A long beloved refreshment for cacao plantation workers—albeit previously underused part of the cacao fruit—the nutritional powerhouse cacao pulp is making its way to US supermarket shelves in smoothie form.
It took Agro Innova 10 years to perfect its patent-pending process of gently extracting and processing the pulp from the cacao fruit to produce Suavva, the gluten-free cacao smoothie line that will likely hit store shelves later this year.
“Even though people out in the plantations have been consuming this part of the fruit for centuries, but it’s been largely unexploited because it’s hard to extract and not many people could really get to it—particularly away from the plantation—because it ripens very quickly,” Joseph Montgomery III, CEO of Florida-based Agro Innova and a seventh-generation cacao farmer, told FoodNavigator-USA. “Cacao fruit is funny in that it’s used in the complete opposite way of an apple. It has very thick skin, very big seeds and almost no pulp—hence why it hasn’t really been used. It took us a long time to figure out the process to extract the pulp in such a way that would maintain its quality and health properties.”
The health benefits of cacao fruit are no secret—the seeds (which are fermented to make chocolate) are rich in antioxidants and packed with flavanols and theobromine (a relative of caffeine), which may help lower cholesterol and reduce risk of heart disease.
Not a byproduct per se
Although the pulp is historically underutilized, Montgomery says he wouldn’t classify it as a byproduct, as a portion is kept on the seeds early in the chocolate production process to help them ferment.
“Once the seeds are fermented and dried, they’re sent on to be roasted and ground into cocoa,” he said. “So only a portion of the pulp is set aside. We had to figure out a way to remove enough of it to make it into a puree without taking too much to make the seeds unusable.”
It takes 25 cacao fruits (which themselves are about the size of a pineapple) to produce a quart of cacao juice.
Suavva initially launched a few years ago, made using the more traditional processing method of flash pasteurization, though some of antioxidants and intrinsic flavors of the fruit were lost; so the manufacturer switched to high-pressure processing (HPP), a post-packaging, cold temperature treatment for eradicating pathogens. It will launch its first HPP production run this month at its two facilities in Michigan and Wisconsin.
“It’s truly amazing how HPP enables the flavors to stand out and keeps the beverage true to the original flavor of the fruit and the other fruit purees we add,” Montgomery said. It also boasts a 60- to 90-day shelf life.
Sweet-tart like an orange, but with a mangosteen flavor
So what does cacao puree taste like? Montgomery says the “hard-to-describe” flavor is refreshing and naturally sweet and tart like orange juice, though it tastes more like a mangosteen or pear. The pureed pulp is combined with other pureed fruits and berries with a resulting texture that’s thicker than a juice—thus the smoothie descriptor. Suavva is available in four varieties: amazing cacao (sweetened with agave nectar), merry mango, blissful berry (with blueberries and raspberries) and chocolatey cheer (with cocoa powder). Each 10.5-oz. bottle contains between 130 and 200 calories.
“The sweetness in the product is from all-natural fruit sugars and agave nectar, and there are no added vitamins,” though the product is high in vitamin B6, magnesium, vitamin E and antioxidants, he said, claiming that the company had the antioxidant levels of the final product verified by a third-party lab to ensure “consistency and bioavailability”.
Agro Innova is aiming for eventual national distribution of Suavva across natural and mass market retail channels, and is partnering with a national broker. “We are looking to bring the product to as large a market as possible, but baby steps first,” Montgomery said.
Suavva will be priced similarly to HPP and other super premium fruit and vegetable juices, though Montgomery says the product doesn’t compare to anything else out there—likening it to the debut of acai or pomegranate juice on the market.
“People always have to get used to something new,” Montgomery said. “Most people who try acai or even coffee for the first time have to get accustomed to it. But unlike many of the other new beverages on the market, this is intrinsically very palatable.”
‘Unlike acai or even coffee, cacao puree is intrinsically palatable’
He added that its viscosity lends well to consumption throughout the day—for breakfast or “any time of day when you need a nice mood boost.”
The brand is eyeing shelf placement in the produce section of supermarkets and natural food stores. Indeed, recent data from market research firm Nielsen indicate that placement in the produce department is working out well for beverages. In the year to July 2014, the value jump for all produce section beverages—including smoothies, fresh juices, teas and water—was nearly 13%.
As consumers are increasingly demanding more from beverages—“it’s not just about a boost; they want health benefits,” Montgomery said—the timing is right for Suavva, given its unique positioning and nutritional profile.
“We think we can scale up pretty quickly as demand goes. We have access to a significant amount of cacao puree,” Montgomery said, adding that the company’s distribution ambitions extend beyond US borders. “Our tagline is ‘energizing happiness’, and we want to bring a little happiness to everybody around the world—not just the US. But obviously, that’s going to take time.”