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Probiotic chocolate: restoring the balance.

There is a marked trend amongst increasingly nutrition-conscious consumers towards healthier, more functional foods. The growth in natural, organic and environmentally and socially conscious foods is closely matched by the increased consumption of functionally enriched products. As an all-natural, traditional product with proven nutritional benefits, the evidence is mounting in favour of chocolate as a solution to the demand for an authentic functional food. Recent research into the possibilities of further enhancing the natural health benefits of cocoa and chocolate with probiotics only adds further weight to this argument.

Probiotics lie at the centre of the increased interest in functional foods. Based on a more positive approach, probiotics are designed to protect against infection by improving metabolism and the human body's own immune response. Although we are only beginning to understand the essential role played by positive bacteria in maintaining human health, there is growing evidence to support the power of probiotic supplements to restore the balance of the intestinal flora and, thus, the body's natural capacity to fight diseases. There are several challenges, however, to integrating orally ingested micro-organisms into food products. Not only must these organisms survive the manufacturing, storage and distribution of the food products that "host" them, once ingested, they must also survive the harsh environment of the human digestive system. It is for this reason that Barry Callebaut has put significant energy into investigating the feasibility of developing a probiotic chocolate. And the initial results are striking! It has been shown, for instance, that several new innovations in the production process have resulted in a probiotic chocolate with a shelf-life of up to 12 months--with a far more effective intestinal delivery profile than more common milk-based carriers.

Probiotics, Pro-Life

The human gastrointestinal tract contains an extremely complex and diverse population of bacteria. There are approximately 100 trillion micro-organisms that belong to at least 400 different known bacterial species living in the gut of a normal, healthy human being. In other words, there is more than ten times the number of active bacteria in the intestines than there are cells in the rest of the human body. These bacteria are responsible for generating intense metabolic activity and are an indispensable part of the digestive system. The delicate balance of this intestinal flora is under constant pressure from our modern lifestyle. The use of antibiotics and other drugs, excessive alcohol consumption, stress, disease and pollution are all factors that are thought to seriously damage the population of the healthy bacteria in the human gut. Yet these micro-organisms are absolutely essential to digestion and, it is believed, the body's capacity to fight diseases.



Although the majority of the intestinal microflora comprises either helpful or benign bacteria, some have the potential to cause disease. In healthy individuals, the bacteria in the intestinal tract are optimally balanced. However, when this balance is disturbed, harmful bacteria are presented with the ideal conditions to flourish, thus increasing the risk of inflammatory, infectious and other diseases. Restoring and maintaining the balance of the intestinal flora could, therefore, form the basis for the treatment of a wide range of illnesses. That's where probiotics come in. The World Health Organization defines probiotics as "Live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host." Probiotic bacteria are designed to do just that by restoring the proper balance of the microflora, optimizing intestinal function and generally promoting good health. Besides improving digestion, probiotics are believed to provide protection against infection by improving metabolism and the immune response.

Meeting the Chocolate Survival Challenge

One of the biggest hurdles to restoring the balance of the digestive system is, in fact, the digestive system itself. Probiotic micro-organisms have to be tough to survive the acidic environment of the stomach. They must be resistant to the effects of bile and be capable of flourishing in an environment deprived of oxygen. Naturally, to achieve their beneficial objective, probiotics must be non-toxic to the human body. There are relatively few strains of probiotics that are up to the task. Of those that occur naturally inside the gut are certain bacteria belonging to the Lactobacillus, Streptococcus and Bifidobacterium groups, along with several other types of Bacillus and yeast. These bacteria are also commonly found in certain fermented dairy products such as yoghurt and fresh cheese. It may therefore come as a surprise to discover that recent research points to chocolate as a far superior medium than such milk-based carriers in terms of guaranteeing the optimum survival and activity of probiotics throughout the digestive tract.

In analysing the potential of chocolate and cocoa as carriers for the intestinal delivery of probiotics, chocolate manufacturer Barry Callebaut conducted extensive research into the resistance of a number of probiotic strains--both to the human digestive system and the chocolate-making process itself. Because, in addition to the inhospitable environment of the digestive system, there are a number of challenges associated with integrating probiotics into chocolate on an industrial scale. To ensure the survival of the probiotic organisms and the prolonged shelf-life of the end-product, it is essential to narrow the temperature range of production and storage considerably. However, this narrower temperature range also makes it difficult to ensure the effective distribution of the probiotic supplements within large-scale production. Barry Callebaut's answer to this problem came in the form of a new, patented process for the large-scale production of probiotic chocolate. Tests are currently being done on a wide range of applications of probiotic chocolate, including chocolate confectionary, biscuits, pastries, cereals and cereal bars. Depending on the application, Barry Callebaut has succeeded in producing probiotic chocolate with a relatively long shelf-life, up to 12 months in some instances (Figure 1). The new process ensures the homogenous integration of the probiotic supplements without compromising quality or taste. New machinery designed to support this innovative process is also easier to clean, thus eliminating the risk of contamination of other products made with the same equipment.


Chocolate: The Right Carrier for the Job

In searching for a combination of probiotic bacteria that were tough enough to survive the chemical conditions of the digestive tract, researchers at Barry Callebaut concentrated on two strains in particular: Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum. Two samples of the probiotic strains were prepared, one embedded in a Barry Callebaut chocolate matrix, another in a standard milk matrix. The samples were then subjected to an in vitro simulation of passage through the stomach and small intestine. The results of the comparative analysis are striking ... to say the least! Not only did the probiotic strains survive the temperature fluctuations of the chocolate-making process, their rate of survival upon digestion was far greater than that of the milk-embedded probiotic mixture. The in vitro stomach acids had hardly any noticeable effect on the chocolate-embedded probiotics whereas those of the milk matrix had end-counts that were four times lower than the original mixture. When compared after simulated passage through the stomach and the small intestine, probiotic concentrations in the chocolate matrix were three times higher than those of the milk matrix (Figure 2).

Barry Callebaut's researchers also investigated the effects of the respective probiotic mixtures on the microflora itself. Experiments were conducted using the Simulator of Human Intestinal Microbial Ecosystem (SHIME), an in vitro simulation of the gastrointestinal tract used to analyse the effects of probiotics on the large intestine. The preliminary findings are very promising, pointing to a marked increase in the proportion of healthy intestinal bacteria as a result of the introduction of chocolate-embedded probiotics. The research conducted by Barry Callebaut has provided substantial scientific evidence to suggest that chocolate offers superior protection and a more stable environment for beneficial micro-organisms and, as such, could be an ideal carrier for the intestinal delivery of probiotics. Most importantly, the addition of probiotics has no significant effect on the taste, texture or mouthfeel of Barry Callebaut's celebrated chocolate. In ensuring maximum resistance to stomach acids and greatly improving intestinal function, probiotic chocolate is just another way in which Barry Callebaut is restoring the balance: both in the human body and in the wider perception of chocolate as a natural, nutritious product.

For more information

Hans P. Vriens

Chief Innovation Officer

Barry Callebaut AG
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Title Annotation:immune health
Author:Vriens, Hans P.
Publication:Nutraceutical Business & Technology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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