Cocoa: next super-ingredient at the tipping point?

The convergence of scientific and technological progress, corporate strategy, consumer knowledge and desire for foods that can claim to be “naturally healthy” is bringing cocoa to a tipping point. Though the growth curve may be a long and gentle one, cocoa’s use in foods as a health ingredient is now clearly and firmly on the increase. Beverages, dairy and snacks look like the areas most likely to be able to make the most of cocoa’s future potential.

First published in New Nutrition Business Newsletter, May 2011

1. Scientific and technological progress

Thanks to a huge investment in research by the leading cocoa processors – Mars, Hershey, Barry Callebaut and Meiji – there is a significant and ever-growing (over 100 published clinical studies so far) body of evidence for the health benefits of cocoa flavanols, particularly in relation to cardiovascular health.

Although Europe’s health claim regulators have ruled that – by their flawed criteria – cocoa’s health benefits don’t measure up, most other countries would more than likely agree, looking at the totality of the evidence, that flavanols’ science is strong. And it’s getting stronger all the time – to the point where a year or two from now perhaps even the European regulator won’t be able to ignore it.

Some recent examples include:

• Japanese researchers found that cocoa flavanols boosted HDL cholesterol, the type of cholesterol which is protective of cardiovascular health. Published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, their study says that: “These results elucidate a novel mechanism by which HDL cholesterol levels become elevated with daily cocoa intake.”

• Activity of the angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) – a target for blood pressure medication – was significantly inhibited by dark chocolate containing 72% cocoa, with the degree of inhibition dependent upon the genotype of the human subjects, according to a study published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology.

• A meta-analysis in the Archives of Internal Medicine by researchers from the University Hospital of Cologne found that consumption of cocoa achieved a reduction in hypertension equivalent to that of antihypertensive medications: “The magnitude of the hypotensive effects of cocoa is clinically noteworthy; it is in the range that is usually achieved with monotherapy of beta-blockers or angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors.”

Scientific findings such as these are just the tip of an ever-growing iceberg.

At the same time, significant advances in processing technology allow cocoa to be formulated into many more new product formats with a better health image than chocolate confectionery, while also allowing it both to retain its health benefits and deliver good taste.

One of the most recent examples of these advances is the development of a patent-pending process by Hershey and Honest Tea which allowed Honest Tea to create its first cocoa-based products.

Emerging science has even led to a re-think about products as humble as chocolate milk. Low-fat chocolate milk has given some promising results in terms of accelerated recovery after sports – leading American dairies to reformulate chocolate milk brands with lower sugar and calories so that it has gone from being a substance once demonised by dietitians to one that is recognised in the US school nutrition programme as a useful way to get dairy nutrition into children, as well as one that enables people to recover after sports with a healthier and more natural beverage that the formulated sports recovery drinks which dominate the recovery market.

Choc Drinks

CocoaNova is a brewed cacao infusion that contains 50 calories and 13g of sugar in a 300ml bottle as well as 50mg of theobromine which occurs naturally in cocoa and dark chocolate and has well-established cardiovascular effects (although the product carries no claims).

It is made by US organic drink brand, Honest Tea, now owned by Coca-Cola’s Venturing and Emerging Brands unit.

2. Ambitious corporate strategies

Hershey and Mars are both working hard to turn the health benefits of cocoa into the basis for a business strategy. Both have introduced products – or collaborated with other companies – to introduce cocoa-flavanol-based products outside their traditional chocolate confectionery markets, in Hershey’s case through its specialist business Apure Foods, which has collaborated with Honest Tea and is also test-marketing its own snack products and recovery drink: last year, the company attempted to leverage the antioxidant-rich qualities of cocoa with a protein-based sports beverage called “reGen.” The brand is currently on test-market in 26 sporting goods stores in Hershey’s home state of Pennsylvania.

Mars has a similarly focused business unit, Mars Botanicals, and the company has been adventurous in experimenting with new product forms, new ways of delivering benefits and new brands.

Mars has also formed an alliance with chocolate processing giant Barry Callebaut which will see it licensing Mars patents and will sport the Mars Cocoapro ‘bean in hand’ logo on its Acticoa products in the US and other markets. Barry Callebaut’s marketing reach in the ingredients business is truly global and if the company couples this with concept development it can have a huge effect on helping brand owners to see the potential of cocoa as a superfood ingredient.

3. The consumer

Success of course depends on winning the consumer, but here cocoa has a head-start. The health benefits of antioxidants found in cocoa and chocolate have been gathering increasing attention from the media for almost a decade, and this has already raised consumer interest to the point where the confluence of perceived antioxidant benefits (with good taste) has produced double-digit growth in sales of dark chocolate products in many countries.

The media like to report stories about foods that it perceives as “naturally healthy” – and cocoa meets that requirement to perfection. It’s worth remembering that the surge in sales of blueberries over the last decade was not the result of marketing by the blueberry growers, but because the media carried stories about the growing scientific evidence and reported positively on these “natural heath benefits”.

This force is now at work in cocoa’s favour. Consumers like to hear that things they enjoy are also good for them and that “natural” foods are “naturally healthy”. So in a sense all these efforts around cocoa are about giving people what they long for – it is giving people ‘permission’ to eat chocolate. They are about creating new products with healthy properties, and ingredients in new formats.

Cocoa has the potential to create a new functional category.

NNB CoverAbout New Nutrition Business

Julian MellentinNew Nutrition Business is a London-based research, publishing and consulting company which specialises in researching, analysing and forecasting developments in the business of food, nutrition and health around the world.

The strategies and success factors it  has identified in the 1990s have become the benchmarks for strategy development and brand positioning in the worldwide nutrition business. It works with companies all around the world, from the United States to Australia and from Sweden to South Africa.

New Nutrition Business is headed by executive director Julian Mellentin (right), one of the world’s very few global specialists in the business of food, nutrition and health.

He is the editor-in-chief of New Nutrition Business and Kids Nutrition Report, the only industry journal in the world on the rapidly developing kids’ nutritional marketplace. See

Julian Mellentin can be reached at [email protected]