Do You Know Where Your Chocolate Comes From?

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Chocolate is made out of cacao beans harvested from the cacao tree
  • The beans are fermented, dried and winnowed (shells removed); at this point the beans are called cacao nibs
  • The cacao nibs are put into an oil press to extract cocoa butter, which is ground, typically along with sugar, for eight hours, then tempered and molded into the more familiar “chocolate”

By Dr. Mercola

Have you ever wondered where chocolate comes from? The video above shows just how many steps go into making a chocolate bar, at least in this particular region in Mexico — from harvesting the cacao pods to tempering the chocolate and molding the final product.

The cacao beans have a fruity taste, according to the video, which is likely due to the cacao pulp (the cacao pod is a fruit and, like most fruits, the pulp is what's sweet, not the seeds). The beans must be fermented for up to a week before they take on the more familiar chocolate flavor.

They're then sun dried for four days (and rotated often), roasted and winnowed, which means they have their outer skin or shell removed. At this point only the cacao nibs (which are an antioxidant-rich superfood) remain.

The cacao nibs are then put into an oil press to extract cocoa butter, which is ground, typically along with sugar, for eight hours, then tempered and molded.

What's the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?

Cacao refers to the plant, a small evergreen tree of the species Theobroma cacao, which is cultivated for its seeds, also known as cacao beans or cocoa beans. The term "chocolate" refers to the solid food or candy made from a preparation of cacao seeds (typically roasted).

If the cacao seeds are not roasted, then you have "raw chocolate," which is also typically sweetened. Cocoa, on the other hand, refers to the powder made from roasted, husked and ground cacao seeds, from which most of the fat has been removed.

There Are Different Methods of Chocolate Production

Chocolate production in different regions may vary somewhat from the video above, although the basic steps remain mostly the same. For instance, while all cacao beans are dried, some are sun dried and some are artificially dried. 1

" … yeasts grow on the pulp surrounding the beans. Insects, such as the Drosophila melanogaster or vinegar-fly, are probably responsible for the transfer of micro-organisms to the heaps of beans. The yeasts convert the sugars in the pulp surrounding the beans to ethanol.

Bacteria then start to oxidize the ethanol to acetic acid and then to carbon dioxide and water, producing more heat and raising the temperature. The pulp starts to break down and drain away during the second day."

The fermentation process actually kills the cacao beans around the second day. The death of the bean causes chemical changes (including enzyme activity, oxidation and breakdown of proteins into amino acids) that lead to the development of the chocolate flavor and color.2

A 14-Step Process to Transform Cocoa Beans Into Chocolate

After harvesting and the post-harvesting steps of fermentation and drying, ICCO describes a 14-step process for transforming cocoa beans into chocolate:3

Step 1. The cocoa beans are cleaned to remove all extraneous material.

Step 2. To bring out the chocolate flavor and color, the beans are roasted.

The temperature, time and degree of moisture involved in roasting depend on the type of beans used and the sort of chocolate or product required from the process.

Step 3. A winnowing machine is used to remove the shells from the beans to leave just the cocoa nibs.

Step 4. The cocoa nibs undergo alkalization, usually with potassium carbonate, to develop the flavor and color.

Step 5. The nibs are then milled to create cocoa liquor (cocoa particles suspended in cocoa butter).

The temperature and degree of milling varies according to the type of nib used and the product required.

Step 6. Manufacturers generally use more than one type of bean in their products and therefore the different beans have to be blended together to the required formula.

Step 7. The cocoa liquor is pressed to extract the cocoa butter, leaving a solid mass called cocoa presscake.

The amount of butter extracted from the liquor is controlled by the manufacturer to produce presscake with different proportions of fat.

Step 8. The processing now takes two different directions. The cocoa butter is used in the manufacture of chocolate.

The cocoa presscake is broken into small pieces to form kibbled presscake, which is then pulverized to form cocoa powder.

Step 9. Cocoa liquor is used to produce chocolate through the addition of cocoa butter.

Other ingredients such as sugar, milk, emulsifying agents and cocoa butter equivalents are also added and mixed.

The proportions of the different ingredients depend on the type of chocolate being made.

Step 10. The mixture then undergoes a refining process by travelling through a series of rollers until a smooth paste is formed.

Refining improves the texture of the chocolate.

