Tag Archives: functional chocolate

72% Packaging: Package Design and Perception in Craft Chocolate

Any lover of fine chocolate is familiar with the dilemma of standing in front of a craft chocolate display, especially those who are inclined to try new things and consider more than flavor in making a choice. “The choices in fine chocolate are almost as overwhelming as the possibilities” (Williams and Eber 2012, 145). So how do you decide? Will you grab the bar that appears to be making a social impact on the production end? Or the bar that promotes the conservation of wildlife? How about that new lemongrass and coconut bar, though? And then there’s the masterful, graphic, nuanced package design that is incredible and beautiful for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with chocolate. The wallpaper. The problem that I want to unpack here, if you will, is how consumer decisions are affected and obscured by package design and why it’s important in the world of craft chocolate. (In my references to consumers and the craft chocolate market, I am speaking specifically about that of North America and Europe.)

chocolate display
Image: Maja | For Emma, Forever Ago

There’s no universal rule about what the consumer is looking for, so chocolate packaging is all over the board. The primary goal is, or at least should be, according to fine flavor chocolate manufacturers and chocolatiers, buying chocolate that tastes exceptionally good. But flavor is a perception, and an individual’s perception of flavor is affected by all of the senses, not just taste, as well as complex cognitive function (Shepherd 2012). For most consumers, this perception begins with sight and, thus, packaging. Visual cues have a profound effect on our perceived acceptability and expectation of a food, as well as the associations we have from learned and past experience (Delwiche 2012). The packaging is our first visual cue, in fact our first sensory cue in most cases, in making a decision on a bar of chocolate.

Image: the Dieline

“If we turn back to the phenomena [of perception], they show us that the apprehension of a quality, just as that of size, is bound up with a whole perceptual context, and that the stimuli no longer furnish us with the indirect means we were seeking of isolating a layer of immediate impressions” (1962, 8). When we choose a chocolate bar based on our perception of the package, we’re not always able to isolate that ‘immediate impression’ from the ‘whole perceptual context’ of how good the bar will taste, what it represents, and how it actually impacts people and environment. So purveyors can leverage the power of that immediate impression of the package design to sell the idea and the anticipated gestalt of what lies within that layer.

This is not a new concept. Merleu-Ponty wrote that in 1962 and advertisers have long been aware of this reality, appealing to specific consumer bases in whatever way is most effective to them at that point in time. The success of the industrial and processed food market is a glaring example of this. In terms of the craft market, of which fine (or craft) chocolate is a part, it must be done for a slightly more discerning audience. It can be argued that designing for consumer appeal and marketability enhances the viability of a craft chocolate industry that can afford to purchase high-quality beans and support socially conscious business practices, but it also greatly increases the fetishism of chocolate and reinforces the “positive fantasy of the commodity” (Duncombe 2012, 360). Furthermore, the methods, circumstances, and governing bodies discerning what constitutes fine cacao are wrapped up in representational politics, historical narratives, market interests, and social tensions (Leissle 2013). The package design of fine and craft chocolate seems to exist on a spectrum of exoticism to localization, with a confounding dose of social justice and a decent measure of health claims in between.

Whole Foods Market came onto the grocery scene in the early 2000s with a remarkable new approach to retail food marketing – taking into account the burgeoning food movement that promoted local, sustainable, and socially conscious products in an increasingly mysterious food industry, they designed their stores to appeal not just to the gustatory pleasures of their consumers but also their liberal politics and, arguably, upscale aesthetics (Mack 2012). This new sensory design approach in grocery retail brought the firm great success – Whole Foods now has 456 stores in the United States, Canada, and the UK (Statista 2017). Chocolate packaging has undergone a similar re-design in the sense that the way in which it appeals to the gustatory, ethical, and aesthetic inclinations of the consumer. But ther is a distinct difference between chocolate and, say, the grains and dairy products sold at Whole Foods (though their sensory design approach has been criticized by Michael Pollan, who claims that the size and scale of the firm has pushed the small-scale, sustainable farmers they appear to support out of their the supply chain, Mack 2012).

Though local markets for craft and fine chocolate are growing, the great majority of craft and fine chocolate is consumed far from the places where it is produced and that production has a controversial history, which obscures consumer understanding of the impact of their choices on the production end of the value chain. But just like organic and non-GMO labels affect consumer perception of truly local products, there is a vast crop of certifications and labels (including organic and non-GMO) in chocolate that draw on consumer notions of ethics, morality, and socially conscious buying practices. These certifications are pervaded by international politics, financial inaccessibility, and general misunderstanding, and often do not have the transformative effect on producers or environment that they claim. Nonetheless, the average consumer lacks the information or experience to understand the labels and, thus, they are perceived as valuable. The obscurity of certifications has motivated producers like Taza chocolate, a chocolatier based in Somerville, MA, to create their own direct trade label and the company also publishes an annual transparency report that includes purchase prices and information about producers. The readership of that report is very low as it relates to the consumption of their product, which suggests consumers don’t seek out that information beyond the package and its labels even when it is available.

