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ISU students study how to make chocolate more rich in iron

Around the holiday season, chocolate is a popular gift and stocking stuffer. The ooey gooey treat is a guilty pleasure for many.

But two Idaho State University dietetics students felt that indulging didn’t necessarily have to mean unhealthy. So Josephine Cobia and Jenifer Massengale came up with a project to try and add a healthy component to chocolate bars.

With a dash of iron here and a touch of ascorbic acid there, they whipped up their own recipe for dark chocolate.

Allisha Weeden, associate professor in the ISU dietetics department, says one of the girls was inspired to do the project because of a family member who had faced a life-time battle with iron deficiency. She wanted to find some way besides supplements that could be a potential iron source. So the iron-rich chocolate idea was born.

Normally, in the experimental food course, Weeden said the students take a recipe and tweak one or two ingredients. But Cobia and Massengale started from the ground up and formed their own recipe.

“Most chocolate has a tiny bit of iron in it but it doesn’t have a lot of iron,” Weeden said. “And when we’re looking at a patient population, primarily women and children, and a way to be able to get more iron into them, candy seemed like a possible option.”

The end result of the recipe? Each square of chocolate had one milligram of iron.

“That would be about the amount of iron that’s found in a three-ounce chicken breast,” Weeden clarified.

The recommended daily dietary allowance of iron for women ages 19 to 50 is 18 milligrams.

But it’s not just additional iron that made Cobia and Massengale’s recipe unique. The ascorbic acid added in also adds another checkmark to the benefits column.

“Ascorbic acid is just a fancy term for Vitamin C,” Weeden explained. “And Vitamin C helps us to be able to absorb iron better. And so they felt that by adding that, it would give the added benefit to the patient population / subject population for adding iron.”

Weeden said that’s unique because most iron supplements and iron-fortified foods on the market do not contain ascorbic acid.

Through research, the students found that beans contain a lot of iron. The girls tried a bean puree, but that changed the texture of chocolate and made it more like a fudge than a chocolate candy bar. After a lot of trial and error, the students found that white bean flour was able incorporate the iron, but still keep the familiar chocolate texture.

“Compared to a normal chocolate, it wasn’t quite as firm, and it softened much faster at room temperature,” Weeden said. “Otherwise it tasted like chocolate, it had the mouth feel of chocolate, so it was very similar.”

Classmates and other members of the ISU community got to sample it and give feedback.

“The consensus was it wasn’t quite as good, but it was comparable and it was good enough people would choose to eat it,” Weeden said.

In October, the students presented their project to about 10,000-15,000 dietitians and physicians at the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in Chicago.

Weeden said it was well-received and a great experience for the students to take their research a step further.

As for next steps, Weeden said one student has just graduated and the other one is close, so there isn’t any next steps planned for the recipe.

As for potential plans to market the recipe, Weeden said there isn’t any. She said one thing that would be a big concern would be how to properly market it – the FDA’s “jelly bean rule”, where they can’t market it as “healthy” and make it seem healthier than it is because it’s still candy. Weeden said it was just a great class project and hopefully can maybe be the basis or inspiration for a future class project.

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