It has centuries-long use as currency, medicine, and more recently, a recreational drug. Chocolate is a BIG and fascinating topic. It's no wonder there are more than 50,000 books about chocolate for purchase on Amazon. It's a bit overwhelming, actually, which is why we felt compelled to create this complete guide to chocolate. We extracted the most pertinent information from the most reliable sources and added our own little twist--namely, our personal experience with chocolate.
One key thing we've learned about chocolate throughout the years of falling in love with it over and over again is that one should never be more than about 20 steps away from the stuff. We've also learned that one's lifelong affair with chocolate is a bit like that favorite pair of jeans. They're your go-to, the ones you'd prefer to wear all the time, much like the "I'm an 85% dark chocolate junkie," and there are ones that keep variety alive––"but sometimes I dig white chocolate with dried cranberries."
Consider this a miniature compendium. This shareable resource contains information about the cacao bean--chocolate's origin--different types of chocolate for eating and baking with, and health and nutritional information. If you want to take in the full experience, read this guide from start to finish. If you're strapped for time, use the links in the following table of contents to skip to any section of interest.
The cacao bean is one of nature's most generous gifts. Cacao trees flourish in the tropical regions of Central and South America, West Africa, and SouthEast Asia. The plant has two edible parts, the seeds or beans, and the fruit. Its fruit is gaining popularity, and is often sold as a freeze-dried pulp for use in beverages, such as the suco de cacau in Brazil. Indeed, the fruit's taste is described as fresh and fruity, similar to a lychee, and it holds a great deal of nutrients too. But the seed is what holds our attention––and taste buds––hostage. The cacao seed can become many a wondrous thing: heavenly molten inside a lava cake, a square, slender nibble with a glass of wine, or a rich, hot fireside beverage topped with floating marshmallows.
The seed is chocolate's origin, but it must go through a process to become the chocolate we know and love. Fermented, ground into a paste, sweetened, and often flavored, the cacao seed has given us the gift of decadence for centuries. It's been hailed as a superfood more recently for its high antioxidant and mineral content, primarily iron, calcium, and magnesium. It's also rich in flavonoids, which help reduce inflammation and manage blood pressure (1). Similar to coffee, cacao elevates mood and boosts energy.
There are three types of cacao beans:
Criollo, regarded as the premium bean, is indigenous to the Caribbean and Central America, accounting for less than 2% of the world's cacao supply.
Forastero comes from Africa, and is the most common bean, making up over 90% of chocolate around the world.
Trinitario, comprising about 5% of the world's chocolate, is a hybrid of criollo and forastero.
The ASEAN Post, however, reports that Indonesia and Malaysia are the world's top cacao bean producers, and Indonesia is only second to Ghana and the Ivory Coast in Africa for cacao bean export (2).
But the question of primary interest is not what the cacao bean is necessarily, but what the cacao bean can become.
Cacao becomes chocolate through a long and seemingly arduous process that requires various steps: harvesting, fermentation, drying and shipping, roasting, blending, grinding, mixing, refining, and lastly conching. While most of these terms are fairly self-explanatory, conching requires our attention.
Conching is a process whereby the cacao bean truly becomes chocolate in its own right. It's arguably the most crucial stage of chocolate making. It requires intense mixing, agitating, and aerating for several days to eliminate unwanted flavors and bitterness. The final stage of tempering is what gives chocolate its undeniably attractive stage face. Tempering gives chocolate a shelf life, a smooth, glossy, mahogany appearance, and that melt-in-your-mouth-not-in-your-hand quality that we all know and love––not that it ever stays long enough in our hands to test that theory!
Content-wise, there's not a huge difference between cacao powder and its cousin Nib. Structurally though, there are obvious distinctions. Cacao powder is the product of ground, usually fermented cacao beans with the high-fat cocoa butter component removed. Fermentation, which usually takes up to a week, reduces the bean's natural bitterness, thereby enhancing the chocolatey flavor, making it more palatable. The resulting fine, dissolvable powder can be used to make various chocolate based dishes and drinks, like the favored hot cocoa (don't forget the marshmallows!).
Cacao nibs, however, aren't ground, but small chopped versions of the raw, unprocessed bean. They retain their fatty oil and butter content with the fiber residue and make a delicious, unsweetened, slightly bitter stand-in for commercial chocolate chips.
Besides the obvious difference in vowel placement, cacao and cocoa are different. They come from the cacao bean, but they are quite distinct. Cocoa powders are ground under extreme heat, up to 300°F, which degrades the nutrient profile and associated health benefits.
In contrast, cacao powder is raw, meaning it goes through a cold-pressed, unroasted process at a low enough temperature to preserve its living enzymes and nutritional benefits. Raw cacao then is very much alive as a renowned superfood (see our resources section to read about a chocolate diet). Use it in place of heat-processed cocoa powder to amplify all its nutritional components.
And it's more than just something that tickles our taste buds! Cacao powder can become natural beauty products too, such as body butter, bronzer, and moisturizing cream.