20170405 Alternative trade and virtuous localizationglobalization
Image: Dr. Carla Martin, Harvard Extension School Course

The “mythology of chocolate” has been pervasive since the early days of its popularization in Europe and is evident throughout the chocolate industry, especially as it pertains to femininity and romanticism in marketing (Robertson 2009). That mythology has extended to a whole new exoticism of the industry, using imagery, language, and semiotics to market the allure of the exotic and build that “positive fantasy of the commodity” (Duncombe 2012, 360). That fantasy includes not just the romanticized provenance and culture of cacao but also an ever-growing array of flavors, many of which are far removed from the geographic and cultural origins of cacao, all of which brings up deeply embedded issues of class, race, and otherness (Martin and Sampeck 2015).

Images: (L-R) the Dieline, bpando.org

On the other hand, there is the ‘localization’ of chocolate – a response to the food movement of recent years and the subsequent, ever-growing appeal of local foods. The know-your-farmer consumer approach doesn’t hold in the chocolate market of North American and Europe because cacao is not, in fact, a local product. Instead, the ‘localization’ of chocolate, at its core a foreign product, has been achieved through packaged farmer narratives, in the growth of single origin chocolates, an emphasis on local manufacture and craftsmanship, and the notion of terroir (Leissle 2013, 23, e.g. Williams & Eber 2012, 148, Presilla 2009). All three of those abstractions of chocolate as a ‘local’ product rely on consumer perception and the successful communication of the concept by manufacturers and chocolatiers by way of package design.

Image: (L-R) The Chocolate Path, Notey, Mast Brothers

Cacao’s early association with wealth – the Mesoamericans used the beans as currency and the Spanish eagerly adopted the practice by acquiring great amounts of the valuable cacao beans, most often by unjust means – carried right over to early European consumption of chocolate. Chocolate started as a luxury commodity only accessible to the rich but, despite eventually becoming available and widely consumed by the masses, the notion of ‘richness’ in chocolate persists today (Coe and Coe 2013). Whether it’s the gold foil, the font, or a box or package that is decorative in and of itself, the package design of many a fine chocolate draws consumers in with its aesthetic representations of luxury, class, and richness.

Image: La Muse Bluse

Chocolate also has been connected to notions of health since the first Mesoamerican imbibers of chocolate celebrated the its medicinal properties in treating illness and myriad ailments. The association fit nicely into the Spanish obsession with health and they eagerly adapted cacao into their own medicinal frameworks (Coe & Coe 2013). The benefits now touted by ‘functional chocolate’ advocates are different than past iterations of ‘chocolate as medicine,’ but the notion persists in the perception of chocolate’s antioxidant properties, the benefits of flavonoids for cardiac health, the positive effects on mental and emotional health, as well as the nutritional value of raw chocolate and its adherence to increasingly common dietary restrictions (Castell, Pérez-Cano, and Bisson 2013).

Images: (L-R) the Dieline, Nohmod, the Designers Dose


Makers of craft chocolate source high-quality beans with ‘fine flavor.’ They use small-scale, traditional tools and finish the bars largely by hand. So craft chocolate is expensive. “Manufacturers and chocolatiers will tell you they follow their hearts in creating their chocolate and bonbons but too many consumers follow the herd and buy into marketing and the power of packaging” (Williams and Eber 2012, 146). Those manufacturers and chocolatiers emphasize that their primary, driving goal is great flavor and they are enthusiastic about educating the consuming public about their craft and what constitutes great flavor. Makers like the Mast brothers in Brooklyn, NY, and TCHO in Berkeley, CA, have opened their doors to chocolate lovers for tours, tastings, and flavor education. While this access does help a small batch of consumers better understand the price tag on their favorite bar of craft chocolate and identify the flavor profiles they love, the focus on flavor and craft largely dismisses the socio-political implications of chocolate. And for the makers who do incorporate that narrative into their educational endeavors, what of the consumers who don’t have access to this first-hand experience and education? It’s left to the packaging. Thus, this type of education misses a great deal of the consumer market and ‘knowing’ your chocolate becomes more a matter of cultural capital than a keen understanding of the product in all its complexity.

Image: Mast Brothers shop in Brooklyn by Eunice Choi

Williams and Eber write about the wealth of information available to consumers and claim that “consumers are becoming more educated about the origins of cacao and chocolate worldwide [as they learn] how flavor varies depending on terroir, postharvest processing, and chocolate making” but this focus on flavor and ‘craft’ obscures the crucial social and local-global implications of chocolate and the effectiveness of all that information places arguably too much responsibility on the consumer for interpreting and comprehending the market to drive their choices (2012, 161). Moreover, the consumption and enjoyment of chocolate, a ‘nonessential’ product, is hedonistic. Consumers of fine chocolate are attempting to make good choices in the midst of looking for gustatory pleasure and an intoxicating flavor experience, and the perception of the package is crucial in that moment of choice.

