Both chocolate and vanilla are grown near the equator, enduring temperamental weather, and requiring constant care and attention, these versatile ingredients transform from their raw state into the most familiar and favorite flavors worldwide.

While often playing center stage, chocolate and vanilla require extra finesse when used in formulations, as each is a complex ingredient composed of dozens of different volatile chemicals and subjected to multiple stages of processing. From the outset, each requires careful curing and fermenting processes. Also, the land in which both grow shows itself in aroma and distinct flavor profiles.

Terroir — the soil, climate, and topography — all shine through and make their mark on the cacao or vanilla bean. Discerning palates can identify each source, whether from Haiti, Mexico, Madagascar, Tahiti, or Ghana; Vietnam, India, and South America. But all are instantly recognizable as the two favorite flavors across the world and in nearly every culture. For today’s product developers, chocolate and vanilla continue to dominate in indulgent foods and beverages, mostly sweet but with a growing presence in savory applications.

With advances in technology, continued innovation, and modern consumers driving niche product development, layers upon layers of chocolate- and vanilla-enhanced or supported products are emerging.

These two favorite flavors abound in traditional chocolate products such as confections, baked treats, and other pastries; in sauces and dressings (especially molé); and even in beverages, such as a chocolate stout, a robust vanilla porter, or an effervescent kombucha. In sweet and savory use, and as inclusions, couvertures, fillings, and bases, vanilla and chocolate continue to find their way into thousands of consumer-packaged goods every year.


Natural Support

A brand’s sensory signature is vital to consumer perception and plays a huge role in purchasing decisions and brand loyalty. Brands need to be able to distinguish themselves, and more product developers are recognizing the power of vanilla to help them do just that.

Vanilla has extremely high aromatic notes. True vanilla is a tapestry of more than 200 chemical compounds, with the primary one — vanillin — making up the lion’s share of vanilla’s aroma and flavor. True vanilla also is extremely expensive. Although the crops have been improving after several disastrous years, the price of vanilla beans still hovers at around $400-500/kg.

For decades, imitation vanilla — typically a chemically derived copy of vanillin — has dominated the shelves. In fact, when most consumers have a blind, side-by-side comparison, they more often than not choose an imitation over a natural source of vanilla based on taste alone. From cupcakes to ice cream, vanilla is prolific and as common as it gets. In fact, roughly nine in 10 products claiming vanilla flavor are using synthetic vanillin.

There simply is not enough real vanilla currently grown in the world to supply the demand for vanilla flavor in the marketplace. Yet current trends of sustainability, clean labels, and authenticity still hold sway in the food industry. Substitutions must meet the flavor profile that natural, origin-specific vanilla brings to the table.

Consistent supply with a steady price point will make the difference when creating new products and reformulating classic products to meet clean-label demands utilizing natural vanillin. An effective swap is to switch from synthetic vanillin to natural vanillin if taking the leap to vanilla beans is not possible or financially supportable.

To that end, ingredient experts have been deriving vanillin from other natural sources of the compound, including clove, the bark of certain trees, lignins, and other plant sources. Letting yeast do the extraction work allows the ingredient to maintain a natural designation.

Purity is important when it comes to vanilla, and natural vanillin provides this. It has numerous beneficial qualities ranging from flavor potency to thermal stability. The ability to be used in an array of applications is critical to vanillin’s success.

From dry premixes to instant powder drinks, and from chocolates and confectionaries to both dairy and non-dairy products, vanillin is a perfectly acceptable solution. However, with vanillin being just one of more than 200 chemical compounds that make up the flavor of vanilla, other components might be necessary to achieve the final flavor point desired.


Working with Vanillin

The cultivation, harvesting, and drying of vanilla all affect flavor and color. From floral to woody, tropical to spicy, vanilla’s flavor composition is incredibly multivariate. While pure vanillin is at the heart of the vanilla aroma, and chemically identical to the compound found in vanilla beans, it can lack the multiple subtle notes that reflect the origin of the bean. In order to replicate this, other botanicals or sweeteners need to be incorporated.

For example, honey is an excellent companion flavor for vanillin. Playing off the naturally present nuances found in various honeys, it’s possible to simulate the subtler notes associated with some of the origin-specific vanillas that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of. 

Other spices, too, can be used to add layers to vanillin. Nutmeg and clove in amounts just below the threshold of distinction can evoke some of the notes of spicier vanilla types, and burnt sugar or caramel flavors can bring a softness to the flavor profile that rounds out the whole.

