One Step Closer to Guilt-Free Chocolate

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It may soon be possible to have your chocolate and eat it too, thanks to a “healthier” version with all the benefits and half the fat.

Reporting at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, researchers from the University of Warwick in Britain say they have developed a way of infusing the rich sweet with fruit juice, vitamin C water, and diet cola that replaces up to 50% of chocolate’s fat content but still maintains that smooth, melt-in-your-mouth taste.

It’s a potentially momentous breakthrough for chocoholics, who have been caught between the recent spate of studies showing that chocolate in its purer form contains flavanol compounds that can lower inflammation, reduce blood pressure and even control cholesterol levels, all of which can benefit the heart, and the fact that more processed varieties of chocolate that contain added saturated fats and sugars can promote heart disease.

The road to a lower-fat chocolate, lead researcher Stefan Bon and his colleagues reported, lies in a process called Pickering emulsion and a smattering of tiny droplets of juice or diet cola (less than 30 micrometers in diameter) that replace the butter and milk fats. The emulsion keeps the juice droplets from merging together into large drops within the chocolate, and maintains the crystal structure of the fat, which guarantees the same chocolatey, smooth “mouth feel” for which people enjoy the treat.

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Is such a guilt-free chocolate really possible? Some researchers have suggested that the benefits of purer forms of cocoa, found in the cacao bean, offset the unhealthy features of more processed chocolate, so that eating darker and less manipulated versions, while not as sweet or creamy, might actually lower risk of heart disease. They note that “low-fat” or “fat-free” chocolate products often trade fat for sugar, which doesn’t always make them a healthier choice. Although Bon admits that the fruit juices he added do contain sugar, his process allows manufacturers to control what liquid they use to replace the fat. If manufacturers want to use a low-sugar ingredient, they can.

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The chocolate is only available in Bon’s lab — for now. But he and his team are hopeful the food industry will be interested in using their technology to make low-fat chocolate bars. So far, Bon has made milk, white and dark chocolate using water-based liquids and juices like apple, orange and cranberry juice. And the products have at least one fan — Bon says the chocolate tastes great, although it does have a hint of fruitiness. “The products are a new variety of chocolate confectionary. Clearly if you introduce juice they will taste like it. Since the juice is the dispersed component in the form of small droplets, it’s taste sensation is suppressed,” he says. Low-fat chocolate with a hint of fruity flavor — what could be wrong with that?