June 16, 2024

Healthier and more sustainable chocolate could hit store shelves after Swiss scientists and chocolatiers developed a recipe that swaps sugar for waste plant material.

By grinding up the pulp and skin of a cocoa pod instead of just taking the beans, scientists have created a sweet and fibrous gel that can replace the sugar in chocolate, according to a report published in Nature Food.

This “whole food” approach makes a more nutritious product than conventional chocolate and uses less land and water, the scientists found – while still satisfying a sweet tooth.

“The cacao fruit is basically a pumpkin and at the moment we only use the seeds,” says Kim Mishra, a food technologist at ETH Zurich and lead author of the study. “But there are many other wonderful things in that fruit.”

The researchers used the waste meat and juice of the cocoa fruit to make a gel that can be added to chocolate instead of powdered crystalline sugar that is traditionally used.

Usually, “introducing moisture into chocolate is an absolute no-go because you’re essentially destroying it,” Mishra said. “We have disobeyed one of the most sacred rules of chocolate making.”

He said the results could make chocolate healthier and more sustainable, while also giving farmers a new income stream.

The study found that the new method in a laboratory used 6% less land and water, but increased planetary warming emissions by 12% because it required an extra drying step that consumed large amounts of energy.

But by scaling up the process – and drying the pulp in the sun or using solar panels – they found that greenhouse gas emissions could drop.

Alejandro Marangoni, from the department of food science at the University of Guelph in Canada, who was not involved in the study, said the study is a “fairly comprehensive” proposal that now needs to be validated with a pilot.

Farmers in tropical countries often see only a small fraction of the profits generated by the $100 billion chocolate industry. Because the processing of the pulp will have to take place in the countries where the cocoa is grown, Marangoni said, the greatest benefits will probably be seen there. “If this is implemented, it will benefit the local countries … as a consumer, we would hope that they don’t mess up our chocolate.”

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Chocolate is one of the most polluting foods one can eat, ranking alongside some meats in terms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of food. Mishra and his colleagues tried to reduce the waste in the production process and found that they could also make it healthier.

But the bittersweet finding for chocolate lovers is that the new product lacks the fine-tuning capabilities that the industry has come to appreciate in powdered sugar.

The sweetness of the gel is comparable, but you don’t reach the exact same level, Mishra said. “Making this chocolate is all about balance – if you add too much of the sweetening gel, your chocolate is unprocessable; if you don’t add enough, your chocolate isn’t sweet enough.”

Despite this, he said the lab-based chocolate was “basically identical” to dark chocolate in texture and similar in taste to flavored dark chocolate from South America. “The sweetness that’s released in your mouth is slightly slower than when you eat traditional dark chocolate—and you have more of these fruity notes and acidity coming out of the juice.”

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