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March 25, 2015

Hooray for Science

Healthier chocolate? Scientists have found a way to amp up the nutritional benefits of cocoa.

The news about the health benefits of chocolate just keeps getting sweeter.

Past studies have suggested that chocolate can lower the risk of heart attack and stroke and seems to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, too. People with peripheral artery disease may find relief from their painful symptoms by eating chocolate, and recent research suggests that chocolate lovers are thinner and sharper.

Now scientists are coming up with ways to make cocoa even better.

Changing the way cocoa is processed could result in a higher concentration of the polyphenols that make it so healthy and give it an even sweeter taste, according to a study presented yesterday.

Cocoa beans roasted longer at a lower temperature had more antioxidant activity when compared to beans roasted in the conventional way.

The chocolate we enjoy eating goes through a series of steps before it ends up on our taste buds. Cocoa pods are cut from cocoa trees by hand, the pods split open, and the beans removed. After fermentation in banana-lined baskets for several days, the cocoa beans are dried in the sun.

Finally, the beans are roasted, which enhances the flavors. But the roasting tends to destroy some of the healthful components of the cocoa bean, however, so researchers set out to devise a way to retain more of the polyphenols and good flavor of the bean.

“We decided to add a pod-storage step before the beans were even fermented to see whether that would have an effect on the polyphenol content. This is not traditionally done, and this is what makes our research fundamentally different. It’s also not known how roasting affects polyphenol content,” said University of Ghana researcher, Emmanuel Ohene Afoakwa, in a statement.

The research team divided 300 cocoa pods into four groups. One group was not stored before processing, while the other groups were stored for three, seven, or 10 days before they were processed in a technique called “pulp preconditioning.” At the completion of each storage period, the beans were fermented and dried as usual.

Cocoa beans are usually roasted for 10 to 20 minutes at 248° to 266° Fahrenheit. The research team changed that to 45 minutes at 242° F and found that the beans roasted longer at a lower temperature had more antioxidant activity compared to beans roasted in the conventional way.

Beans that were stored also had higher antioxidant activity and more polyphenols after being roasted for 45 minutes compared to the beans that were not stored before they were fermented. The cocoa beans that were stored for seven days had the highest antioxidant activity after they were roasted. Afoakwa believes this “pulp preconditioning” step alters the biochemical and physical properties of the beans before fermentation.

The researchers plan to see if higher amounts of antioxidants can be retained by varying storage times, roasting times, and roasting temperatures.

In the meantime, chocolate lovers can continue to enjoy the health benefits of cocoa beans, keeping in mind, “All things in moderation.”

The study was presented at the 249th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Denver, Colorado on March 24. The results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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