Vanilla flavor is playing an increasing role in savory foods, too, as chefs recognize its ability to add an unexpected depth and dimension that accents the umami tones in a savory food. Asian cuisine can benefit from the addition of vanilla, especially where caramel-like notes are already inherent in the flavor profile of high-heat, quick-sautéed wok dishes as well as those formulations that utilize umami-rich fermented ingredients such as soy sauce. Also, vanillin can serve as a natural replacement for pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius), the so-called “vanilla of Southeast Asia.”

Certain sweeteners can change perception of vanilla, depending on the sweetness and flavor profile of the sweetener. If using ingredients that interact with water or alcohol, it is best to avoid directly adding vanilla extract and instead opt for a different vanilla or vanilla flavor format.

Concentrated vanilla is suitable for products that are subject to high amounts of heat, where vanilla extract would likely cook off during processing.


Chocolate Forward

Both consumers and governments are changing the tides when it comes to sugar regulation. Even the word “chocolate” evokes a sense of sweetness, a certain meltability, a comfortable, rich, and indulgent treat, but what happens when you remove sugar or fat? Performance, flavor, texture, emulsification and organoleptic characteristics can change drastically.

Typically, chocolate used as an ingredient —such as for coatings, chips, pieces, etc. — is in a harder form than that used for, say, a chocolate bar. But with skill, softer, richer chocolate can be used in some formulations. “We use chocolate couverture for coating all of our confections, as well as for ganache,” says Daniel Herskovic, owner of Mayana Chocolate, an artisanal chocolate maker.

“We prefer couverture for its high cocoa butter content,” Herskovic continues. “While chocolate couverture is thinner than other forms of chocolate, and it contours much better than a thicker chocolate would, it also is good for ganache. Its higher fat content means less water in the finished product, and this leads to a longer shelf life.”

While Herskovic recommends cocoa powder for beverages meant to be served cold, he has experimented with using melted couverture as the chocolate in a dairy-based hot chocolate beverage. He even prefers chocolate couverture for chips, such as are used in cookies and other baked goods. “While it is more common to use a lesser quality chocolate chip to preserve the shape and save on expensive cocoa butter costs, although couverture makes for a softer chip, the indulgent, silky texture is worth it,” says Herskovic.

Sugar plays almost as great a role in chocolate as cocoa does. With chocolate-based or chocolate-containing products, sugar is a key ingredient that supports much of the chocolate experience, even in dark chocolate. When reformulating chocolate with reduced sugar levels, it is important to take cocoa flavanols into consideration. 

Making chocolate healthier without compromising the taste is a challenge. Developing a good-tasting sugar-reduced chocolate requires an intricate balance of different ingredients and flavors.

When reducing or removing sugar in chocolate, you increase the perception of bitterness from the cocoa ingredients. Historically, bitterness from flavanols has been masked with sugar. Thus, when removing this critical component, a sugar substitute has to mask cocoa flavanols in order to satisfy customers’ expectations and preferred tastes.

Moreover, in reduced-sugar chocolate formulations, it is not only the flavor that needs attention. Formulators also will have to account for the loss of sugar’s humectant properties, hygroscopicity, fluidity, and bulking capabilities. 

As with any product, even a slight change in ingredients will change the final composition of products, but with ingredients as chemically complex as chocolate and vanilla such effects are magnified.

Products that use chocolate ingredients often are temperature sensitive and hygroscopic. This can necessitate an adjustment in ingredients or techniques to allow for changes in the reactions to the equipment temperatures throughout the entire process. Humidity also has to be monitored to prevent a viscosity increase or texture defects, such as agglomerates.

The volume normally represented by sugar can be compensated for by utilizing maltodextrin, inulin, and other bulking compounds — such as soluble corn fiber or chicory root fiber — in combination with high-potency sweeteners. 

Sugar alcohols have strong cooling effects. Dietary fibers can have a sticky mouthfeel and sometimes even a gummy texture; they also lack the sweetness of sugar. To boost the sweetness of the chocolate, we can add high-intensity sweeteners like stevia, but they tend to have a lingering aftertaste. Flavor houses have developed natural flavors that act as bitterness maskers and/or sweetness enhancers.

The baking profile of sugar-free inclusions is different than that of regular chocolate. Also, take into consideration the digestive tolerance of fibers and laxative effects of polyols. Plus, sugar-free chocolates are often temperature-sensitive, so it’s important to control the temperature throughout your cooking process. (See “Chocolate on the Down-low,” below.)


