Cocoa butter equivalent: The future of chocolate?

When demand for a commodity outstrips its supply, manufacturers must look for alternative ingredients to substitute into their products in order to maintain profit margins. Such has been the case in the chocolate industry during recent times.

The global cocoa deficit this year is expected to widen to 47,000 metric tons as diseases and replacement crops are leading to meager cocoa yields in Indonesia, Asia’s primary cocoa producing country.

Although there are reportedly sufficient market stocks for the remainder of the year, the increasing gap between global appetite and chocolate resources is causing cocoa price projections to continue to rise.

Fear not, chocolate lovers, for there’s a new ingredient in town. While cocoa butter has historically been preferred over cocoa butter equivalent (CBE) as a fat source in chocolate products, in the coming years the balance is projected to shift in favor of CBEs.

Annual growth in CBE demand is currently estimated to be at ten percent, while chocolate is at only three to four percent. Reasons for the recent interest in CBEs, a derivative of shea stearin and palm mid fraction (PMF), include its 30-40 percent reduction in cost compared to cocoa butter, its sustainability, and the flexibility of the product itself.

The degree of CBE acceptance varies country to country. According to EU regulations, CBEs can be labeled as “vegetable fats,” “vegetable oil” or “non-cocoa-butter fats,” with 2014 legislation additionally requiring the labeling of each specific ingredient within the product.

As long as CBE comprises percent or less of the confection, the EU allows the finished product to still be labeled as “chocolate.” The U.S. does not abide by this ruling, and while permitting CBEs as ingredients, insists that alternative names such as “chocolate flavored coating” be employed instead.

Although shea butter is generally thought of as a cosmetics ingredient, upwards of 90 percent of the product is in fact used in the food industry, most often in confectionary coatings or centers.

In addition to prolonging the shelf life of commodities, proponents of shea butter over cocoa butter attest to the former ingredient’s improved functionality in terms of modifying a chocolate’s melting curve to get desired results in a range of climates. Moreover, testimonies from chocolate connoisseurs have demonstrated that shea butter does not affect the flavor profile when used as a substitute for cocoa butter.

However, with CBE’s benefits come its drawbacks. Cocoa butter equivalent has been identified through National Center for Food Protection and Defense’s Food Chemicals Codex monograph evaluation project to belong to a class of food ingredients that may be susceptible to food fraud — otherwise known as economically motivated adulteration. This is based on the characteristics of the ingredient, as well as the selectivity and specificity of the associated analytical methods for quality assurance.

As demand for CBEs has come from both the confectionary and cosmetic industries, another concern is whether the ingredients shea butter and PMF can be produced at sustainable rates.

Shea nut production is between 250,000 and 300,000 metric tons a year, and due to increased popularity, has seen a growth of 100 percent in the past decade. Naturally regenerating shea trees are primarily grown on farmlands in West Africa; however, as the trees take 15 years to reach full fruit-bearing maturity and are often cut down and used for charcoal, producers are concerned about future shea shortages. Meanwhile, the sustainability of the main CBE constituent, palm mid fraction, stands on even shakier ground.

With CBE use becoming increasingly more widespread, the production patterns of both ingredients should be closely monitored, as dips in supply could heighten the risk of adulteration.




This post originally appeared on the National Center for Food Protection and Defense’s blog. The post is part of thee NCFPD’s summer blog series focused on today’s food protection and defense issues. Written by NCFPD researchers, the series discusses economically motivated adulteration of food, potential food threats and identification of adverse food events.

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