The demand for chocolate in general isn’t likely to subside – people report craving chocolate more than any other food item and studies have found a well of explanations and dimensions for the near-universal chocolate habit (Benton 2014). Package design in chocolate is not only confounding in the obscurity of information about chocolate, but it exploits that habit. In appealing to the socially constructed aesthetic tastes of consumers, package design further obscures the reality of cacao production, deepens the gap between producer and consumer, and perpetuates a disconnect between chocolate consumerism in capitalist societies and ongoing poverty in production areas.

GIF: Emily Henderson

All too often, “’premium chocolate’ may not be any more “fine” than the paper it’s packaged in” and the controversy and confusion around certifications, origins, cacao content, and production practices has even motivated some manufacturers and chocolatiers to leave that information off the package altogether (Williams and Eber 2012, 168). Some of those packages look more like a skilled graphic designer’s canvas than the wrapper of an actual food product. Chocolate packaging has taken on a life all its own, fully crossed over into the lifestyle and design world, and the aesthetic pursuits even carry over to the chocolate itself, with highly refined molds, coloring, and décor.

Image: knstrct

All of this is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with designing a beautiful, unique package or that the fault of the craft chocolate industry is in the design. Many, if not most, of these companies have good intentions and admirable business practices. And marketing is marketing. In their article “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” Martin and Sampeck (2015) write that “while there is much to recommend fine and craft, there is also much left to be done. In other words, the problems of the local-global divide and socially unequal state of cacao-chocolate production and consumption described throughout this essay persist in the present day, despite many of our perceived solutions” (2015, 56). In light of all this, what is the right and just way to market fine and craft chocolate that will be viable but also judiciously attend to those problems and observe the craftsmanship of fine chocolate? Can there be congruence in branding and design, good business practices, and telling genuine, impactful narratives about chocolate?

Ethical and effective package design must “avoid the pitfalls of rhetoric obscuring reality,” to borrow a phrase from Martin and Sampeck (2015). “Products have to be three-dimensional in terms of the product quality, its price, and value proposition, and the impact that it is having on the community and the rest of the world. That’s where the future is” (Christian Aschwanden as cited in Williams and Eber 2012, 171). The packaging needs to convey those dimensions of the product, and that is no easy feat when it comes to package design.

In the complexities and obscurity of the industry itself, there isn’t a simple, catch-all solution to ethical and effective package design, but purveyors who keep it simple, present understandable and supportable information, and use non-essentialized representations of plant and people seem to be on the right track, for now. But perhaps the future of chocolate packaging is a way to use today’s technology and the highly skilled designers already being employed by the chocolate industry to fill in the gaps between bean and bar – a way to communicate important information and non-binary narratives to consumers, specifically from sources without commercial investment in those narratives like Yellow Seed. But the fine chocolate industry itself may have a long way to go before that information is designable and fully digestible to chocolate lovers.

Images: Taza Chocolate, bpando.org, Giselle Kennedy Lord

Works Cited –

Adam Mack. 2012. The Politics of Good Taste. The Senses and Society, 7(1): 87-94, DOI: 10.2752/174589312X13173255802166

Benton, David. 2014. The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving. In Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain. ed. Astrid Nehlig, 205-218. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Castell, Margarida, Francisco Jose Pérez-Cano , and Jean-François Bisson. 2013. Chapter 19: Clinical Benefits of Cocoa: An Overview. In Chocolate in Health and Nutrition, Nutrition and Health 7DOI 10.1007/978-1-61779-803-0_19

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2013, The True History of Chocolate: Third Edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

Delwiche, Jeannine F. 2012. You Eat with Your Eyes First. Physiology & Behavior 107: 502-504.

Duncombe, Stephen. 2012. It Stand On its Head: Commodity Fetishism, Consumer Activism, and the Strategic Use of Fantasy. In Culture and Organization 18(5): 359-375. DOI: 10.1080/14759551.2012.733856

Leissle, Kristy. 2013. West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 13(3): 22-31. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2013.13.3.22. Date of access, May 1, 2017.

Martin, Carla D. and Kathryn E. Sampeck. 2015. The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe. doi: 10.18030/SOCIO.HU.2015EN.37

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Presilla, Maricel E. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao. New York: Ten Speed Press.

Robertson, Emma. 2009. Chocolate, Women, and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester; New York: Machester Universoty of Press.

Shepherd, Gordon. 2012. How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters. New York; Chichester: Columbia University Press.

Statista. 2016. Number of Stores of Whole Foods Market Worldwide from 200 to 2016. Date of Access, May 5, 2017. https://www.statista.com/statistics/258682/whole-foods-markets-number-of-stores-worldwide/

Williams, Pam, and Jim Eber. 2012. Raising the Bar: the Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver: Wilmor Publishing Corporation.


