Healthy Chocolate On the Way, But Not for Christmas
Reports about how chocolate contains antioxidants and how it can be healthy when certain types are eaten in small amounts is good news. Even better news, however, is that scientists are developing a healthy chocolate that will make the fat healthier as well as other benefits. Unfortunately, it will not be available by Christmas.
Healthy chocolate sounds too good to be true
Researchers are working with the genes of the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) to find ways to increase levels of flavonols in the cocoa beans. Flavonols are typically found in dark chocolate and are the compound credited with chocolate’s health benefits. Studies suggest chocolate can help stroke patients, reduce heart risks, protect against complications of cirrhosis, increase blood flow to the brain, reduce stress, and assist in reducing insulin resistance in diabetics.
According to Dr. Howard-Yara Shapiro, who is global director of plant science and research at Mars Incorporated, the results of gene research “can help us enhance these molecules [flavonols] in cocoa plants. We believe we can increase the quality of the cocoa fat to make it healthier.”
The current research is an effort between Mars, IBM (which analyzed the data), and the US Department of Agriculture, and one of the major goals is to improve the molecules in cocoa plants to produce a healthier chocolate. Shapiro and his team have already decoded the cocoa genome (which is available online), and they are now searching the tree’s 34,997 genes to choose characteristics that will enhance the plants and the chocolate that can be made from them.
Mars intends to use natural breeding of cocoa plants rather than genetic engineering to produce new varieties of cocoa trees. While traditional breeding techniques can take many years to produce trees with desirable traits, Shapiro explains that scientists can take DNA samples from the leaves of saplings when they sprout and find the characteristics they want.
Even though this process still requires the breeding of millions of trees and an analysis of each one, Shapiro notes that “having the genome will speed up the process.” In the process of developing a healthier cocoa tree, the scientists believe they will also increase crop yields while also increasing drought and disease resistance.
So do not expect to see healthy chocolate available this Christmas, or next Christmas for that matter. Shapiro noted that a healthy chocolate, while on the way, “is not something we can deliver tomorrow, but maybe in five years we can.”