More functional foods capitalizing on the health benefits of cocoa should hit shelves next year as confectionery giant Hershey seeks to gain a stronger foothold in the health and wellness market via its new Apure subsidiary.
A wholly-owned subsidiary of Hershey, Colorado-based Apure Foods Company was created in April 2010 to develop cocoa-based products with ‘enhanced nutritional and wellness benefits’.
The first product to enter the market was the ReGen muscle recovery chocolate milk in June 2010, followed by a range of cocoa-based snacks under the Eat. Think. Smile brand in February 2011.
ReGen has national listings in 1,000 GNC stores, while Eat. Think. Smile snacks have regional listings in Ingles Supermarkets and Lowe’s Foods in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, said Hershey senior nutrition scientist Amy Preston.
Products still in the ‘test and learn’ phase
Preston, who was speaking to NutraIngredients-USA at the recent American Dietetic Association conference, said more new products were in the pipeline and would “hopefully launch next year”.
She said: “We’re focusing on beverages and healthy snacking for now. The new products could be under the Eat. Think. Smile or ReGen brands, or under new brand names.
“We’ve had great feedback about both products, but we’re still in what we call the test and learn phase. We’re Hershey, so we know the confectionery aisles really well, but going into healthy snacking and beverages is new and we’re talking to different buyers. These are also very crowded sections of the store.
“Eat. Think. Smile is still very new so the focus is on getting it into additional retailers. With ReGen we are also looking at ways to deliver it to the more mainstream market.”
She added: “We’re committed to making health and wellness a key part of our company and we set up Apure because we wanted to do it in -house.”
Talking to consumers about cocoa health benefits
ReGen – which features the strapline ‘accelerates recovery’ - is claimed to increase endurance and muscle recovery and is backed by clinical studies measuring muscle recovery markers such as Creatine Phosphokinase (CPK) and perceived muscle soreness.
By helping to maintain healthy blood flow (see below), the cocoa flavanols in ReGen might also allow for a better delivery of nutrients and oxygen to working muscles and a more efficient removal of lactic acid and waste products that are generated from working muscles, said Preston.
Meanwhile, consumer messaging on the Eat. Think. Smile snack range (granola bars, granola clusters, baked nutrition bars and crispy thins) focuses on the ‘natural antioxidant power of cocoa’.
Education campaigns around both products also highlight the difference between Hershey's ‘natural cocoa’, and cocoa powder often used in cakes, cookies and chocolate milk that has treated with an alkalizing agent or ‘dutched’, which reduces bitterness and improves color and solubility, but also destroys flavanol content by 60-90%, said Preston.
The volume of cocoa and chocolate research has exploded in recent years
While recent clinical trials suggested cocoa flavanols could deliver a range of health benefits in everything from skin health to cognitive function and weight management, the strongest science was in the cardiovascular health field, she said.
Specifically, research suggested cocoa flavanols could help lower blood pressure and promote good blood flow (by stimulating the production of nitric oxide in the blood, which relaxes and dilates blood vessels); help prevent the build-up of arterial plaque (by reducing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol); and have mild anti-blood clotting effects (by reducing platelet aggregation), she said.
“If you look at the last five or six years, the volume of cocoa and chocolate research has exploded.”
Supports healthy circulation
When it came to what health claims could be used on pack, however, phrasing was limited to statements as ‘supports healthy blood flow/circulation/blood pressure levels’ for the time being, she said.
“The evidence around some of the other areas is still what we’d call emerging, although we are planning to bring out three more papers from our recent weight management trial."
Emerging risk factors for cardiovascular disease
She added: “But in the short-term, the most mileage is in heart health, and we’re continuing to invest in research looking at cocoa flavanols and emerging risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as [inflammatory biomarkers] C-reactive protein and TNF-Alpha [tumor necrosis factor alpha].”