Chocolate, the ultimate health food

Posted in: News- Apr 20, 2017

In December 2016, the Innovation Fund awarded 14 innovative projects within the Grant Scheme Program. We will be following their development in the coming months. Today, we present the functional chocolate project, by Eugen Chocolate and Faculty of Technology in Novi Sad.

Food technologist Petar Jovanović considers himself a lucky man: not only does he make a living doing what he had been educated to do, but on top of that, he has his own food production. And not just any food production – Jovanović is co-owner of Eugen, a chocolate factory .

Since 2007, Eugen Chocolate, located in the vicinity of Novi Sad, in Vojvodina, has been manufacturing high-quality chocolate products based on scientific knowledge and experience, while respecting traditional skills. Today, it employs 30 people.

He enjoys being a part of research and growth: Petar Jovanović, Eugen Chocolate

From the outset, the Eugen team showed a strong inclination toward innovative combinations of high-quality chocolate, spices, fruits, herbs and aroma. Following the trends in the field of functional foods, five years ago they made an attempt to manufacture functional chocolate, says Jovanović. A functional food is a food given an additional function (often one related to health-promotion or disease prevention) by adding new ingredients or more of existing ingredients.

But it turned out that, while being a successful innovative manufacturer, Eugen was lacking the capacity to monitor, in laboratory conditions, the activity of the additive in chocolate. It could not dedicate enough people to development, either.

Certain of having a viable idea, they turned to their colleagues at the Faculty of Technology in Novi Sad, and joined forces by forming a consortium which then applied for the funds within the Grant Scheme Program, implemented by the Innovation Fund.

Linked for many years through friendship and professional cooperation, the Faculty team led by professor Aleksandar Fišteš and the people from Eugen put together a project and applied “hoping for the best”, says Fišteš.

From a total of 96 applications, the nutritive chocolate project was one of 14 selected for funding. “We were pleasantly surprised to learn that our project went through. To me and my company this is an important reference. As a quality- and science-oriented business, we are glad to be part of all of this, of research and development, something few business in Serbia get a chance to experience”, says Petar Jovanović.

In this joint endeavor Eugen’s role is to provide the chocolate, pretty the product up and set up serial production, while the Faculty’s task is to define what and how to add.

“At the moment, the state’s assistance to R&D and private sector joining forces is necessary. The economic environment is not supportive of the SMEs, making research impossible for them to afford. The support of the state is welcome here, especially in the early stages of development,” adds Fišteš. He explains researchers find projects like the one they are doing with Eugen attractive. Similar research has been done on a daily basis, but the funds from the Grant Scheme Program will enable the research results to leave the lab and be translated into new knowledge and commercial product. “It is inevitable that science should turn to the businesses, and the businesses to science. This program is particularly useful for small and medium companies, since as a rule they do not have labs and research centers, but do have the manpower, production and management to commercialize our knowledge, and thus strengthen their competitiveness on the market,” he says.

Chocolate contains all the necessary nutrients: proteins, healthy fats, carbs, vitamins, minerals. Only 100 gr per day covers nearly 25% of an adult’s energy needs. Innovative technology transforms it into perfect functional food.

The four-member Faculty team’s project task is to produce a functional chocolate with added encapsulated polyphenol compounds as a novel, appealing and tasty chocolate product. Polyphenols act as antioxidants and assist in the prevention of illnesses caused by free radicals.

Functional food is made in two ways: by either reducing the amount of harmful ingredients or by adding nutritive components. “We have been studying chocolate for years and decided that with Eugen we should try the latter – by using polyphenols as active components”, says Prof. Biljana Pajin, a chocolate technologist.

Chocolate is widely popular due to its pleasant taste, and its exceptional nutritive value already makes it a functional food.  However, in regular chocolate, these nutrients do not come in sufficient quantities. One of the team’s tasks is to define what and how much to add. They have been considering polyphenol-rich plant extracts.

Their role is to monitor the content of polyphenols in chocolate, see if they remain stable throughout the process and ensure their even presence in each bite.

In the first quarter of the project, Eugen will provide the chocolate, and the Faculty will supply the bioactive components. Lab tests are under way, and first industrial trials are expected in a few months’ time.

“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate”: faculty team at work, tasting the new product (from left to right: Lončarević, Tumbas Šaponjac, Pajin and Fišteš).

Designing the experiment was the first step. The conditions for production were set in the lab, with the idea to translate them in industrial conditions once the necessary modifications are done. “The start was more bumpy than we expected, most of all because we decided to use white chocolate, with which we’d had little experience”, says research fellow Ivana Lončarević, PhD.  White chocolate was chosen because of its low polyphenol levels and also because it is easily colored with plant compounds.

“We set up production conditions based on literature. At first, our chocolate mass lacked the right viscosity, the dosage and molding process proved difficult, we had bubbles appearing on the surface that we couldn’t get rid of, the mass wouldn’t come out of the mold, and it was covered with grey stains”, recalls dr Lončarević. After making the necessary modifications, the team was able to set conditions for the production of chocolate with added encapsulated compounds of varying quantities and kinds.

The team has chosen to work with white chocolate because it colors beautifully when plant compounds are added.

The next step in the research is to define the new chocolate’s quality – its taste, appearance, thickness, color, smell… The mixture has to be homogeneous, with fine texture and pleasing to the eye, and it must not crumble.

The new chocolate will be tasted by Faculty experts first, and then by the future consumers.

The bioactive compounds added to the chocolate are encapsulated, i.e. the active components are placed on carriers – typically polysaccharides or proteins – in order to be inserted in the product. The plant extracts alone would not do the job. Microencapsulation allows mixing in chocolate and protects the bioactive compounds from decomposing. They are also absorbed more easily and have more effect in the body, explains Prof. Vesna Tumbas Šaponjac, whose role in the project to come up with a way to incorporate bioactive compounds in chocolate. “What makes me really happy about this project is the thrills I get from waiting to see the results. I anticipate it with child’s curiosity. It is great to see that this scientific research gets supported, and that we got a chance to pull this off,” she says.

Eugen, the consortium leader, will use the grant received from the Fund to hire people and part of the equipment for development. “For a small company in Serbia, this equipment is beyond reach. Without the help of the Fund, we would not be able to afford it. Then, the raw material and the encapsulates for the probes – all very expensive and unaffordable for the Faculty without the support of the Fund,” explains Jovanović.

Even before the cooperation with the Fund Eugen applied for state funds to finance its projects, but this is the first time they got support for research. While somewhat critical of the overly detailed financial reporting requirements, commenting on his relationship with the Fund, Jovanović says: “I am delighted with the cooperation with the Fund’s team. Fast communication, high responsiveness, high-level support – being able to rely on them fully means a lot.”

This project’s team are confident that they are on the verge of a product that will have a long and successful life in the market. Because, they say, it is always time for chocolate – when you are sad, when you are happy, when you want to apologize or say thanks. And they readily quote a fellow chocolate aficionado as saying: “Nine out of ten people say they love chocolate. The tenth person is always lying”.