Functional Chocolate: Health Claims and Marketing Campaigns

One step into Cambridge Naturals, a community natural health store in Cambridge, MA, and the market for organic, fair-trade, vegan, bean-to-bar, local, non-gmo, paleo, environmentally friendly and ethically sourced chocolate products is on full display. A meeting with the store’s manager & grocery lead adds another term to the list of qualities their consumer base is looking for when they step into the store – functional chocolate. This trend shows a probable correlation between what customers are willing to spend on chocolate that makes health claims, based on the way the cacao is processed and additional ingredients added that are promoted to provide nutritional benefits. The functional chocolate trend begs the question – are these health claims regarding various methods of cacao processing and healthful additives substantiated by scientific research, or are they merely a marketing gimmick? This article will analyze recent research on the health benefits of chocolate as a functional food, look at fermentation and processing differences from a nutrient perspective, and consider additional benefits of medicinal additives to chocolate in order to best answer this question.


How are functional foods different from healthy foods?

In a study published in the Academic Food Journal/Akademik (2014) that looked at the development of functional chocolate, the differences between health foods and functional foods were defined as the following:

“Functional foods are a new category of products that promise consumers improvements in targeted physiological functions” (Albak, Fatma, & Tekin, 2014, p. 19).

Whereas, “conventional ‘healthy’ foods are typically presented as types of foods contributing to a healthy diet, e.g. low-fat products, high-fibre products, or vegetables, without emphasizing the role of any single product” (Albak, Fatma, & Tekin, 2014, p. 19).


Functional foods share these characteristics:

  • Health benefits that can be linked to a specific product
  • Well-defined physiological effects are directly connected with particular components in the specific product
  • Scientific evidence about health effects that is used to develop specific functional products
  • There is novelty for the consumer with the promised benefits
  • Modern technology is often needed to manufacture the functional foods due to specific components being added, modified or removed (Albak, et al., 2014).


Demand for Functional Foods

The market for functional foods exists in large part due to the rising popularity of healthier products by consumers (Albak, et al., 2014). One contributor to interest in healthy products is their use as a remedy to detrimental lifestyle factors that can contribute to unyielding high levels of inflammation in the body (Jain, Parag, Pandey, & Shukla, 2015). In the book, Inflammation and Lifestyle (2015), the connection between diet and inflammation is emphasized.

“Our diet is one of the leading sources of these chronic illnesses, and changing the diet is the key to prevention and cure. A number of dietary factors, including fiber-rich foods, whole grains, fruits (especially berries), omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidant vitamins (e.g., C and E), and certain trace minerals (e.g., zinc), have been documented to reduce blood concentrations of inflammatory markers. The best way to correct and eliminate inflammation is to improve comprehensive lifestyle and dietary changes rather than taking pharmaceutical drugs, the latter of which can cause unintended harm in the form of damaging side effects” (Jain, et al., 2015, p. 143).

The authors provide this graphic to illustrate what an anti-inflammatory diet pyramid looks like in terms of specific food groups. Note that dark chocolate is positioned on the top of the pyramid.


Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 11.51.38 PM
“Anti-inflammatory edible’s pyramid” (Jain, et al., 2015, p. 144)

An introduction to the benefits of superfoods and their role in an anti-inflammatory diet are explained in the publication. “An anti-inflammatory diet is one that is low in processed foods and high in fresh fruits and vegetables, seeds, sprouts, nuts and superfoods. Maca, spirulina, purple corn, wheatgrass, coconut butter and raw chocolate are a few of the health promoting superfoods that are gaining international interest” (Jain, et al., 2015, p. 144). The inclusion of “raw chocolate” in the category of superfoods versus “chocolate” warrants further examination and will be explored later in this article, but the position remains clear that evidence supports the protective benefits of chocolate as a part of a healthy diet.


Chocolate as a Functional Food

Under the category of functional foods as previously defined, chocolate, as will be further described, fulfills all the requisite characteristics. Even though the term functional food is relatively recent, the practice of consuming chocolate for its specific health benefits is centuries old. “Chocolate has been consumed as confection, aphrodisiac, and folk medicine for many years before science proved its potential health benefiting effects. Main compounds of cocoa and chocolate which contribute to human health are polyphenols that act as antioxidants and have potential anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, antihepatotoxic, antibacterial, antiviral, antiallergenic, and anticarcinogenic properties” (Ackar, Djurdjica, Lendić, Valek,… & Nedić, 2013, p. 1). The studied physiological effects of chocolate include “reported health benefits of cocoa and dark chocolate particularly focus on cardiovascular diseases (but also showing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects), including increased blood flow at the brachial artery and the left descending coronary artery, decreased blood pressure, decreased platelet aggregation and increased HDL cholesterol” (Bordiga, et al., 2015, p. 840). Numerous research discoveries have shed light on the complex nature of how these protective benefits of cacao are reduced or encouraged by different methods of sourcing, processing and consuming chocolate (Jalil, & Ismail, 2008).

