdenis

Whole-fruit cocoa is far from the only invention aiming to boost the sustainability of chocolate confectionery products. A wave of start-ups rethinking conventional cocoa production has entered the scene with unlikely ingredients, from cocoa cells to barley, faba beans and grape seeds.

Catch up on the latest inventions here: Six start-ups rethinking cocoa for alt choc innovation

Source: Nature Food
‘Valorization of cocoa pod side streams improves nutritional and sustainability aspects of chocolate’
Published 21 May 2024
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-024-00967-2
Authors: Kim Mishra, Ashley Green, Erich J. Windhab et al.

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