Nuts for Chocolate

Something about the combination of nuts and chocolate yields a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. In fact, the pairing of the two ingredients is so universally favored that there have been studies that delved into exactly why that is. Chocolate is a powerful example of the convergence of aroma, flavor, and texture — the first two owed to a legion of volatile and non-volatile compounds inherent in cacao, and others formed during the course of its manufacture; the latter notably influenced by a melting point temperature nearly identical to that of body temperature.

Almonds are among the most common nuts paired with chocolate in the US and perfect examples of how nuts and chocolate marry so well. Raw nuts are subtly sweet, but develop a deeper, more intense signature flavor when roasted. This is due to releases and changes in the volatile oils and aromatics that make up the flavor of nuts. Some of the compounds involved interact particularly well with those in chocolate.

Kantha Shelke, PhD, a food scientist and principal of the Corvus Blue food industry consultancy, explains the chemistry involved. “Chocolate’s volatile compounds — ketones, pyrazines, terpenes, acetyl-pyrroles, and benzaldehyde, plus 100 other minor aromatic components — intermingle with the furans, trimethylpyrazine, terpenes, pyrroles, and benzaldehyde of toasted almonds to create a tapestry of flavors that rates higher enjoyment levels than the sum of its parts.”

Moreover, unlike some other nuts, almonds are more forgiving when it comes to roasting range. Even slight over-roasting can cause bitter or other off flavor notes in other nuts where almonds will simply increase their “toasty” flavor.

When it comes to texture, the divergence between meltingly soft, velvety chocolate and the hard crunch of a nut like an almond creates a sharp contrast that researches have shown actually increase hedonic ratings. Shelke adds, “Chocolate’s viscosity affects the speeds at which the different flavor molecules reach the flavor receptors.”


Sticking to Butter

Changes in fat content can alter both sweetness and saltiness of a product. Formulators making any adjustments to or substitutions of the fat ingredients will need to take into consideration how the other ingredients will react to changes in the cocoa butter percentage and to any substitute lipid portion. Adjustments in the other ingredients might be necessary to ensure the formulation will perform similarly to the standard using traditional cocoa butter.

Non-dairy “milk” chocolate is promising to be another major player in the chocolate ingredients game as dairy-free and vegan consumers seek the familiar flavor and mouthfeel of their favorite chocolate items but without the dairy component. Just as alternative milks have taken the dairy industry by storm, alternative milk chocolates are making gains in the confectionary market. Grain, soy, and nut-based milks already are being utilized to create such milk-free “milk” chocolate products.

Stability and creaminess are characteristics that will challenge the developer of these items. Some of the current plant-based milk analogs easily break down even under lower heat levels. Even ambient temperature needs to be factored into new or reformulated products. Currently, non-dairy milk chocolates on the market tend to have a waxy texture and lack the mouthfeel of traditional milk chocolates. 

Some developers have reported better success with almond-based milk analogs. Other analogs might require added stabilizing ingredients.

“Developing reduced-fat options for chocolate is even trickier than reduced sugar,” notes Beth Kimmerle, an industry consultant and former food product developer for Fannie May Confections Brands, Inc. She explains that matching textures derived from cocoa butter, with its melting point so close to human body temperature, is a singular challenge. “The minute it hits your mouth, cocoa butter starts to melt, and that’s when the flavor of the chocolate is released.

The less cocoa butter, the less flavor release it will have and the more the bitter cacao notes will come forward. Consumers want that flavor to hit the moment they put a product in their mouth, and then linger until it leaves with a clean finish.”


Drink it Down

Porters, stouts, and ales, with their characteristic vanilla notes, will remain in strong demand. With such craft beers still on the rise, plus microbreweries being acquired by industry leaders, vastly larger scales will add another layer of demand for vanilla and vanillin.

“Mocktails,” too, are surging ahead in the beverage industry with a heavy focus on food pairing. Since vanilla is an excellent flavor option for bridging a multifaceted beverage with well-flavored food, this too could lead to increased popularity of the flavor.

Any change to a sweetener or fat in a chocolate- or vanilla-containing product risks introducing undesired aftertastes. This is especially the case with functional products. 

Functional beverages often employ microencapsulation for the protection of vitamins, polyphenols, and minerals that can be bitter, astringent, and even tannic. Still, vanilla is frequently used to mask off flavors and bring about the flavor balance that is crucial to the end product.

