In recent years, chocolates have become one of the top-selling food products during the festive season, besides traditional Indian sweets. Since chocolates are growing in popularity branded manufacturers, a number of small enterprises, as well as homemade chocolate makers, have begun to take advantage of the trend to put their chocolates on sale especially during the festive season. However, the chocolate makers, as well as the consumers, should be aware that chocolates can be adulterated and contaminated so full precautions must be taken before buying and consuming them.
Hazards during chocolate production
Chocolate production goes through a number of processing stages and at any stage there is the potential for physical, chemical and microbial contamination. When cocoa pods are received for processing they could contain physical hazards like wood, chaff, plant materials, pesticides and fertilisers and pests, such as insects or worms. Chocolate manufacturers have to ensure that metal shards, chemicals from equipment used and potential contamination from handlers is controlled during the splitting process. The fermentation process often takes place in wooden containers, so there is the danger of pieces of wood and the growth of salmonella microbes. During the drying, process beans can be contaminated with dust and foreign objects. In case the drying process is not adequate the beans could develop mould leading to mycotoxin contamination. Another hazard comes from modern cocoa processing that can cause iron contamination because of the grinding tools of the hammer, agitator blades and ball fillings which make up the rotating ball cocoa mills. Magnet separators are used to remove the iron but it can remain in the cocoa powder. In order to be safe, you need to buy chocolates from manufacturers who follow all due processes adequately and who have a well-planned HACCP programme in place.
Salmonella Contamination in chocolates
Chocolates, just like any other food products, are prone to Salmonella spp. contamination and allergen contamination so chocolate manufacturers have to take all precautions to ensure food safety. The potential for raw cocoa beans to be contaminated with Salmonella spp. is well established. Cocoa which is one of the main ingredients can show signs of Salmonella spp. growth if the roasting of cocoa beans is inadequate. This means that any cocoa product like cocoa powder, cocoa butter or cocoa liquor may be contaminated with Salmonella spp. Since these products have low water activity salmonella can become resistance to heat and so they survive typical temperatures reached during the milling, refining, or conching processing steps of chocolate. While this is a major cause of salmonella contamination, chocolate products can also be contaminated because of
- Contaminated/adulterated ingredients used in chocolate products
- contaminated processing equipment that has not been properly cleaned and sanitised
- improper handling and unhygienic practices by employees especially since many chocolate products are finished by hand-dipping
- lack of adequate storage and transport with temperature control system as finished products like bar chocolates can easily melt and deteriorate
- Cocoa beans, nuts, and other ingredients can be contaminated by insects, rodents, and mycotoxins unless stored properly and infestation controlled
As a consumer, you must not buy chocolates from unknown vendors or those that do not have an FSSAI license as they might not take adequate precautions to prevent contamination.
Adulteration in chocolates
Cocoa powder is a high-value commodity and therefore, it is often adulterated for economic gains with cocoa shell powder, hazelnut shell powder, soybean flour or carob-bean flour. Chocolate is also often adulterated with animal lard to replace cocoa butter. According to the Food Safety and Standards (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011, the following vegetable fats, obtained from these plants may be used as cocoa butter equivalents likeSal (Shorea robusta), Kokum gurgi (Garcinia indica), Mango kernel (Mangifera indica), Palm oil (Elaeis guineensis and Elaeis olifera), Mahua Oil (Bassia latifolia or B. longifolia), Dhupa Fat (Vateria indica), Phulwara fat (Madhuca butyracea), and Dharambe fat (Garcinia cambogia). So the use of any other fat than those mentioned in the regulations is adulteration. According to FSSAI in case of chocolates which contain vegetable fats other than cocoa butter, it shall have the following label declaration in bold: “CONTAINS VEGETABLE FAT IN ADDITION TO COCOA BUTTER”.
Besides fat, other ingredients for making chocolate like milk can be adulterated with unhygienic water, detergent or urea. Sugar can contain chalk powder. Sometimes, non-permitted artificial colouring can be used to impart an attractive colour to the chocolate. Using all these inferior ingredients can have serious health problems. Adulteration not only makes the chocolates substandard but since the adulterants cannot be listed on the labels so unsuspecting consumers can be affected by them if any of ingredients are allergenic. Consuming a pre-packaged chocolate where the allergens have not been declared can also cause a major allergenic reaction.
Besides the major ingredients cocoa and sugar, FSSAI permits the use of “spices and condiments and their extracts” in chocolates. It is a well-known fact that after the ingredients have been mixed together in the chocolate there is no quality control check. Therefore manufacturers have to ensure, that before using them in chocolates they are assessed for the risks associated with them and all raw materials entering this process should be safe for consumption. At this point, unless there is validation in the process recontamination can occur. It is important for chocolate manufacturers to carry out food testing of raw materials, ingredients, and finished products to ensure that these are not adulterated. Manufacturers must adopt Good Manufacturing Practices and control of hazards can reduce adulteration to a large extent.
Lead contamination in cocoa beans
A study has found that though cocoa beans have some of the lowest levels of lead for a natural food yet cocoa products are frequently found to have higher lead concentrations than other foods. Heavy metal contamination is, therefore, not unknown in chocolates because of the cocoa beans. Since cocoa powder is a major ingredient in chocolates the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has fixed the upper permissible levels for lead and copper. As per the Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, Toxins, and Residues) Regulations, 2011, the maximum permissible levels of lead must be 5.0 ppm by weight, on dry fat-free substance. Imported chocolates must be tested as a US study found lead contamination in some of the leading brands like Hershey, Mars, Godiva, and others. Since children are often given chocolates as gifts you need to be careful as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi has found that lead can cause serious health problems in children.