Polyphenols are found in many food sources including, “vegetables and fruits, green and black tea, red wine, coffee, chocolate, olives, and some herbs and spices, as well as nuts and algae” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). However, “chocolate is one of the most polyphenol-rich foods along with tea and wine” where, “results [have] indicated that dark chocolate exhibited the highest polyphenol content” (Jalil, & Ismail, 2008, p. 2194). In unfermented cacao beans, there are three main groups of polyphenols, “flavan-3-ols or catechins, anthocyanins, and proanthocyanidins” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). Differences in cacao genetics or varieties and country of origin show varying levels of polyphenols by up to 4-fold (Jalil, & Ismail, 2008). “Criollo cultivars contained higher levels of procyanidins than Forastero and Trinitario beans. In addition, crop season and country of origin have impact on polyphenols in cocoa beans” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). Findings regarding polyphenol level by country of origin are contentious but include, “highest phenolic content was in Malaysian beans followed by Sulawesian, Ghanian and Côte d’Ivore” (Jalil, & Ismail, 2008, p. 2201) and “cocoa beans and processed products from Ecuador showed the highest levels of anthocyanins, followed by Nigeria and Cameroon” (Bordiga, et al., 2015, p. 840). Due to additional factors besides country of origin and genetic variation influencing the polyphenols in cacao, inclusion of the effects of processing cacao on flavor and polyphenol content is important to understand health claims made regarding the finished product, chocolate.

Processing cacao beans (namely the stages of fermentation and drying), and roasting in the chocolate making process greatly affect polyphenol content of the finished product (Ackar, et al., 2013; Bordiga, et al., 2015). “Due to these factors, the ratio and types of these components found in cocoa beans are unlikely to be the same as those found in the finished products” (Bordiga, et al., 2015, p. 841). For functional chocolate enthusiasts driving market trends, the balance between healthy and protective benefits of polyphenols and the effects on their levels through processing are of particular interest. “All these processes are needed to develop characteristic cocoa aroma. Polyphenols give astringent and bitter aroma to cocoa and contribute to reduced perception of “cocoa flavour” by sensory panel. However, nowadays processes are conducted in such manner to preserve as much polyphenol as possible with maintaining satisfactory aroma” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). The debate about the purpose of chocolate is hereby noted between the sensory experience – the aroma development, especially in the roasting stages, versus consumption for health effects with less regard to smell, taste and gustatory pleasure.

The search for a sweet spot between these poles is a lucrative area for producers and retail establishments. As described earlier, development of functional food into specific products uses scientific evidence about health effects, where modern technology is often needed to manufacture those products, in order to observe targeted physiological effects or functions (Albak, et al., 2014).

“Generally, as cocoa beans were further processed, the levels of anthocyanins and flavan-3-ols decreased. The largest observed losses of phenolics occurred during roasting. A progressive decreasing trend in polyphenol concentration was observed in the other processed samples as well. Despite the original content of polyphenols in raw cocoa beans, technological processes imply a significant impact on cocoa quality, confirming the need of specific optimisation to obtain high value chocolate” (Bordiga, et al., 2015, p. 840).

In order to preserve antioxidant quality through dark-chocolate products with “high flavonoid contents…these chocolates are produced by controlling bean selection, fermentation, and reduced heat and alkalization treatments” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2201). Although one of the most detrimental effects of processing on polyphenol and antioxidant levels is alkalization (or dutching) of cocoa powder (Ackar, et al., 2013; Jalil, et al., 2008), even the fermentation process significantly reduces flavonoid levels by up to 90% (Jalil, et al., 2008). However, in the search for the sweet spot between flavor and health benefits, fermentation presents a way to reduce bitter compounds due to the presence of flavonoids and polyphenols (Jalil, et al., 2008) and enhance flavor before roasting or further processing like alkalization. For example, some “manufacturers tend to remove [flavonoids] in large quantities to enhance taste quality… the manufacturers tend to prefer Ghanian cocoa beans, which are well-fermented and flavorful than that of Dominican or Indonesian beans, which are considered as less fermented and have low quality cocoa flavor” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2203). In Crafack’s study (2013), besides genetic flavor potentials of cacao beans, fermentation is cited as the most important factor influencing cocoa’s flavor potential.

“A properly conducted fermentation process is considered a prerequisite for the production of high quality chocolates since inadequately fermented cocoa beans will fail to produce cocoa specific aroma compounds during subsequent processing” (Crafack, Petersen, Eskildsen, Petersen, Heimdal, & Nielsen, 2013, p. 1).

In a later study by Crafack (2014), microorganism differences between fermentation practices are shown to produce variations in cacao flavor profiles. “Despite the importance of a properly conducted fermentation process, poor post-harvest practices, in combination with the unpredictable spontaneous nature of the fermentations, often results in sub-optimal flavour development…A microbial fermentation process therefore seems essential for developing the full complexity of compounds which characterises cocoa aroma. In conclusion, the results of the present study show that the volatile aroma profile of chocolate can be influenced using starter cultures” (Crafack, 2014, p. 1). Further research that builds on Crafack’s findings was published by Kadow (2015), explaining the role of multiple factors in the country of origin that characterize the fermentation process.

“During this in most cases spontaneous fermentation of the fruit pulp surrounding the seeds, the pulp is degraded by yeasts and bacteria. This degradation results in heat and organic acid formation. Heat effect and tissue acidification are the key parameters guiding flavour precursor formation. Accordingly, not microorganisms themselves but exclusively their metabolites are necessary for successful fermentation” (Kadow, Niemenak, Rohn, and Lieberei, 2015, p. 357).

