Confectioner looks for holy grail of chocolate

SEATTLE - If the healthful benefits of broccoli could be distilled into a pill, veggie haters worldwide would rejoice.

But who would choose to get their chocolate fix by gulping a tablet?

The rush to cash in on chocolate’s apparent ability to lower blood pressure, improve circulation and maybe even fight diabetes is threatening to take the fun out of indulgence. Products like purified cacao capsules are already on the market. A Texas company filed a patent last year on chocolate bars bulked up with fiber.

Not exactly the kind of thing to make a girl swoon on Valentine’s Day.

Brace yourself for more of the same as manufacturers push to turn chocolate into what a recent trade article called “a suitable vehicle for functional confectionary.”

One small Seattle chocolate company hopes to subvert that trend.

In a former brewery in Fremont, Andy McShea of Theo Chocolate is trying to tease out the molecular basis of scrumptiousness. In the short term, the former pharmaceutical-industry biochemist is using scientific insight to optimize Theo’s artisan approach to chocolate making. In the long term, he’s aiming for the same goal as the candy industry’s biggest players: a way to maximize chocolate’s health benefits while minimizing its baggage of fat and calories.

But if it isn’t delicious too, what’s the point? asks McShea, Theo’s sole scientist and chief operating officer.

Theo says it’s the only Northwest company that manufactures chocolates from beans to finished product.

An artisan operation has advantages over megacompanies when it comes to producing a healthful product, McShea says. Industrial processing can destroy flavonols and other key compounds. McShea says his lab analyses of popular chocolate brands show mass-produced candy doesn’t have as complex a flavor profile as artisan chocolate.

McShea also has graphs and charts that show the heirloom varieties of cacao trees favored by Theo produce more flavonol-rich and flavorful beans than the varieties that dominate large cacao plantations.

The main stumbling block to a yummy chocolate health food is the fact that flavonols are bitter, McShea said. Chocolate stripped of sugar has a mouth-puckering quality. Chocolate that skimps on cocoa butter is chalky.

“We’re working hard to figure out a way to separate the health effects from the calories and retain the flavor,” McShea said. “Nobody has been able to do that yet.”

His chemical analyses, which are helping reveal what makes chocolate taste, feel and smell good, are a step in that direction. But the goal isn’t to engineer chocolate into something else, McShea said. It’s to find that magic mix of tree, bean and roasting method that will lead to the prize.