The Sweet Truth About Temperature Controlled Shipping of Chocolate

Ah, chocolate. Two thousand years before Willie Wonka, it was the food of the gods. Chocolate today is no longer for deities and has transformed from an unsweetened cocoa drink made from ground beans to everyday foods and designer chocolate bars.

A lot has changed since the original cocoa plant became a domesticated delicacy for the wealthy few. Today chocolate manufacturing is a more than 4-billion-dollar industry in the United States alone, with the average American eating at least half a pound of the stuff per month[1].

Delivering chocolate to the everyday confectionary connoisseur is trickier than most people think. Temperature fluctuations in shipping can damage the product, requiring a cold chain shipping environment that can easily surpass the value of the chocolate itself. This challenge is particularly true in the summer months or in geographic regions where temperatures are warm year-round. Corporate profit margins are also under fire due to increases in raw materials (vanilla, cocoa, milk, etc.) and cost issues related to consumers ordering chocolate online who are accustomed to free shipping. Together these points result in either “tampering” with the quality of the chocolate or an increase in prices.

Why does chocolate melt in your hands?

While some chocolates are easier to ship than others, chocolates with higher concentrations of milk fats, cocoa butter, and other additives tend to melt faster.

Unless we are talking about M&Ms (which have a sugar and water coating) that protects the inner chocolate or chocolates that have been tampered with, the melting point of chocolate is lower than the temperature of the human body[2].

To put it into perspective, the melting point of chocolate is somewhere between 86°F and 90°F, which is significantly lower than the average temperature of the human body (98.6°F). The heat from your hand increases the temperature of the chocolate and causes it to melt. How fast it melts depends on several factors, including the amount of milk fat and other additives, such as lecithin, as well as the amount and composition of the cocoa butter. Chocolate solids tend to melt closer to body temperature (80’s+) while a ganache melts closer to room temperature (70’s).

Chocolate blooming - fluctuations or moisture during manufacturing, transit, or storage
Figure 1: Chocolate blooming – a challenge for chocolate temperature controlled shipping that happens when exposed to temperature fluctuations or moisture during manufacturing, transit, or storage.

Chocolates can have two main issues regarding shipping: melting and blooming (discoloration).

  • Melting is something we all have seen. It is simply what happens when the melting point of the chocolate is surpassed to a point and time that it loses its shape. Technically though, chocolate melts when its particles are energized and move faster due to a temperature change. When this occurs, it simply changes state from a solid to liquid, just like ice, plastic, or other substances.
  • Blooming is the grey/white coating that can appear on the surface of chocolate caused by either a change in the fat crystals (fat bloom) or crystals formed by the action of moisture on the sugar (sugar bloom). Both can damage the appearance of chocolate and affect its shelf life. While still safe to eat, it can hurt your sales and reputation.

How we address the issue comes down to a few key handling factors.

Shipping chocolate: Is there a better time? Is there a better method?

Naturally, the best time to ship something that can melt is in the weather. Delays the holidays may cause aside, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter are great times for shipping chocolate. However, since this is not always an option, most chocolate manufacturers use a temperature-controlled environment to produce, ship, and store their products. In addition to knowing the melting temperature of their products, the type of environment needed (packaging, refrigeration, handling, etc.) can be narrowed down to a few key points:

  • How long will the product be in transit? Plan on shipment delays if you are shipping during the holidays or if the weather might cause potential delays or freight rejections.
  • What will the temperature inside and outside of the vehicles be during transit? Check the temperature of your destination, making sure to include the temperature of any layover to the destination. Note that refrigerated vehicles may not always be available, especially if shipping to rural communities. Temperature controlled shipping vehicles can also be more expensive than a properly design cold chain packaging
  • Do you know the dimensions of the inner and outer box? Make sure there is enough space inside the packaging to fit the gel packs, but not so much room that the product is jostled or damaged. Too much empty space allows for air circulation, which can cause the gel packs to melt faster.
  • Can you strike a balance between packaging cost, shipping cost, and performance? Thermal testing in both a lab and real-world environment can help determine this balance and potentially save a lot of money by minimizing packaging material, lowering the package weight, and selecting the proper carrier method for the shipment.

Most manufacturers of chocolate use some sort of cold chain packaging to maintain temperature stability while in transit. Packaging materials usually include an outer corrugated box, a refrigerant (such as a gel pack), and an insulator (such as an EPS cooler). If you are shipping higher volume, a thermal packaging study is also advised to help keep your costs in line and assure quality upon arrival.

Additional tips for success

  • Take advantage of your relationship with your carrier. Some offer calculators to help evaluate shipping distances, time, and cost. Many, like UPS, offer personal consultations to align temperature requirements, transit times, and delivery times with your packaging.
  • Typically, chocolate doesn’t hold up beyond three days in transit, so choose overnight, or 2-day shipping is usually recommended. Weekends and holidays can slow down the shipment arrival. Shipping Mondays through Wednesdays can help avoid transit over the weekend. As well, note dry ice can only be shipped via ground shipping, so if your product can’t arrive in less than three days, don’t use dry ice.
  • Assure you are working within the ideal room conditions (when tempering, packaging, and setting). It is not just the temperature you need to watch for. Humidity is also a key factor. Install and regularly calibrate your sensors to assure you don’t have a problem before the product even leaves the facility.
  • Start the temperature controlled packaging with a cooled product. If chocolate begins a journey at a cool temperature, it requires less energy (e.g., fewer cold packs) to maintain.
  • Don’t ship to a PO Box or for arrival during off business hours. The faster the delivery can be retrieved and placed in a temperature-controlled area, the better it will look and taste.

A final food for thought

Shipping chocolate is a complicated task and one we take seriously. With decreasing profit margins and increasing costs to ship products, you need to ensure you have the best balance between temperature stability and cost. After all, there’s nothing better than knowing your customers were satisfied with their purchase because they received your chocolates in perfect condition. That’s why it is crucial to identify the factors that influence chocolate deliveries

TempAid can help you create this balance by testing and designing your packaging and helping you evaluate the best methods of delivery. Contact us today for more information.