This study aimed to further the development of standardization and mechanization of cocoa fermentation for the benefit of cacao production quality purposes. On the ranges of heat tested from fermenting heaps of cacao beans, 30 °C to a maximum of 50 °C was obtained after 24 h of fermentation at the inner part of the heap (Jespersen, Nielsen, Hønholt, and Jakobsen, 2005).

Finally, as an interesting note about polyphenol changes in cacao during fermentation, although “unripe and ripe cacao pods contain solely (−)-epicatechin and (+)-catechin. During fermentation, levels of both of these compounds were reduced, but (−)-catechin was formed due to heat-induced epimerization” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). These findings warrant more studies on the changes that happen during cacao fermentation, where although certain protective antioxidant levels decrease, other chemical compounds are formed due to the process of heat due to microorganism metabolites and acidification to the bean tissue.

After fermentation, the beans are dried to reduce water content for safe transport and storage of the cacao before further processing by chocolate manufactures. “During drying, additional loss of polyphenol occurs, mainly due to nonenzymatic browning reactions” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2) where “high temperatures and prolonged processing times will decrease the amount of catechins” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p.2203). The dried cacao is then shipped to the chocolate manufacturer where roasting is often performed. The roasting and generally the further processing of cacao degrades the levels of polyphenols by triggering the oxidation process (Ackar, et al., 2013; Bordiga, et al., 2015).

Conching is a process of agitation of chocolate mass at temperatures above 50 °C that is used to refine both the cocoa solids and sugar crystals to change the taste, smell, flavor, texture (mouthfeel) and viscosity of chocolate (Chocolate Alchemy, 2016; Di Mattia, Martuscelli, Sacchetti, Beheydt, Mastrocola, & Pittia, 2014) Different procedures for conching exist, including Long Time Conching (LTC) and Short Time Conching (STC). A study by Di Mattia (2014) done on these two conching processes and the implications for bioactive compounds and antioxidant activity found interesting results. The publication stressed the importance of time/temperature combinations as process parameters “to modulate and increase the functional properties of some foods” (Di Mattia, et al., 2014, pp.367-368). In the study, STC consisted of “a dry step at 90 °C for 6 h and then a wet step at 60°C for 1h,” while LTC involved, “a dry step at 60°C for 6 h and a then wet step at the same conditions (60 °C, 6 h)” (Di Mattia, et al., 2014, p. 368). The results of the analysis on phenolic content, antioxidant values defined as radical scavenging properties showed, “that the conching process, and the LTC in particular, determined an improvement of the antiradical and reducing properties of chocolate” (Di Mattia, et al., 2014, p.372). Recommendation for further studies was suggested to “optimize the conching process for the modulation of the functional properties,” (Di Mattia, et al., 2014, p.372) but the results remain in favor of longer time and lower temperature processing to preserve health benefits in chocolate during the conching phase.

From the perspective of chocolate makers, assessing combinations of ingredients/additives that can either help or hinder protective compounds in chocolate – including polyphenols and bioavailability, is important. Jalil, & Ismail’s review (2008), considered, “both bioavailability and antioxidant status [important] in determining the relationship between cocoa flavonoids and health benefits” (Jalil, et al., 2008, pp. 2194-2195). Studies focused on epicatechin from chocolate found the polyphenols, “rapidly absorbed by humans, with plasma levels detected after 30min of oral digestion, peaking after 2-3 h and returning to baseline after 6–8 h. In addition, cumulative effect in high daily doses was recorded” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). Interestingly, an argument for the benefits of chocolate’s sweetened and rich composition – if cocoa butter and some type of sweetener is used in processing – is explained where the “presence of sugars and oils generally increases bioavailability of polyphenols, while proteins, on the other hand, decrease it” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). Milk chocolate lovers may be disappointed to find that, “milk proteins reduce bioavailability of epicatechin in chocolate confectionary…[with] reported inhibition of in vivo antioxidant activity of chocolate by addition of milk either during manufacturing process or during ingestion” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2).

Additional health properties of cacao found especially in dark chocolate, apart from polyphenols, may have a role to play in reports of chocolate cravings and their use as functional food. Theses beneficial components include “methylxanthines, namely caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2197) “peptides, and minerals” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2200). “Theobromine is a psychoactive compound without diuretic effects” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2198). “Cocoa is also rich in proteins. Cocoa peptides are generally responsible for the flavour precursor formation” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2199). Lastly, “minerals are one of the important components in cocoa and cocoa products. Cocoa and cocoa products contained relatively higher amount of magnesium compared to black tea, red wine, and apples” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2200).

A well supported rule of thumb for finding high antioxidant capacity functional chocolate is to look for the percentage of non-fat cocoa solids (NFCS) in chocolate products to determine total phenolic content (Jalil, et al., 2008; Vinson, & Motisi, 2015)  “Dark chocolates contain the highest NFCS among the different types of chocolates” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2204) However, due to percentages of cocoa solids on on chocolate labels including polyphenol-free cocoa butter, the accuracy of this measure is not always correct and can lead to overestimating polyphenol content in certain types of chocolate (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2204). That said, a recent study by Vinson and Motisi (2015), performed on commercial chocolate bars found “a significant and linear relationship between label % cocoa solids and the antioxidant assays as well as the sum of the monomers.” From which they concluded that, “consumers can thus rationally choose chocolate bars based on % cocoa solids on the label” (Vinson, & Motisi, 2015, p. 526).

