Chocolate, enjoyed by so many around the world, presents significant logistics challenges for chocolate makers and logistics companies.
If chocolate gets too warm, it will soften, start to melt, and liquify. Chocolate starts to get soft at about 85F and starts to melt at about 93F.
The ideal temperature to store and transport chocolate is between 55F and 65F; the relative humidity should be below 50%. It is critical that these parameters are followed during the entire end-to-end supply chain and that the temperature is kept at a constant level. Too much temperature fluctuation can create changes in texture and taste. One common result is fat bloom; a process in which fat migrates to the surface, recrystallizes, and leaves a whitish coating. If chocolate comes into contact with moisture, for instance through condensation or high humidity, it can result in sugar bloom. The resulting small sugar crystals give the chocolate a dusty appearance. While “bloomed” chocolate is still safe to eat, it may have an unappetizing appearance and texture and a reduced shelf life.
Some chocolate makers freeze the chocolate for storage and transportation, which extends the shelf life. To avoid condensation and a negative impact on the quality and texture of the products, a slow and well-controlled thawing process must be followed.
With more and more consumers ordering chocolate online, logistics become an even bigger challenge. While many chocolate makers stop shipping chocolate during the warmer summer months, consumers don’t want to give up on their favorite treat.
In order that chocolate melts in your mouth instead of in a truck or in your hands, here are a few key considerations:
Transportation and storage
To transport chocolate on the road, refrigerated trucks must be used. These trucks are insulated against cold and warm air and are equipped with cooling equipment.
For sea freight, chocolate must be shipped in refrigerated containers, also called reefers. It is important that the reefer containers are always plugged in; not only on the vessel but also in ports and yards.
Proper air circulation in refrigerated trucks and containers guarantees a consistent temperature in all parts of the unit. The products can be palletized or loaded in bulk, but in both cases, solid block stowage is recommended, leaving no space between the cartons themselves or between the cartons and the container / truck walls.
What if you only want to transport a few pallets or boxes and don’t have enough volume for full truck or container loads? In sea freight there are only a few options and routes available to ship chocolate in less-than-container loads. There are more options available in trucking as smaller trucks can be used on some routes. It helps to work with a 3PL that specializes in transporting refrigerated food products since they have more options for consolidating different products.
There are refrigerated containers of various sizes available for air freight, but these are normally very expensive and given the value of chocolate, often not worth the cost. As an alternative, pallets can be wrapped with special insulated thermal covers. Shipping chocolate by air freight always involves risks for the quality of the products. The pallets can sit for hours on a tarmac and be exposed to direct sunlight and high temperatures. If air freight cannot be avoided, chocolate should be transported on direct flights only and not over a weekend.
The majority of refrigerated products are stored and shipped in a temperature range between 36F and 46F, which the industry refers to as a cold chain. Chocolate falls more into the cool chain range, at temperatures between 46F and 65F. Chocolate makers must be very specific about temperature requirements when talking to their logistics providers.
With an increasing demand in refrigerated storage facilities, new temperature controlled warehouses are being built across the country, often with various temperatures zones. Some warehouses might only have refrigerated rooms and the staging area is not temperature controlled. Chocolates need to stay in a temperature controlled area until the truck or container is ready to be loaded. The doors should be kept closed until the last possible moment to minimize any effect to the temperature inside the truck or container. To maintain a constant temperature, both the products and the trucks / containers need to be pre-cooled before the products are loaded into the units.
An additional consideration for transportation and storage is chocolate’s propensity to absorb foreign odors very easily. Therefore, it is important that chocolate is not stored and shipped together with products with strong odor.
Chocolate is a $22 Billion business in the US. While roughly 90% of chocolate is still being sold through brick and mortar stores, online shopping is gaining traction. Latest estimates suggest that online chocolate sales will grow by at least 15% annually in the next few years.
The increasing volume of chocolate bars and praline boxes ordered online every year creates a logistical headache for many chocolate makers. Consumers have become accustomed to free shipping, but costs for keeping chocolate cool during shipping can easily surpass the value of the chocolate itself.
Chocolate companies are experimenting with gel packs, dry ice, foam coolers, and other insulation materials to keep the chocolate cool and to maintain its quality. Even with all these packaging solutions, chocolate normally won’t last more than 3 days in transit. Good practices include shipping products overnight or with 2nd day delivery service. Weekends and national holidays should be avoided so that the packages don’t sit in the courier’s warehouses.
Educating consumers about what is involved in shipping and packing chocolates can help raise the understanding of why shipping cannot always be free.
Cool chain monitoring
Even with the best cool chain in place, there are always things that can go wrong, for example a power outage at the warehouse, breakdown of the refrigerated unit on the truck, or a delay of a courier shipment.
Monitoring and recording the temperature and humidity along the cool chain is instrumental in maintaining the quality of the chocolate. Just placing a thermometer in a warehouse or truck is not enough; by the time a deviation has been detected, it could be too late for the product. Standalone data loggers offer a cost-effective solution, but this is still only a reactive measure and doesn’t provide any remote alarm notifications.
Newest technology, like Internet of Things (IoT) devices, monitor temperature and humidity levels throughout the cool chain. Sensors are placed on pallets or in boxes and notifications are set-up to detect certain conditions. In case of a deviation of the set parameters, real-time alerts can be sent by text, email, or phone. This often allows the problem to be fixed before the temperature is getting too warm or too cold.
Temperature and humidity monitoring also helps in evaluating potential risks for product quality that are not visible right away. Fat bloom, for example, can appear two to three months after chocolate has been exposed to temperature fluctuations. If a temperature deviation has been detected once the products arrives in a warehouse, it can be put on quarantine hold and tested over the following weeks and months to ensure that the quality is still intact.
Considering these practices throughout all elements of the cool chain will ensure a greater likelihood that the chocolate arrives in perfect condition on the retailer’s shelf or on the customers doorstep.
About the Author
Rene Jacquat is the principal of LogiChain Solutions, LLC, based in San Francisco, United States. His experience includes operations, supply chain management and logistics in the consumer goods industry. Rene supports food & beverage companies in supply chain strategy, supply chain & distribution network design, supply chain diagnostics & risk management, sustainability and outsourcing logistics services.