Two trends driving the food industry — health and indulgence — seem at odds with each other. Categories such as breads, flatbreads and savory snacks are benefitting by turning to better-for-you formulations while sweet goods, cakes, cookies and pies are getting a lift from going more delectable than ever. Chocolate is one ingredient that sits at the intersection.

“Chocolate is definitely a tool for food manufacturers in baking and snacks because it fits both of those worlds,” said Laura Bergan, director of innovation and market development, Barry Callebaut. “Part of that is it’s indulgent and there’s a premium to it, but also consumers have figured out there are some health benefits primarily due to the fact that it has natural antioxidant properties and flavanols that happen in the cocoa bean.”

On its own, chocolate possesses antioxidants that have been linked to cardiovascular health. Much of the growth in the industry associated with chocolate’s natural health halo is driven by dark chocolate. However, chocolate is unique in that not only does it carry its own antioxidants, but it is also very amenable to being fortified with other nutrients or having negative attributes removed.

“Due to the ‘better for you’ (BFY) trend in the food industry, there are many chocolate and compound coating products that have been specially developed to have an impact on the nutrition label, such as reduced sugar, added protein, added fiber and reduced fat/­calories, which can confer benefits onto the baked good or snack,” said Jenna Derhammer, applications and innovation manager, Blommer Chocolate. “The desired benefit will drive the chocolate or compound selection to help achieve it.”

Chocolate’s indulgent flavor can help bakers deliver on promises, such as reduced sugar and added protein, while still providing taste and texture. “Our chocolates and compounds really help enhance the overall eating experience,” said Adam Lechter, director of chocolate technology, CQC. “They bring some different textures and enhance the overall eating experience of bars or baked goods, which is good if you’re trying to increase the nutrition.”

All of these attributes make chocolate and its associated ingredients the perfect vehicles to help bakers and snack producers improve the nutritional impact of their finished products while still maintaining taste and an indulgent profile. Although new chocolate and compound coatings can help bakers reduce sugar and fat, the most prevalent ways these ingredients contribute to a product’s BFY image are through bringing natural antioxidants to the table or the extra boost of protein or fiber.

Innate healthfulness

The simplest way to benefit from chocolate’s health perception is by taking advantage of its own antioxidants rather than adding anything to make it more nutritious.

“Our Taste Tomorrow global research has shown that consumers perceive cocoa to be a power ingredient,” said Jessica Blondeel, product manager, chocolate, Puratos Corp. “Raw, unprocessed cocoa is rich in flavonoids, which are natural antioxidants associated with better protection of the heart, vascular system and brain tissue.”

Cocoa beans carry more flavonoids than the fruit of many other plants, and the specific flavonoids found in them are rarely found elsewhere. However, the more the cocoa bean is processed, the fewer flavanols remain in the resulting cacao, or cocoa mass, the intermediate from which chocolate is made. “Like many other beneficial components in chocolate, antioxidants are best preserved when the cacao percentage is high and minimally processed,” Ms. Derhammer said. “For example, a chocolate with 70% cacao will have more antioxidants than a milk chocolate, and a natural cocoa powder will have more antioxidants than an alkalized one.”

During processing, cocoa beans are ground, which creates cocoa mass that is then pressed into cocoa powder and cocoa butter. In a finished chocolate product, a higher percentage of cocoa mass and a lower amount of sugar will yield a greater proportion of flavonoids. Only cocoa solids have flavonoids. For example, because it contains milk powder, milk chocolate has a lower cocoa percentage than dark chocolate, resulting in a lower amount of flavonoids. White chocolate, made only with cocoa butter, has no cocoa solids and, thus, offers the least amount of antioxidants, according to Ms. Blondeel.

“Time, temperature and certain steps in the production process such as alkalization can lower the amount of flavonoids,” she said.

Barry Callebaut developed a proprietary process to create a dark cocoa powder that preserves as many flavanols as possible. The resulting Acticoa cocoa powder contains eight times more flavanols than conventional cocoa powder. Acticoa chocolate, processed in a similar fashion, contains three times more flavanols than conventional chocolate.

“We don’t add anything to this product,” Ms. Bergan explained. “This is all from how we process it and how we keep that goodness of the flavanols in. I equate it to when people say, ‘Don’t overcook your vegetables’ because you’re cooking out the nutritious parts of the vegetables. It’s all the same thing.”

The extra flavonoids, however, do make these ingredients’ flavors more intense, so it’s recommended that they be used in conjunction with conventional cocoa powders and chocolates. “Just depending on what the food manufacturer is trying to accomplish from a flavor profile standpoint, we can help them with the end formulation,” Ms. Bergan said.

These antioxidants can help bakers and snack producers take advantage of health benefits they convey, most notably flavanols’ link to cardiovascular health. Scientific studies relate consumption of flavanols found in chocolate to reduced risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. In fact, recently, the European Safety Authority approved a health claim to be used in the EU regarding chocolate. The claim states that at a minimum of 200 mg per day, cocoa flavanols help maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, which contributes to normal blood flow.

“It is very difficult, by the way, to get a statement like this through the European authority,” said Michael Augustine, US director of R&D, Barry Callebaut. “It takes a lot of work and evidence to substantiate.”

In the US, however, the Food and Drug Adminis-tration has yet to approve similar health claims for chocolate. To date, the most it has allowed is use of the term “healthy” on the packaging of certain chocolate-­containing nutrition bars.