From a tall glass of cold white milk to a plain cup of strained yogurt, au naturel dairy products have succeeded in the marketplace. But add cocoa and chocolate ingredients and those same plain dairy products become downright indulgent.

The good news is that unlike some indulgence foods, a growing number of consumers look at dairy products made with cocoa and chocolate ingredients as a better-for-you option when compared to other treats. The dairy component provides essential protein, vitamins and minerals, while the cocoa is packed with antioxidants.

“Healthy chocolate sounds like a dream come true, but chocolate hasn’t gained the status of health food quite yet,” said Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., senior medical editor with the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. “Still, chocolate’s reputation is on the rise, as a growing number of studies suggest that it can be a heart-healthy choice.”

Chocolate and its main ingredient, cocoa, appear to reduce risk factors for heart disease.

“It’s the flavanols in cocoa beans that have been shown to exert antioxidant effects that reduce cell damage implicated in heart disease,” Ms. Zeratsky said. “These flavanols, which are more prevalent in dark chocolate than in milk chocolate or white chocolate, also help lower blood pressure and improve vascular function. In addition, some research has linked chocolate consumption to reduced risks of diabetes, stroke and heart attack.”

The good news about cocoa keeps getting better. In a study published in the January 2011 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, scientists showed for the first time that cocoa flavanols exert a positive effect on select gut bacteria in humans. In other words, they may function as a prebiotic, much like soluble fiber.

The December 2009 volume of Journal of Proteome Research included a study showing that daily consumption of 40 grams of dark chocolate significantly changed a person’s metabolism, as well as changed the metabolism of the gut microflora. The implications of the study are that subtle changes in dietary habits, such as eating dark chocolate, may benefit both host and microflora metabolism with potential long-term health benefits.

It is important to point out that these benefits are associated with cocoa, not chocolate. Dairy product manufacturers who want to create a point of differentiation in the market will want to tell a story about the cocoa in the product formula. That story might be about the cocoa or flavanol content, or about how the cocoa is sourced or its country of origins.

Value-added chocolate ingredients

Another way of differentiating dairy products is through the use of nutrient- or flavor-enhanced chocolate ingredients. The ingredients are not necessarily concentrated sources of flavanols, but the health halo associated with cocoa flavanols does transfer to them to a certain degree. Further, the ingredients bring their own extra set of benefits.

For example, Minneapolis-based Cargill offers a line of protein-enriched confectionery ingredients. It includes cocoa confectionery protein wafers and milk confectionery protein wafers that are formulated with 20% total protein. The wafers may be melted and used for coating and enrobing ice cream novelties or other inclusions intended for addition to ice cream or yogurt.

There also are two protein-enriched inclusions.

“Our white chocolate protein drops are formulated with 10% total protein and meet the standard of identity for white chocolate,” said Courtney LeDrew, cocoa and chocolate marketing manager at Cargill. “These drops have a great white chocolate flavor and a strong visual appeal. The product with the most protein — 25% — is the cocoa confectionery protein drops. The protein drops make a great companion to yogurt, either alone or with other inclusions in a separate compartment for consumer customization.”

The protein content is increased through the addition of whey, rendering the confections a natural for dairy products.

“Adding dairy proteins to coatings tends to increase viscosity,” Ms. LeDrew said. “To resolve this issue, we use larger particles, which bind less fat than finer particles because they allow more free fat to circulate in the coating without increasing overall fat content. Larger particles also help maintain coating viscosity so that the coating is suitable for enrobing or coating.

“The coating is specifically formulated to avoid adding extra fat and calories. The protein is suspended within a fat matrix. During enrobing, the fat in the protein coating is melted, allowing it to readily flow. After the protein coating cools, the fat converts back to a solid form and holds the protein and other components in a stable suspension.”

Barry Callebaut, Chicago, offers probiotic chocolate ingredients, which may be used as an inclusion in dairy products, presenting an innovative approach to adding probiotics to dairy. Probiotics are widely thought to aid in restoring the balance of the intestinal flora, providing protection against infection while improving metabolism, according to the company. The challenge is to ensure the survival and activity of the orally ingested microorganisms within the harsh environment of the human digestive tract.

The company developed a special chocolate production process that guarantees effective probiotics in the end chocolate. The probiotic chocolate combines two clinically documented strains that are microencapsulated with a patented protection technology. Ensuring the sufficient distribution of the probiotic microorganisms in chocolate on an industrial scale is no easy task. High temperatures and pressures may have a negative influence on cell counts of the integrated probiotic strains. The proprietary production system guarantees a homogeneous blend of the probiotics in the chocolate, within a restricted temperature range, and survival of the probiotics in the chocolate matrix.

The company also was the first to launch stevia-sweetened chocolate ingredients. The chocolate may be used in multiple applications, including molding, enrobing and inclusions, and helps keep added sugars to a minimum in a product formulation.