Step 11. The next process, conching, further develops flavor and texture. Conching is a kneading or smoothing process.

The speed, duration and temperature of the kneading affect the flavor.

An alternative to conching is an emulsifying process using a machine that works like an egg beater.

Step 12. The mixture is then tempered or passed through a heating, cooling and reheating process.

This prevents discoloration and fat bloom in the product by preventing certain crystalline formations of cocoa butter developing.

Step 13. The mixture is then put into molds or used for enrobing fillings and cooled in a cooling chamber.

Step 14. The chocolate is then packaged for distribution to retail outlets.
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Chocolate Compounds Boost Heart Health

A seven-study meta-analysis sought to find a link between chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Along with those disorders are related problems like hypertension, elevated fasting glucose and triglycerides, and high cholesterol, abdominal obesity.4 But rather than negative effects, scientists found that chocolate — specifically the dark unprocessed raw cacao kinds — actually reduced the risk of such disorders.

The highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with a 37 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29 percent reduction in stroke compared with the lowest levels. Other research has also shown that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds in chocolate may lower your risk of heart attack and stroke considerably.

Small amounts of dark chocolate may cut your risk of heart attack because, like aspirin, chocolate has a biochemical effect that reduces the clumping of platelets, which cause blood to clot.5

Platelet clumping can be fatal if a clot forms and blocks a blood vessel, causing a heart attack.

Specially formulated raw cocoa powder has the potential to prevent cardiovascular disease in diabetics. When diabetic patients were given a special high-flavonol cocoa drink for one month it brought their blood vessel function from severely impaired to normal.

The improvement was as large as has been observed with exercise and many common diabetic medications.6

Researchers discovered that a compound in dark chocolate, called epicatechin (a flavonoid), may protect your brain after a stroke by increasing cellular signals that shield nerve cells from damage.7

Antioxidant Polyphenols in Chocolate

Antioxidant polyphenols in chocolate are so valuable because they have the ability to stop free-radical-mediated oxidation, thereby directly interfering with one of the major preventable causes of chronic degenerative diseases. Chocolate also contains other potent plant chemicals, including anandamide, named after the Sanscrit word for "bliss," which is a neurotransmitter in the brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and anxiety.

The caffeine and theobromine in chocolate have been shown to produce higher levels of physical energy and mental alertness, and there are likely many more healthy chocolate compounds that have yet to be discovered. As noted by ICCO:8

"Laboratory and human studies have indicated that cocoa flavonoids can inhibit the oxidation of the low-density lipoprotein (LDL-cholesterol) associated with heart disease. There is also emerging evidence … [that] suggests … cocoa and chocolate may … contribute to reducing the risk of certain types of cancer. This beneficial property originates from some of the other phytochemicals in cocoa."

What's the Healthiest Type of Chocolate?

The closer your cocoa is to its natural raw state, the higher its nutritional value. If you're after health benefits, raw cacao nibs are what you're looking for. Cacao refers to the plant, a small evergreen tree of the species Theobroma cacao, and its dried seeds, also known as cacao beans or cocoa beans, prior to processing.

Ideally, buy them whole and grind them yourself (a coffee grinder can be used for this) when using in recipes. Alternatively, you can eat them whole, just like you'd eat conventional chocolate chips. A healthy amount would probably be around one-half to 1 ounce per day. I personally grind 1 tablespoon of raw cacao nibs twice a day and put them into my smoothies.

When selecting chocolate, look for higher cacao and lower sugar content. In general, the darker the chocolate, the higher the cacao content. However, since cacao is bitter, the higher the percentage cacao, the more bitter it is (the polyphenols are what make the chocolate bitter, so manufacturers often remove them. But, it's those polyphenols that are responsible for many of chocolate's health benefits).

To counteract the bitterness, most chocolate is sweetened, so it's a matter of balancing nutritional benefit with palatability. For health benefits, choose chocolate with a cacao percentage of about 70 or higher. Milk chocolate is not a good choice as it contains both pasteurized milk and large quantities of sugar, which will significantly dampen its health benefits. White chocolate which isn't true chocolate anyway, because it doesn't contain any cocoa powder or chocolate solids - is also high in sugar and contains none of the phytonutrients, so is not a good choice either.

Due to the potential for lead and cadmium contamination, I suggest also contacting your chocolate's manufacturer to find out whether their products are regularly tested for such contaminants.