Chocolate lovers can rejoice with the news that scientists have developed a new process that makes chocolate sweeter and allows it to retain more antioxidants, according to a press release from the American Chemical Society.1
On March 24, 2015, the researchers presented their findings at the 249th National Meeting & Exposition of the ACS, which features nearly 11,000 reports on new scientific advances and other fields of study. The ACS is the world’s largest scientific society.
Developing a healthier method for turning cocoa beans into chocolate is just one example of how scientists are continuing to try and make foods more nutritious and sustainable, which is imperative to general health as the population grows in the wake of a changing climate. While the idea of sweeter chocolate may make those in dental hygienist schools cringe, the antioxidants found in cocoa have been found to have a wide range of health benefits.
Research and Findings
The ACS explains that creating a candy bar requires several steps of production.1 First farmers remove pods of beans from cocoa trees, then split the pods open to remove the beans that are suitable for chocolate production. The beans are then fermented for several days in baskets lined with bananas, before being sun-dried and roasted. However, in this final step – roasting – many of the nutrients from the cocoa beans are lost, specifically polyphenols, which are renowned for their many health benefits.
Researchers adjusted the process a few ways in order to retain these treasured antioxidants. To begin, the team divided 300 pods into four groups that were stored for varying amounts of time: three days, seven days, 10 days or not at all. The team calls this process pulp preconditioning. After the waiting period, fermentation was done using the usual method. According to the ACS, researchers found that the week-long waiting period retained the most antioxidants.
“We decided to add a pod-storage step before the beans were even fermented to see whether that would have an effect on the polyphenol content,” Dr. Emmanuel Ohene Afoakwa, who works for the University of Ghana, said in a statement. “This is not traditionally done, and this is what makes our research fundamentally different. It’s also not known how roasting affects polyphenol content.”
The scientists also adjusted the roasting time and temperature, lowering the heat from the standard range of 248-266 to 242 degrees Fahrenheit, while the time was more than doubled from 10-20 to 45 minutes.1 Beans yielded the most antioxidants when a combination of these methods was used. In other words, beans that waited for seven days before fermentation and then were later roasted at the lowered temperature for a longer period of time retained the most polyphenols.1
Furthermore, this method gave mild chocolate a sweeter taste, allowing researchers to conclude that this process could be beneficial to chocolate producers in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where chocolate has a less intense flavor. If this method is widely adopted, it could make chocolate generally healthier and benefit food manufacturers, bakeries and other ventures that utilize cocoa often.
The Health Benefits of Chocolate
Chocolate, specifically dark chocolate, has been found to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, benefit weight loss, reduce stress, support memory and even serve as a natural cough syrup, according to Women’s Health.2 In particular, a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience found that flavanols found in cocoa can improve cognitive function by enhancing dentate gyrus function.3
According to Time, Afoakwa recommends dark chocolate over milk or white chocolate because it has less sugar and more antioxidants, making it generally healthier to consume on a regular basis.4 Keep in mind that while dark chocolate is now generally considered a superfood, consumption in moderation is key to receiving the most health benefits.
The Importance of Sustainability
Though scientists developed this new process with the nutritional value of chocolate in mind, there are some minor implications regarding sustainability. Finding new ways to get more nutritional value out of food is imperative as hunger continues to be a global issue. By packing more essential nutrients and antioxidants into foods, ideally these foods have more value in smaller portions.
Over the coming decades, it will become a global responsibility to public health to develop sustainable food production practices in order to efficiently produce food for the world’s population without causing detrimental harm to the environment.
1 “More flavorful, healthful chocolate could be on its way,” American Chemical Society Press Release, March 24, 2015. http://web.1.c2.audiovideoweb.com/1c2web3536/ACS_Denver_2015/PDFs/18_15-007%20Chocolate-Ce.pdf
2 “Nine health benefits of chocolate,” Women’s Health Magazine. http://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/benefits-of-chocolate
3 “Enhancing dentate gyrus function with dietary flavanols improves cognition in older adults,” by Adam M Brickman, Usman A Khan, Frank A Provenzano, Lok-Kin Yeung, Wendy Suzuki, Hagen Schroeter, Melanie Wall, Richard P Sloan & Scott A Small, Nature Neuroscience, October 26, 2014. http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v17/n12/full/nn.3850.html
4 “There Might Be More Nutritious Chocolate On the Horizon,” by Alexandra Sifferlin, Time, March 24, 2015. http://time.com/3756161/healthy-chocolate-cocoa/