With all these better-for-you options, there is a growing trend of adding cocoa or chocolate to dairy’s star better-for-you food: yogurt. But there are some technical considerations when adding cocoa or chocolate directly to yogurt, Ms. LeDrew said.

“Usually yogurts have a low pH, which sometimes makes it difficult to pair with a cocoa or a chocolate item,” she said. “When cocoa powder is used with fermented dairy products, such as yogurt, using a higher alkalized cocoa powder that is dark and strong in flavor is the best option. When formulating with a higher alkalized powder, a lower percentage of powder can be used in the recipe without impacting flavor. This can help alleviate some of the off-flavor profiles generated in chocolate-flavored fermented dairy products.

“As an alternative option for yogurt, chocolate particulates can be used as an inclusion that consumers can add prior to consumption. Since the chocolate particulates are not combined with the yogurt prior to consumption, the chocolate will not dissolve in the yogurt and the time for unwanted flavor development will be minimal.”

Chocolate creations for consideration

Dairy product developers can get creative cocoa and chocolate flavoring ideas from culinary professionals. During a recent October weekend that included the Hallmark holiday known as Sweetest Day, chocolate aficionados gathered in the Windy City for The Chicago Fine Chocolate & Dessert Show (consumer) and National Chocolate Show & Dessert Show (trade). The culinary professionals at the events showcased a plethora of chocolate innovations, many with application in all types of dairy products, from cheese to ice cream to yogurt. The chocolate confections may be used as guidance for the development of similar inclusions for dairy foods, or even flavor profiles to layer on indulgence in fluid dairy products such as creamers and lattes.

For example, Brownie Brittle L.L.C., West Palm Beach, Fla., has been producing namesake snacks that resemble the crispy edges produced by a cooling rack of freshly baked brownies. The line includes such flavors as chocolate chip, mint chocolate chip, salted caramel and toffee crunch.

One frozen yogurt company already recognizes that the flavorful brownie crisps make great inclusions. In June, the company entered into an exclusive partnership with Orange Leaf Holdings L.L.C., Oklahoma City, Okla., to offer Brownie Brittle as a featured topping at select locations of the namesake self-serve frozen yogurt with topping bar chain.

“Orange Leaf is always looking into quality partners for co-branding opportunities, and Brownie Brittle presented itself as the perfect complement to our proprietary frozen yogurt recipes,” said Karley Hofer, director of brand development. “My personal favorite pairing is chocolate chip Brownie Brittle with coffee froyo.”

Cary’s of Oregon, Grant Pass, Ore., showcased dark chocolate with Hawaiian sea salt and toffee. The confection provides a balance of sweet, salty and crunchy that marries well with creamy dairy foods.

Jennifer Wicks, chef and owner of the Stevensville, Mont.-based chocolatier Burnt Fork Bend L.L.C., practices “bean to bar chocolate” production by only using fair trade and minimally processed ingredients. She uses beans sourced from all over the world to produce chocolates in small batches. Accolades went to Ms. Wicks for her 72% Dark Chocolate Blue Heron Bar, which is made with cocoa beans sourced from Belize and Ecuador.

Claiming dark chocolate content as well as country-of-origin is becoming a point of distinction for many chocolate ingredients going into premium and upscale dairy foods, in particular gelato and refrigerated desserts.

Sustainability is also a buzz word in the world of cocoa and chocolate. Chocolats Latour, Cincinnati, showcased its Ohio Valley Chocolate Bar, which combines fair trade chocolate with spicebush berries and black walnuts sourced locally from Ohio. The company also spotlighted honey basil caramel. The confection starts with fair trade dark chocolate, and gets spiked up with the addition of honey, basil and caramel locally sourced from a variety of Ohio farms.

Chocolatier Karen Urbanek, owner of Flying Noir, Mendocino, Calif., combines her love of art and chocolate by making hand-painted truffles made with single-origin organic chocolate. Her Teeny, Tiny Cubes of Heaven mini bites of chocolate are made from naked ganache in unsweetened cocoa with pearly natural mica color.

Cinnamon-infused chocolate creations were trending at the shows, with many concepts applicable to dairy applications. Examples include cinnamon roll-flavored fudge (variegate) and milk chocolate and cinnamon dusted almonds.

Chocolate paired with cinnamon is already showing up in ice cream. Three Twins Ice Cream, Petaluma, Calif., recently debuted Sergio Romo’s Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream. The chocolate-cinnamon flavor was conceived in partnership with the renowned San Francisco Giants baseball pitcher to heighten the immigration debate. Pints of the new flavor include the tagline: “It only tastes illegal.”

Flavored chocolates are also gaining traction in frozen desserts. Italy’s G7’s range of single-serve containers of premium gelato includes a Panna Cotta variety. This product is Panna Cotta-flavored gelato with swirls of caramel syrup and topped with caramel chocolate curls. The company’s Cioccolatissimo is chocolate-flavored gelato with chocolate syrup, topped with dark and milk chocolate curls.