By Dr Saurabh Arora
Chocolates are regarded as the world’s most popular snack food. An average American consumes over 4kg of chocolate annually, while in Switzerland, the world’s leading chocolate producer, a Swiss consumes over double this amount. Indians also have a sweet tooth, and consume considerable amount of sweets, including chocolates.
In fact, chocolates hold a special place in celebrations as they are not only eaten but are gifted to a whole lot or friends and relatives. However, not everyone is aware that chocolates can be contaminated or adulterated just as easily as other foodstuff. In fact adulteration in chocolates has a long history and since they are a very popular food item, they have been adulterated by unscrupulous manufacturers for profits for centuries.
Branded chocolates as well as home-made chocolates have seen a spurt in sale in recent years because of rising incomes. The market for chocolates is one of the fastest growing markets in India. Urban populations prefer them over traditional Indian sweets. India has a few chocolate manufacturers but a lot of chocolates are imported. Imported chocolates are often intolerant to India’s heat and with lack of efficient cold storage they melt and deteriorate which could then become a source of microbiological contamination, if not stored in the right temperature. Leading global chocolate brands have suffered cadmium and/or lead contamination.
According to FSSAI, standards chocolates are not permitted to contain any vegetable oil and fats except cocoa butter. However, Codex permits five percent vegetable fat in chocolates but a lot of chocolate manufacturers allegedly add more than 20 percent vegetable fat in the chocolates. Recently, FSSAI has published a proposed draft that will regulate sugar, salt and fat content in food products which would be applicable to beverages as well as confectionery items like chocolate to prevent health hazards, like obesity, in children.
Contamination in Homemade Chocolates
A lot of people make chocolates at home as a home based industry. These chocolates are particularly flavoured during festive season. While homemade chocolates are very popular in some cities, they might not be regulated unlike chocolates made by leading chocolate manufacturers. There is no way to determine if those making chocolates at home have the license to make these products. Since they come under the unorganised sector there is also no way to determine if they are following the hygiene requirements as laid down in the FSSAI regulations.
These chocolates could be subject to bacterial contamination like salmonella unless the raw materials like skim milk powder, milk, eggs and cocoa have been adequately heat-treated, pasteurized and handled to keep them free from bacterial contamination. Personal hygiene is a major problem, especially since many chocolate products are finished by hand-dipping.
Cocoa beans, nuts and other ingredients can be contaminated by insects, rodents, and mycotoxins unless stored properly. If the machinery is not cleaned and washed thoroughly and sanitized it could lead to infestation by insects or microbial contamination.
Lead and Cadmium Contamination
Contamination can result from heavy metals such as lead and/or cadmium. Scientific studies indicate that lead present in the air can be absorbed by the cocoa plant which is the main ingredient of chocolate and chocolate products. Lead can cause serious health problems in young children, as studies by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi has found. Cadmium can also be a serious health hazard as it can have cardiovascular effects, renal damage, developmental defects in foetus, as well as cause skeletal lesions.
Contamination of Cocoa
Since cocoa is the main ingredient in chocolate it has been a subject of considerable study. Cocoa when dried loses its volume by about half. Therefore unscrupulous chocolate manufacturers mix cocoa shell powder, hazelnut shell powder or soya flour into cocoa powder to add bulk. This product is inferior or substandard as it has intentionally been adulterated. An unintentional contaminant in cocoa comes from iron. Modern cocoa processing causes this iron contamination because of the grinding tools of the hammer, agitator blades and ball fillings which make up the rotating ball cocoa mills. Though the iron is removed with the help of magnet separators yet iron can remain in the cocoa powder which contaminates products made from cocoa including cocoa powder and chocolates. Sometimes cocoa beans can become mouldy during fermentation, incorrect drying and storage in humid conditions because fungi can grow on them. The cocoa beans can also be infested by pests which can lead to microbiological contamination and these get processed into the chocolate.
Unintentional ways of Contamination
Unintentional contamination of chocolates can also arise from carelessness and lack of hygienic practices during manufacture, packaging and storage. In each of the above stages, contamination can occur through insect body parts, rodent hair and rodent droppings. These modes of contamination can lead to serious health consequences. Therefore, stringent quality control measures need to be in place during the entire process from cultivation of beans to manufacture into chocolates and chocolate products.
Intentional adulteration is done by unscrupulous businessmen for financial gain. These can occur in the following ways:
- Inferior quality sugar and cocoa is used for making chocolates
- Sometimes starch is used during the manufacture of chocolates
- Minerals are often added to increase the bulk and weight of the final product;
- Sometimes, non-permitted artificial colouring can be used to impart an attractive colour to the chocolate, but which can cause serious health consequences.
It is quite clear that chocolate con-tamination is a real threat to our health. Since young children consume large quantities of chocolates it is important to safeguard their health. Therefore, chocolate manufacturers should take the utmost care in maintaining high standards of quality. Moreover, standards and regulations must be followed so consumers can be provided with safe chocolates and chocolate products.