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Study Shows How to Make Chocolate Healthier

New research on chocolate production methods shows what must be done to preserve flavanols beneficial antioxidants found in cocoa beans. This will help manufacturers produce chocolate that is healthy as well as delicious.

The study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, was led by Mark Payne at the Hershey Center for Health & Nutrition. Payne and his colleagues studied how cocoa processing steps impact the level of epicatechin, a flavanol compound in cocoa beans that has been shown to reduce the number of damaging agents called free radicals that are present in cells.

The researchers found that the longer cocoa beans are fermented, the higher the roasting temperature, and the more they get treated with alkali, the less epicatechin is preserved. Alkali processing has the greatest effect on the epicatechin level, reducing it by a whopping 98 percent. "[In the alkali processing step] the epicatechin, which is thought to be most beneficial, appears to be converted to catechin which has been shown to be less active in the body," Payne said in a press release.

On the other hand, many of these processing steps produce the flavor we all know and are addicted to.

"Most of the world's cocoa beans undergo a natural, field fermentation on the farm and then roasting," said David A. Stuart, co-director of the Hershey Center. "Both steps are critical to the flavor development for chocolate and cocoa powder."

The trick, for Hershey and others, will be to achieve a balance. "It is important that we understand the balance in creating the wonderful flavor of chocolate with the health benefits of cocoa powder and dark chocolate," Stuart said.

Someday chocolate bars may be scarfed guilt-free.

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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.