Food In Canada

Making chocolate healthier

By Treena Hein   

Food Trends Products Confectionery Alternative sweeteners British Columbia Chocolatier Constance Popp Daniel Chocolates Editor pick functional foods Galerie au Chocolat Manitoba Quebec Sirene Chocolate Wild Sweets

How dark chocolate, already a confection sector powerhouse, is evolving to gain further ground

Many chocolate companies are finding success with minimal or no added ingredients in their bars. Photo © Sirene Chocolate

Real chocolate is quite popular as a healthy treat, as it contains lots of antioxidants and healthy fats. For some time, there has been “a very strong demand for high quality chocolate made with clean and quality ingredients,” explains Linda Seiler, VP-business development at Galerie au Chocolat in St. Laurent, Que. “Many informed consumers are checking ingredient decks for artificial flavours, poor-quality fats, preservatives, emulsifiers and other sketchy ingredients.”

Many chocolate companies, like Daniel Chocolates in Vancouver, only use all-natural ingredients. “We use real cream, real fruits and actual herbs and spices,” says owner Monique Poncelet. “We use only plants and fruits, such as cinnamon, ginger and lime, to provide natural flavours.”

Constance Menzies, founder of Chocolatier Constance Popp in Winnipeg, also uses natural ingredients such as real fruit puree in her products.

Many Canadian chocolate companies have no added ingredients in their bars—cocoa beans are ground into delicious pure chocolate. These bars are “hugely popular” at Sirene Chocolate in Victoria, B.C. “For those who haven’t tried it, it’s surprisingly good,” says founder Taylor Kennedy. He describes the flavour experience as savoury, “more akin to a strong black espresso or a neat whisky.”

Galerie au Chocolat offers a line of no added sugar chocolate bars, barks and almond butter cups sweetened with stevia and erythritol. They added more cocoa butter and vanilla to mask the stevia aftertaste. Photo © Galerie au Chocolat

Natural sweeteners

Sugar in moderation is not unhealthy and the amount of sugar in true chocolate is low. However, some people prefer no added sugar in their foods for various health reasons, including diabetics and dietary choices. For this reason, interest in chocolate with stevia and other plant-based natural sweeteners surfaced in recent years, although it seems to have waned somewhat at this point. As Julianna Tan notes (who owns Those Girls at the Market in Saskatoon, Sask., along with her sister Ying), “people’s perception of alternative sweeteners, including xylitol and stevia, vary greatly.”

Several Canadian chocolate companies have done some product development with these ingredients. Several years ago, Dominique and Cindy Duby at Wild Sweets in Richmond, B.C., ordered samples of maltitol and more from suppliers, but decided against further product development for a couple of reasons.

“Maybe it had something to do with the type of xylitol that we got (although we had a similar effect when we received a sugar-free chocolate bar made with xylitol), but it felt to us that it was similar to the cooling effect that you get with mouthwash,” they report.

Maltitol was a potential option, but the Dubys note that its added cost on top of the price of their premium bean-to-bar chocolate would have been too  high for their customer base.

However companies like Galerie au Chocolat have found success with alternative sweeteners. In 2022, the company launched a line of no added sugar chocolate bars, barks and almond butter cups sweetened with stevia and erythritol.

“Some people can taste stevia,” notes Sellier, “so we accounted for this and added even more cocoa butter and an extra splash of vanilla. The resulting taste is very good, very smooth and delicious.”

Added healthy ingredients

While cocoa beans are high in antioxidants, many consumers are interested in chocolate that has extra antioxidants and healthy ingredients, such as berries, ginger, cinnamon, and turmeric. Daniel Chocolates is currently developing chocolates containing additional Omega-3 fatty acids. These vegan products will also have high levels of protein and fibre.

The Better Chocolate offers FourX Better Chocolates, a line of supplements (vitamins and minerals) in a dark chocolate ‘bite,’ as well as a line of functional chocolate. The company’s products contain MCT oil (which may promote nutrient absorption) and piperine (found in black pepper and having anti-cancer, antioxidant, antidiabetic, anti-obesity, cardioprotective, antimicrobial, anti-ageing, and immune-boosting effects).

The Tan sisters create a monthly ‘feature bar,’ which often contain ingredients like goji berry and beet that have extra antioxidants and/or other health-promoting properties. Julianna notes that while “the feature flavours do not always appeal to the mass public, their limited availability, novelty and ability to stimulate both awareness and conversation about certain ingredients make them hot sellers.”

Tan also believes that even if it’s not feasible to add a high dose of a particular health-promoting compound in each product, “having the opportunity to engage in discussion and spread awareness about certain ingredients is a worthy endeavour. For example, in our matcha green tea chocolate bar, we include one full serving of matcha green tea in each eight-piece chocolate bar, but when we market it, we focus on the difference between L-theanine and caffeine when it comes to focus, concentration and productivity.” L-theanine, an amino acid with several health benefits, is found in high amounts in matcha.

In the end, Tan notes that for some customers, eating their bars with matcha or another healthy ingredient might be their first experience with these ingredients, and this introduction may prompt its inclusion as a regular part of the diet. However, transparency about the amount of an ingredient in a chocolate product is very important to Tan, so as not to mislead consumers.

The Dubys also have an interest in accuracy. They explain that just because a certain ingredient, such as matcha, has scientifically identified health benefits, this doesn’t necessarily mean those benefits will be present in a finished product like chocolate.

Process matters

As is the case with many food products, some antioxidants are lost during the manufacturing of chocolate. However, as noted by scientists at the University of British Columbia several years ago, fewer can be lost if chocolate processing is done in specific ways.

The Dubys report that they worked with these scientists to compare their chocolate to other products on the market. “We tested against large global industrial chocolate companies and found that our product, through tested and adjusted procedures, was higher in antioxidants than those brands,” they explain. “Yet, everyone makes the claim that dark chocolate is ‘healthy’ without any evidence that their chocolate actually contains any significant amount of antioxidants.”

The Dubys therefore focus on specific ways of roasting, conching, and completing the other steps in making chocolate, “as well as evaluating and improving the effect of mechanical actions during the different steps” to reduce loss or boost levels of antioxidants.

It seems in the end that those wanting healthier chocolate, however they define it, need to do their due diligence, as is the case with all other food products when it comes to health.

This article was originally published in the April/May 2024 issue of Food in Canada.

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