Additions to Functional Chocolate

In health food stores like Cambridge Naturals and Deborah’s Natural Gourmet in Concord, MA, the presence of functional chocolate with additional health boosting ingredients is prevalent. The validity of these claims to improve focus, enhance libido and energy, and other desirable improved physiological functions, based on herbs, powders and additional superfoods mixed with cacao, is intriguing. A study by Albak and Tekin (2014), found that mixing aniseed, ginger, and cinnamon into the dark chocolate mix before conching, “increased the total polyphenol content while they decreased the melting properties of dark chocolate after conching” (Albak, et al., 2014, p. 19).

Other resources that further elucidate specific findings on these superfoods, herbs and spices include:

Afolabi Clement Akinmoladun, Mary, Tolulope Olaleye, and Ebenezer Olatunde Farombi. “Cardiotoxicity and Cardioprotective Effects of African Medicinal Plants.” Toxicological Survey of African Medicinal Plants (2014): 395. This publication includes information on gingko, turmeric among other additives to functional chocolate and how protective vascular effects are formed.

Ruscigno, Matt, and Joshua Ploeg. Superfoods for Life, Cacao:-Improve Heart Health-Boost Your Brain Power-Decrease Stress Hormones and Chronic Fatigue-75 Delicious Recipes. Fair Winds Press (MA), 2014.

Wolfe, David. Superfoods: the food and medicine of the future. North Atlantic Books, 2010.


Raw Chocolate

Some consideration for the popularity of raw chocolate, which is used as the base of many functional chocolate products, deserves attention. As explained, there are many reasons chocolate can be considered a functional food, especially due to specific health promoting compounds like polyphenols and flavonoids, peptides, theobromine and minerals present in cacao and in chocolate. Unfortunately, overwhelming scientific evidence points to the detrimental effects on these compounds from processing, especially by heat. “Flavanols largely disappear once the cocoa bean is heated, fermented and processed into chocolate. In other words, making chocolate destroys the very ingredient that is supposed to make it healthy” (Crowe, 2015).  Raw chocolate, by the standards of raw foodism, means that food is not supposed to be heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit in order to preserve enzymes. This seems tricky to prove especially when chocolate makers receive cocoa beans from various countries of origin where fermenting and drying practices are not under their direct supervision. Some companies remedy this issue with bean-to-bar practices that ensure they have seen and approved the process that cacao beans undergo before shipment to the company’s own processing facilities, where low temperature winnowing, grinding and conching is under their complete control. The bean-to-bar method (See Taza’s Bean-to-Bar and Direct Trade process) also provides assurance that cacao is ethically (sometimes for organic and wild-crafted cacao if so desired) sourced. These initiatives often promote more sustainable and  better processed cacao, which means higher quality cacao for both the farmer, manufacturer and consumer. For these reasons, the popularity of raw cacao seems to fit into the development of functional foods where the consumer is able to enjoy a sometimes more bitter, medicinal tasting chocolate in the anticipation of a powerful physiological boost and a clearer conscience due to sourcing methods.

In the case of Yes Cacao, their Karma MellOwl botanical chocolate bar contains 41% cacao butter, and 59% botanicals which results in a deliciously complex, albeit golden colored bar due to the cocoa butter and turmeric content. Non-fat cacao solids which provide the main anti-inflammatory benefits of cacao are missing, but are replaced with other superfoods, spices and adaptogenic herbs like lucuma, maca, yacon, lion’s mane mushrooms, gingko, turmeric, pine pollen, cinnamon, bacopa, and gynostemma. The creators of the bars deem them functional medicine, as they combine cacao solids and sundried cane juice as a base for superfood and medicinal enhancements. In this video, Justin Frank Polgar recommends that Yes Cacao bars are eaten daily as a staple enhancement for ideal human functionality.

Cambridge Naturals’ Yes Cacao Selection


Other raw chocolate companies that are focus on functional chocolate using additional superfoods, spices and herbs include:

Chocolatl More Than Chocolate

Righteously Raw Chocolates

Gnosis Chocolate

Addictive Wellness Raw Chocolate

Perfect Fuel

Stirs the Soul

Ohio Functional Chocolates

Great Bean Chocolate

Sacred Chocolate


Trends in functional foods heading in the direction of ‘naturally healthy’

From the perspective of growers, producers and consumers who want a high quality, healthful and good tasting chocolate product, the scientific findings that support the ideal balance between flavor and preservation of health promoting properties of cacao, are significant. The ideal way to conserve protective, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits warrants consideration with the changes in polyphenol content during processing of cacao from raw bean, through fermentation to roasting, conching and mixing with other ingredients. Raw chocolate seems a good way to navigate this balance. Meanwhile, mass produced commercial chocolate companies or “big chocolate” continue to move their products in the direction of high quality premium chocolate and adopting new manufacturing processes in order to preserve cacao’s protective effects. The overarching trend uniting premium, natural and healthful ingredients is referred to in the food industry as naturally healthy foods. “This idea of using food to manage health may, in part, help explain growing consumer interest in fresh, natural and organic products”(Gagliardi, 2015). The melding of healthy, natural and functional foods to chocolate production reflects consumer preferences and industry recognition of the role diet plays on health and provides insights into the future of food. For now, medicinally enhanced, raw, naturally healthy, and functional chocolate seems light years ahead of other natural foods on the market today.

