A true chocolate master can combine the world's greatest ingredients and induce a deep emotional response and euphoric feelings through the knowledge and magic of alchemy. Just like a painting or a song, no one chocolate will satisfy every single person's tastes and desire.
When it comes to chocolate it's important to understand a few basic things in order to know why you may or may not like a chocolate. As we grow and mature, our tastes often change. This is true for chocolate as well. Most of us seem to start off at an early age eating milk chocolate that's loaded with sugar and then gravitate as we get older (and wiser) towards darker chocolate with a higher cacao content.
By now, most people have heard that chocolate has many health benefits. Scientific studies are being released frequently which prove them, but what is it EXACTLY, that makes chocolate so good for you?
Here is a list of three things you must know in order to fully understand and enjoy chocolate.
1. Cocoa is different than cacao.
Cacao comes from a tree called Theobroma Cacao which is grown in tropical weather regions such as Ecuador, Indonesia and Africa.
Cocoa, which all of us think of when talking about chocolate, is actually cacao beans after they've been roasted/processed. Cocoa can be found in a powder, butter and liquid form but all of these have been roasted and/or processed which diminishes some of the inherent health benefits.
Cacao butter and powder are different from cocoa butter and powder because they have been cultivated and processed in a way that maintains the nutrients and antioxidants present in the beans. For example, the best type of cacao is sun dried and dehydrated (never heated above 110 degrees). Then the cacao is either cold pressed into cacao butter or slowly stone milled into a raw powder. Cacao nibs are simply cacao bean pieces that either broke off during the sun drying process or were crushed into pieces called nibs.
2. Not all chocolate is created equal.
Flavanols, which are responsible for many of chocolates health benefits, are often removed by manufacturers because they are also what causes chocolate to be overly bitter. So if flavanols are removed and cacao is roasted and processed into cocoa, is chocolate still good for you? The answer is yes.
A recent study done by US department of agriculture suggests in its findings that cocoa powder, even after being roasted and processed, was still the second highest concentration of antioxidants per 100 grams, second to ... raw cacao. Good news for the chocolate lovers who prefer their chocolate hard and roasted. But here's the key: It's crucial not to add garbage to gold. If you're eating chocolate loaded with processed sugar and fillers like soy lecithin, you're throwing out all the benefits you may have consumed.
To guarantee you get the most from your love of chocolate make sure it's always organic with as little processing as possible. Most companies who are organic will be happy to answer whether or not they remove flavanols in their process and talk about their chocolate process in general.
3. Origins matter.
In the midst of a recent discussion on possible chocolate droughts, it's necessary to know where chocolate is grown and who is predicting a drought. Cacao is grown across many different countries. The leading producer is Africa. It's estimated that roughly 70% of chocolate has origins in Africa. Specifically, one region in Africa called Ivory Coast. This region is by far the largest producers of metric tons of cacao and manufacturers like Nestlé, Mars, and other chocolate giants are heavily invested in the area.
This brings up a great point that not all cacao is the same. In fact, there are three distinct types of cacao grown: Forastero, Criollo and a hybrid of the two called Trinitario. Approximately 80% of chocolate is made using Forestero. This is because the Forestero tree produces more beans than Criollo trees resulting in a cheaper bean. The Criollo bean is widely considered as some of the finest in the world and is mostly grown in Central and South America.
So what do you do with this information? Well first off, the most significant factor when considering chocolate for health benefits is to identify the sweetener used. Many manufacturers use processed sugar and it can severely negate any health benefits from taking place. According to Dr. Mark Hyman it's not the fat in chocolate/food that makes you fat, it's the sugar. In fact, there's a fat found in dark chocolate called OEA. This special fat actually helps improve metabolism, reverses inflammation and can even curb your hunger.
Luckily, there are more and more companies choosing to use healthier forms of sweeteners rather than white sugar or corn syrup. Those sweeteners include evaporated cane sugar, coconut (palm) sugar, raw honey and even stevia. These are all lower glycemic sweeteners than processed sugar and some even have their own health benefits such as raw honey.
If you're a chocolate lover like myself, not eating chocolate is not an option, so choosing the lower glycemic chocolate with the cleanest and simplest ingredients is the best way to nourish your body and ensure you can eat chocolate as much as you like. When choosing chocolate purely for taste, I go for the heirloom cacao, usually originating from MesoAmerica. My favorite cacao is an heirloom Ecuadorian species of Criollo Arriba Nacional. Ecuador and Peru have some of the most desired cacao beans on the planet and once you taste them, you will know why.
Chocolate represents love! When you give someone chocolate, you are giving them love. When you eat chocolate, you are eating love. Choose wisely! Choose organic and fair trade. Choose chocolate/food that supports the farmers and gives back to the land. Get to know your food sources and your food will taste better and be more fulfilling!