Scientists develop method of making healthier, more sustainable chocolate | Food

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

By mashing up the pulp and husk of a cocoa pod instead of just taking the beans, scientists have made a sweet and fibrous gel that could 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 cocoa fruit is basically a pumpkin and right now we’re just using the seeds,” said Kim Mishra, a food technologist at ETH Zürich and lead author of the study. “But there’s a lot of other marvellous stuff in that fruit.”

The researchers used the waste flesh 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 a complete no-go because you are essentially destroying it”, said Mishra. “We disrespected one of the most holy rules of chocolate-making.”

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

The study found that in a lab the new method used 6% less land and water but increased planet-heating 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 fall.

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 was 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 $100bn chocolate industry. Because the processing of the pulp would have to happen in the countries in which the cocoa is grown, said Marangoni, the biggest benefits would probably be seen there. “If this was implemented, it would benefit the local countries … as a consumer, we’d hope they don’t screw up our chocolate.”

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

But the bittersweet finding for chocolate lovers is that the new product lacks the fine-tuning ability that the industry has valued in powdered sugar.

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

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

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