Health Benefits of Chocolate
The health benefits of chocolate are not in dispute and they are similar to red wine. Flavonoids, flavonols and other anti-oxidants have a protective effect when it comes to cancer and some of the fats in chocolate, oleic acid for one, have heart protective benefits. (Oleic acid makes up about half of the fat in chocolate and it is a monounsaturated fat, or a “good” fat.) Keep in mind, though, we are talking about the fat in the cacao bean, not the added fat when the chocolate is manufactured into candy bars.
Some of these protective compounds are lost through processing necessary to remove the bitter taste of natural, raw chocolate. To get the most benefit you should use un-Dutched chocolate or raw cacao nibs . . . but these have been processed a bit, too.
How is Chocolate Made
There are three types of cacao trees and it takes each three to ten years to produce a usable crop of cacao beans. The flowers are exquisitely delicate, lasting only a few hours, and require hand pollination. After the beans are harvested from the pod they are fermented, sunned, graded and then roasted.
Either before or after roasting the beans are Dutched (named for a Dutch chocolatier, van Houten). The dutching reduces the acidity of the beans and this is one of the processes reducing the flavonols. The beans are then husked, leaving the nibs, and pressed into chocolate liqueur.
The chocolate liqueur doesn’t contain any alcohol but is instead the fat – cocoa butter, and what we know as cocoa powder but in the industry is called cocoa mass. The rest of the processing is in refining the smoothness and taste of the chocolate.
The cocoa mass and cocoa butter are recombined along with sugar, vanilla and lecithin in varying ratios to make dark chocolate. Milk chocolate adds milk solids and white chocolate contains no actual cocoa mass but contains cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, lecithin and milk solids.
Conching and tempering are next. Conching is a constant stirring that can last from a few hours to 7 days and improves the smoothness and flavor. The higher quality chocolates are conched longer. If you look at a low quality bar of chocolate, after breaking it in half, you can observe the grain. The grainier the chocolate, the lower the quality.
Tempering is the heating, cooling and reheating of the chocolate to help stabilize the cocoa butter crystals. Have you ever opened a bar of chocolate and noticed a white substance all over the chocolate? That is cocoa butter that has not been properly tempered and is called a fat bloom.
How to Actually Select High Quality Chocolate and Why You Should
The health benefits of chocolate are lost if you aren’t eating real chocolate. Lower quality chocolates cut corners not only on processing time, which renders a poor taste and product, but also with ingredients.
Remember the cocoa butter fats that had oleic acid? Reading the ingredients of low quality chocolates reveals an absence of cocoa butter and substitution with lower quality fats instead. Not only does this introduce unhealthy fats, it also destroys the taste quality.
Sugar is going to be in chocolate, but if you are trying to watch your sugar intake, as we all should, look at the percentage of cocoa mass and cocoa butter in the chocolate product. Select chocolates with 70% or greater cacao to avoid overloading on sugar but if you don’t like the way it tastes, select a different kind of chocolate and try again. Pascha is one of my favorites and it happens to be soy free.
Taste Chocolate to Select Your Favorite
There is a formal procedure for tasting chocolate and it might be fun to select a few pieces for the mother’s in your life and taste the chocolate with them!
1. Observe the appearance of the chocolate: the color should be deep, even and smooth with a slight sheen.
2. Smell the chocolate: it shouldn’t be too sweet but might have light vanilla flavor.
3. Listen: break the chocolate and listen for a snap for dark chocolate and a pop for milk chocolate.
4. Have sparkling water and bread ready for the tasting portion.
5. Place a piece on your tongue and rub it on the roof of your mouth, allowing the chocolate to coat your mouth. The flavor will change.
6. Take a bite of bread and a few sips of sparkling water between types of chocolate.
7. Note your favorite!
Take the time to read labels and select the best chocolate you have available to you, but the bottom line is the best chocolate is the one you like! Bon apetit!