Someday you may be able to buy chocolate with more flavor and more health benefits than what’s already on store shelves.
Researchers say they have found a way to change the system for processing cocoa in a way that actually makes chocolate better for you. They are presenting their research today at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Denver.
Before cocoa beans can be made into chocolate, they must go through several stages. After bean pods are cut from the trees, they are split open and the beans are removed. Then, the beans are allowed to ferment for a few days in banana-lined baskets. Finally, they are dried in the sun and then roasted
The problem is that while roasting brings out the flavor, it also causes some of the beans’ healthful antioxidants (polyphenols) to be lost. Researchers wanted to find a way to retain more of the antioxidants and bring out more of the cocoa flavor.
With this goal in mind, the scientists added a pod-storage step, called “pulp preconditioning,” before the fermentation stage. They did so “to see whether that would have an effect on the polyphenol content,” said Emmanuel Afoakwa, Ph.D., a professor of food science and technology at the University of Ghana, who headed the study.
“This is not traditionally done, and this is what makes our research fundamentally different,” he said.
To test this new step, Afoakwa’s team divided 300 pods into four groups of 75. One group was not stored, and the other three were stored for three, seven, and ten days. The scientists found the pods stored for seven days still had the most antioxidant activity after roasting.
Changing the Roasting Process
Next, the researchers wanted to see if they could enhance the roasting process to increase antioxidant production and flavor. To achieve this goal, they decided to try slow-roasting the beans. They roasted them for a longer time and at a lower temperature than is standard.
Instead of the usual 10 to 20 minutes at 248 to 266 degrees Fahrenheit, they roasted the beans for 45 minutes at 242 degrees. They found this method resulted in more antioxidant production than the conventional one.
In addition, the beans that were stored and then roasted for 45 minutes had more antioxidant production than the beans that weren’t stored.
Afoakwa explained that, during storage, the sweet pulp around the beans probably changed the beans’ physical and biochemical properties.
“This aided the fermentation processes and enhanced antioxidant capacity of the beans, as well as the flavor,” he said.
Is Chocolate a Healthy Snack?
Susan Smith, senior vice president of communications at the National Confectioners Association, said Afoakwa’s study adds to an important body of research about the benefits of cocoa.
“Scientific research over the last 20 years or so increasingly shows that flavonoids, naturally occurring compounds in cocoa, may have positive health effects for cardiovascular health as well as cognition,” she explained.
Among the health benefits of chocolate is its ability to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and stroke risk.
Flavonoids and a subclass called flavanols are nutrients contained in many plant-based foods that have antioxidant effects.
Afoakwa believes these new ways of processing cocoa beans may be especially helpful in Southeast Asia and Latin America. In some countries in those regions, cocoa beans naturally produce a milder chocolate flavor and have fewer antioxidants.
The team’s future research will delve deeper into the effects of pod storage and roasting on flavor. They will test different storage lengths, as well as different roasting temperatures and times. They hope to produce beans with even greater antioxidant content.