Examples of ‘naturally healthy’ chocolate brands:

Coracao Confections

Hu Paleo Chocolate

Eating Evolved, The Primal Dark Chocolate Company

Pure7 Chocolate

Author’s Note: While researching and writing this article the author happily consumed a great deal of functional, raw and medicinal chocolate and can attest to the powerful effects that far surpass conventional and even ‘premium chocolates’.



Ackar, Djurdjica, Kristina Valek Lendić, Marina Valek, Drago Šubarić, Borislav Miličević, Jurislav Babić, and Ilija Nedić. “Cocoa polyphenols: can we consider cocoa and chocolate as potential functional food?.” Journal of chemistry 2013 (2013).

Albak, Fatma, and Ali Rıza Tekin. “Development of Functional Chocolate with Spices and Lemon Peel Powder by using Response Surface Method: Development of Functional Chocolate.” Academic Food Journal/Akademik GIDA 12, no. 2 (2014).

Afolabi Clement Akinmoladun, Mary, Tolulope Olaleye, and Ebenezer Olatunde Farombi. “Cardiotoxicity and Cardioprotective Effects of African Medicinal Plants.” Toxicological Survey of African Medicinal Plants (2014): 395.

Bordiga, Matteo, Monica Locatelli, Fabiano Travaglia, Jean Daniel Coïsson, Giuseppe Mazza, and Marco Arlorio. “Evaluation of the effect of processing on cocoa polyphenols: antiradical activity, anthocyanins and procyanidins profiling from raw beans to chocolate.” International Journal of Food Science & Technology 50, no. 3 (2015): 840-848..

Crafack, Michael, Mikael Agerlin Petersen, Carl Emil Aae Eskildsen, G. B. Petersen, H. Heimdal, and Dennis Sandris Nielsen. “Impact of starter cultures and fermentation techniques on the volatile aroma profile of chocolate.” CoCoTea 2013 (2013).

Crafack, Michael. “Influence of Starter Cultures, Fermentation Techniques, and Acetic Acid on the Volatile Aroma and Sensory Profile of Cocoa Liquor and Chocolate.” (2014).

Crowe, Kelly. “Chocolate Health Myth Dissolves.” CBCnews. January 05, 2015. Accessed May 8, 2016. http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/chocolate-health-myth-dissolves-1.2879898.

Di Mattia, Carla, Maria Martuscelli, Giampiero Sacchetti, Bram Beheydt, Dino Mastrocola, and Paola Pittia. “Effect of different conching processes on procyanidin content and antioxidant properties of chocolate.” Food Research International 63 (2014): 367-372.

Gagliardi, Nancy. “Consumers Want Healthy Foods–And Will Pay More For Them.” Forbes. February 18, 2015. Accessed May 8, 2016. http://www.forbes.com/sites/nancygagliardi/2015/02/18/consumers-want-healthy-foods-and-will-pay-more-for-them/#10fddf09144f.

Jain, Parag, Ravindra Pandey, and Shiv Shankar Shukla. “Inflammation and Lifestyle.” Inflammation: Natural Resources and Its Applications. Springer India, 2015. 143-152.

Jalil, Abbe Maleyki Mhd, and Amin Ismail. “Polyphenols in cocoa and cocoa products: is there a link between antioxidant properties and health?.”Molecules 13, no. 9 (2008): 2190-2219.

Jespersen, Lene, Dennis S. Nielsen, Susanne Hønholt, and Mogens Jakobsen. “Occurrence and diversity of yeasts involved in fermentation of West African cocoa beans.” FEMS Yeast Research 5, no. 4-5 (2005): 441-453.

Kadow, Daniel, Nicolas Niemenak, Sascha Rohn, and Reinhard Lieberei. “Fermentation-like incubation of cocoa seeds (Theobroma cacao L.)–Reconstruction and guidance of the fermentation process.” LWT-Food Science and Technology 62, no. 1 (2015): 357-361.

Vinson, Joe A., and Matthew J. Motisi. “Polyphenol antioxidants in commercial chocolate bars: Is the label accurate?.” Journal of Functional Foods 12 (2015): 526-529.

Zhang, Dapeng, and Lambert Motilal. “Origin, Dispersal, and Current Global Distribution of Cacao Genetic Diversity.” In Cacao Diseases, pp. 3-31. Springer International Publishing, 2016.