Cocoa and chocolate products: Color them healthy and socially responsible.

For many European chocolate manufacturers and artisans, there’s a rule of thumb about chocolate consumption and health: 40 grams a day. To some skeptics outside the industry, the adage is akin to an old chocolatier’s tale.

Yet, as more and more scientific research comes to light, the health benefits associated with eating chocolate, acknowledged since its discovery by the Oltecs in Central America, are ringing true.

Consider the latest study published in the September issue of theJournal of Internal Medicine. The findings, tracked by Imre Janszky of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, indicate that heart attack survivors who eat chocolate two or more times per week cut their risk of dying from heart disease about threefold compared to those who don’t consume chocolate. This research adds to growing scientific evidence that chocolate improves blood flow.

As a result, chocolate’s good health aura continues to have an impact on consumers, chocolate manufacturers and chocolate makers. As Courtney LeDrew, marketing manager for Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, explains, it’s clearly having an impact in the marketplace.

“The most common product requests that we’ve been getting lately from our confectionery customers have been for natural products and for products that do not contain hydrogenated oils,” she says.

“There is no definition of what a natural product is, but we see that most confectioners define it as a chocolate that is made without artificial flavors or colors,” LeDrew adds. “This typically means that the confectioner wants chocolate made with vanilla instead of vanillin. For some, it can include non-alkalized liquors and natural sugar. Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate has a selection of chocolates that are naturally flavored under theWilbur,Peter’s andVelicheproduct brands.”

The health interest also extends to compound chocolates. LeDrew points out that during the past two years, the company has seen an increase in demand for compounds that do not contain hydrogenated oils.

Compounds made with non-hydrogenated oils allow the confectioner to develop great-tasting products with a “cleaner” label,” she explains.

Frederic Duvauchelle, general manager of Puratos Chocolate USA Inc., concurs.

“Our customers are becoming increasingly aware of our environment and the impact we have, he says. “Embracing this demand will also be a key to future success.”

Chocolate suppliers also are looking at ways to enhance chocolate’s health benefits. Earlier this year, Barry Callebaut introducedProBenefit, a new probiotic chocolate for North American food manufacturers.

Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, through partners such as UTZ Certified, is helping cocoa farmers establish a credible sustainability program for mainstram cocoa. Photo courtesy of Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate

Using a special production process developed exclusively by the company,ProBenefitchocolate is enhanced with probiotic bacterial cultures that help to restore the balance of intestinal flora. The product, which is kosher-certified and available in dark and milk chocolate, offers the same great taste, texture and mouth feel as non-probiotic chocolate as well as a long shelf life with no refrigeration required, making it ideal for a wide range of applications in food manufacturing.

“Barry Callebaut developedProBenefitspecifically to help its food manufacturing customers meet the growing consumer demand for healthy and functional foods,” says Rich Benson, director of research and development for Barry Callebaut North America. “We know that most Americans are concerned about their well-being and are taking steps to eat more healthfully. Food products that featureProBenefitallow them to do that, while also enjoying the indulgence of fine chocolate.”

As valuable as chocolate’s health benefits are in expounding its virtues, indulgence still remains key. That, coupled with the added intrigue and taste profiles offered by single-origin sourcing, draws not only regular consumers but new aficionados, as well.

Puratos Chocolate USA recently launchedChocolanté, which offers options such as origin-based or organic.

Puratos’ Duvauchelle says the company has been focused on expanding its offering to consumers: “We see that our consumers want great-tasting chocolate with more options such as organic or origin-based products. As a leading manufacturer of value-added chocolate we have worked to excel in this arena.

“Mainly it is a direct result of key alliances with cocoa growers and suppliers in specific regions of the world,” he adds. “In some cases, both demands can be addressed in one product such as our Dark Costa Rica Organic Rain Forest Alliance chocolate.”

Establishing alliances with cocoa growers and suppliers always has been a key practice by large and small cocoa processors and chocolate manufacturers. For example, ADM Cocoa and Chocolate works through farmer cooperatives in Côte d’Ivoire. The company’s Technical Training Program educates cocoa growers about labor practices, farm safety, HIV/AIDS prevention, operational transparency and product quality. The program also offers business training to managers of farmer cooperatives and has donated more than 100 computers to participating co-ops.

In addition to its educational component, the program offers farmers financial support in the form of seed money at the beginning of the growing season and millions of dollars of zero-interest revolving credit year round.

At harvest, ADM pays premiums to cooperatives delivering products of notably high quality, increasing incentives for cooperatives to focus on quality and for co-ops with high-quality cocoa to work with ADM.

Such programs reflect increased social consciousness about the plight of cocoa farmers throughout the cocoa-growing regions. Recently, both Cadbury and Mars, two of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the world, announced commitments to Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certifications.

Although the total percentage of such certifications presently remain small, compared to global chocolate consumption, it represents a movement toward social accountability. Several small chocolate makers, ranging from Askinosie Chocolate and Patric Chocolates to Tcho and Theo, emphasize their close relationship to cocoa farmers as well as their commitment to paying premium prices.

It is a practice that bodes well for all concerned: farmer, cocoa processor, chocolate maker and consumer.

Speculating About The Future

Recent headlines have hinted that cocoa prices could be poised for an upsurge, given the unease about pending elections in the Cote d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa growing region, and weather issues affecting the pending harvest.

Kip Walk, director of cocoa for The Blommer Chocolate Co., doesn’t foresee quite a bullish stampede, noting that the market is currently overbought.

“The most recent increase stems from speculative activity,” he says. “Cocoa is one of the many commodities hedge fund companies are looking at. They’ve become active in cocoa.

“As for the elections in the Ivory Coast [Rival political groups spurred a civil war during the past two year], there could be interruptions in the supply chain,” Walk adds. “The interruptions wouldn’t have an impact on the harvest, which is currently is forecast as being slightly better than expected. Ghana is projected at having a strong crop, with Nigeria and Cameroon holding steady.”

Weather, however, could have an impact in South America, with El Niño contributing to excessive rainfall.

“There is a reasonable El Niño threat, which has been picked up by the market as very bullish,” says Hugo Van Der Goes, v.p. of sales, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate. “Although it is unlikely that El Niño will negatively impact the development of coming African crops, there is a correlation between El Niño and the output of the South American crops (especially Ecuador) due to overabundant rainfall.”

Ironically, after decades of cocoa prices being so connected to crop development and weather, it’s speculators in London and New York that now are as important a factor in stimulating price movement as nature.