Chocolate: from sin to superfood

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 16th February 2010

Chocolate manufacturing giants Mars Incorporated and Barry Callebaut AG yesterday announced a cross-industry partnership to promote the health benefits of cocoa flavanols.

Cocoa PodFlavanols are a type of flavonoid – chemicals with antioxidant properties, found in green tea, berries, fruits, vegetables and red wine. Cocoa flavanols have been shown to improve blood circulation, protect skin from the effects of UV and potentially improve brain function. The flavonoid group as a whole is also believed to be an anti-angiogenetic – a property that aids weight loss and may limit the dangerousness of early-stage cancerous growths.

Using Mars’ patented Cocoapro process, flavanols (usually destroyed by the manufacturing process) can be preserved in chocolate and other cocoa products. This cocoa is currently available as CirkuHealth low-calorie dietary supplement, and in Dove Rich Dark Chocolate in the US. Beginning this month, Barry Callebaut will begin licensing Mars patents for its Acticoa products, and labelling them with the Mars Cocoapro Bean In Hand logo, to certify flavanol levels.

Flavanols are significantly reduced during chocolate manufacturing, particularly by the process known as ‘Dutching’, which alkalises cocoa and removes the bitter taste of the flavanols. Dutching dates back to 1828, when it was invented by Coenraad Van Houten: the smoother, richer Dutched cocoa quickly became the gold standard for fine European cocoa. Darker chocolate products are often made from cocoa which is not Dutched, likely contributing to the popularly-attributed health benefits of dark chocolate; research indicates that the addition of milk does not significantly affect flavanols.

However, Mars maintains that choosing chocolate for health by cocoa percentage or ‘darkness’ is misleading, and that better measurements and labelling are the answer. “While flavanols are naturally abundant in cocoa, unless you are specifically measuring and carefully handling a product throughout the manufacturing process, there is just no guarantee the product contains meaningful levels of the flavanols,” said Mary Wagner, General Manager at Mars Botanical. “This agreement with Barry Callebaut will now guarantee reliable flavanol levels in more cocoa and chocolate products around the globe.”

Critics warn that while the health benefits of flavanols are clear, the health-conscious should be careful when adding extra calories alongside. “An ounce of dark chocolate delivers about 150 calories. Eat that much every day without cutting back elsewhere and the girth you gain would far outweigh any benefit from chocolate.” says Dr. Thomas Lee, editor in chief, Harvard Heart Letter.