Chocolate is the most coveted and vilified ingredient around: It’s our best friend after a rough day, but it also gets the blame for our detox diet. Then there are the hundreds of articles published about chocolate’s health benefits every year. But many of them are based on short studies of small groups of people, which aren’t exactly reliable. So which version of chocolate should we believe? Is it friend or foe?
First, let’s get a couple of definitions and misconceptions out of the way. I get into this way more in my book, Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution, but Cacao generally refers to the pod and the fresh beans, before they are fermented and dried. From that point on, it’s referred to as cocoa. I suspect that the word cocoa has developed a bad reputation because it often connotes alkalized cocoa powder (that is, a very processed food, one that gives Oreos their distinctive black color). So health food companies have started using cacao, even though it’s not technically accurate.
You’re probably thinking, So what about raw cacao? You wouldn’t be alone. The raw cacao and raw chocolate movement is alive and well in this country, with so many gorgeous Instagram photos that I’m constantly craving chocolate. The only problem? Most of that stuff isn’t raw. It’s tricky if not near impossible to keep cocoa beans below 118°F (48°C) during the fermentation and drying process; meanwhile, roasting is out, and grinding and refining must be done very carefully. About raw chocolate, Ryan Cheney of Raaka Chocolate, a bean-to-bar maker that focuses on unroasted chocolate, said it best: "It’s B.S."
Translation: The only time you should pair the word raw with cacao or chocolate is if you are eating beans straight out of a pod on a farm. Otherwise we’re talking about cocoa.
Cocoa beans themselves contain more antioxidants (in the form of polyphenols and flavanols) than red wine, tea, and many berries. Cocoa has the potential to, among other things, lower blood pressure, increase muscle function, improve metabolic function, improve cognition, and help guard against memory loss, and its anti-inflammatory effects are off the charts. That’s exciting stuff!