Other masking methods being explored are suppression or interference with undesirable flavors and manipulating viscosity. Palatability and overall flavor are critical to the success of functional beverages. The ability to modulate the perception of saltiness, sweetness, and bitterness by utilizing chemicals that work with the taste receptors is critical to achieving this.

A more holistic approach is to work with the inherently bitter flavors of a functional beverage as opposed to masking them. Formulators can use citrus, coffee, dark chocolate, and other bitter flavors to play on the expected flavor profile — thereby setting the expectation of bitter notes prior to the consumer’s first taste.

Food and beverage products will most likely become increasingly more individualized. Whether the goal is to remove or reduce dairy, soy, sugar, fat, or gluten, the products can be formulated for a specific group of consumers. Niche products and diversity within brands will become the norm. This will require food scientists and product developers to have the knowledge and wherewithal to meet consumers’ demands.

One thing is for certain: interest in raw material sourcing, sustainability, and traceability is not going to diminish when it comes to chocolate and vanilla. It is not just about the farmers tending to the plants themselves and the ecological concerns that make up the forces driving such consumer demands, but also the quality, integrity, and trustworthiness of the end product. Leaders in the flavor industry are fully on board and are making strides in this area.


Chocolate on the Down-low

Making chocolate work in reduced-calorie formulations.

by Robert Boutin

Demand for chocolate ingredients to allow the indulgence and flavor greater use in “better-for-you” lower calorie products has been increasing. But because of its high fat and caloric content, using chocolate in low-sugar or sugar-free formulations presents unique challenges, as the characteristics of the chocolate can react differently according to the ingredients replacing sugar. It should also be noted that chocolate is a “Standard of Identity” product, and being such care has to be taken as to correct label verbiage and marketing claims.

In chocolate, the sugar is not only the sweetener but also a bulking agent. This means a chocolate inclusion or coating made with a different sweetener might have the same texture as regular chocolate but will be perceived differently with other ingredients or under different processing conditions. For example, a chocolate mass made with erythritol, while being sweet will have a slight cooling effect when eaten.

Not only does each change made in a base chocolate ingredient alter such aspects as meltpoint, shear stability, and pH — even if only slightly — those changes will, in turn, affect the same parameters in the formulation in which the chocolate ingredient is used. Another example is a chocolate designed for ice cream is significantly different than for use as a coating on a bar. At cold temperatures regular chocolate is hard and brittle making it difficult to package, ship, and eat. Typically, it will be formulated with more lower-melting-point oils and fats, making it softer but still flavorful.

Sugarless chocolate currently uses a blend of various bulking and sugar replacers, commonly maltitol and erythritol. Even certain grains, gums, and minerals (for example, refined calcium) have been used to supply the bulk in the chocolates formulation. The sweetener portion of the formula can sometimes be as high as 60%. The bulking agent must be refined to below 30 microns or smaller in some circumstances so as not to be gritty and still have a creamy texture.

Recently, proteins, fibers, resistant starches, and oligosaccharides, such as inulin, are being used with some success. Except for a slight gumminess generated from the fibers if used in chocolate formulations, they function, appear, taste, and carry other organoleptic characteristics similar to their sugared counterparts. In some cases, a blend of these bulking agents together are perceived better and have fewer negative attributes than the use of one singly at a higher level in formulations.

Achieving the right sweetness profile without sugar, however, is a greater challenge. Sugar alcohols (polyols), while among the most common sugar replacers in chocolate, are frequently coupled with stevia and monkfruit. A 60:40 blend of these two natural sweeteners is recommended over using one alone. Added sweeteners might not be necessary, however, in dark (more bitter) chocolate-type formulations.

Challenges in formulating include such things as the cooling effect of certain polyols (due to their negative heat of solubilization), gumminess from starches and gums, and the flavor differences for all these sugar replacers. Polyols, gums, and fibers also create the possibility of a laxative effect.
With compound coatings and non-standard chocolates, formulators have more tools and now with these newer bulking agents improved results and quality improvements in both confections as well as bakery and snack food items are seen and possible, . For some formulations, processors can use cocoa powder, chocolate liquor (for flavor), a vegetable fat (for mouthfeel) and stevia or monkfruit for sweetness. With a little creativity, it’s possible to formulate chocolate-like compounds that can meet such consumer demands as zero-calorie or Keto-friendly, etc.

Robert Boutin is a chemist, certified food scientist, and president of Knechtel, Inc., a food and confectionery consultant group. He can be reached at