If you're not influenced by fancy packaging and uninformed labels when selecting a chocolate bar, then you're probably more interested in the ingredients. Chocolate labelled "dark" doesn't always include a specific amount of cocoa or cacao. This variety of chocolate is usually less than 65% cacao and may contain milk. Popular brands like Lindt Intense Mint Dark, Cadbury Royal Dark, and Hershey's Special Dark are some examples. Flavored dark chocolate varieties, such as orange and mint, are also a bit sweeter and carry a more pronounced flavor. Fruit and nut bars may contain more than 65% cacao because those added ingredients offset cacao's bitter quality.
Like wine, cacao tastes distinct depending on where it was the grown, environmental conditions, and fermentation. There is a broad spectrum of flavors here, and single origin chocolate, meaning beans that come from one plantation, spotlights the variation by positioning locally-grown cacao as the central, defining ingredient. The inherent flavor of a chocolate bar is most pronounced between 65% and 75%, with cane sugar making up the difference. The sugar masks the bitterness of cacao, opening up the taste buds to a more delectable flavor than cacao offers on its own.
The most intense and bitter chocolates are 75% cacao and more. The real chocolate lovers reach for the very dark stuff because they're true aficionados of the intensity and bitterness of cacao––an appreciation that rivals those of cheese and wine lovers the world over. They may also prefer a lower sugar content than its medium, milk, or white chocolate counterparts.
Milk Chocolate (38 – 42 % cocoa solids)
Whether it's your indulgent little secret or an identity statement, milk chocolate lovers dig a mild chocolatey flavor with a good dose of sweetness. That's why milk chocolate is considered the eating chocolate––it simply does not require any offset because the sweetness is factored right in. It has more sugar than other types with just under half its content owing to cacao solids. Some milk chocolates, however, contain only 10% cacao solids.
Semisweet Chocolate (52 – 62 % cacao solids)
Meet the chocolate chip. A darker, more intense chocolate flavor features in semisweet chocolate, the common baking chocolate in most kitchens. It has a good balance of sweetness and bitter cacao, and it's slightly creamy, so it melts easily and works well with other flavours. And it's versatile enough for most recipes that call for chocolate. Semisweet baking chocolate usually includes vanilla flavor and an emulsifier.
Bittersweet Chocolate (63 – 72 % cacao solids)
If you're looking for a chocolate that's slightly more bitter than sweet, bittersweet is your answer. It isn't as easy to work with as its semisweet or milk chocolate cousins, though, because it has a higher percentage of cacao solids.
Unsweetened Chocolate (100% cacao solids)
This is your standard baking chocolate, and you probably won't enjoy the taste if you eat like you would a chocolate bar! It's 100% cacao and cacao butter, and most recipes that call for it include a good dose of sugar. Keep in mind that reducing the sugar content in such recipes and replacing unsweetened chocolate with semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate won't have the same result. There's a delicate chemistry at work here, so avoid substitutions if you can.
There are two types of people in the world: those who refuse to label white chocolate as chocolate and those who love the stuff and advocate for its inclusion under the umbrella of what we consider chocolate. (Some chocolate snobs also contend that "chocolate bars" are merely "candy bars" because they don't contain a high enough cacao content).
Technically, white chocolate isn't chocolate because it doesn't contain cacao solids, which is why it's so much lighter in color. Instead, it's made with cacao butter, sugar, milk solids or powder, and vanilla. When you're searching for a good-quality white chocolate, ensure it contains real cacao butter rather than imitation fat.
Dutch process is a type of cacao powder that is treated with an alkalizing agent. This process modifies its color and neutralizes its inherent acidic quality, resulting in a milder taste compared to unprocessed versions. Any recipe that calls for Dutch process cacao powder also requires baking powder because the removal of acids prevents it from reacting with an alkaline leavener like baking soda.
Before we get into the impressive list of chocolate health benefits, let's clear up any confusion you may have about what is considered chocolate from a nutrition perspective. Anything other than dark chocolate usually contains a great deal of sugar, milk solids, and other additives, and therefore, does not offer the same benefits as dark chocolate.
Dig into your next dark chocolate bar with the comfort of knowing you're doing your heart a great service, and you can tell your friends and family that too! Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, an antioxidant that helps lower LDL, the "bad" cholesterol, and raise HDL, the "good" cholesterol in blood levels. They also reduce the formation of arterial plaque, help prevent hypertension, and inhibit the formation of blood clots (3).
Cacao is also the highest natural source of magnesium, which supports joint and muscle health, alleviates premenstrual tension, and protects against high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. The cacao butter found in high-quality dark chocolate also contains a monounsaturated healthy fat called oleic acid, which is also present in olive oil.
Dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao contains essential minerals and trace elements required for proper functioning. A 100-gram bar contains 11 grams of fiber and nearly the entire recommended daily intake (RDI) of manganese and copper, and 67% of the RDI of iron.
Chocolate generally keeps for up to a year, no matter what type of chocolate you're storing. Seal it in a plastic bag or closed container in a cupboard, away from heat and light. It's wise to store it separately from other foods as its porous nature absorbs other flavors. Ensure the inside temperature of your storage space is no more than around 65°F and 50% humidity.
Don't Be More Than 20 Steps Away From Chocolate
That's our health tip for the month. Not only does chocolate have heart-healthy benefits, but it also increases serotonin levels, which means chocolate makes you happy. Why wouldn't you infuse chocolate into your daily diet?
And it's not just for dessert. Raw, unprocessed cacao powder is a delicious addition to your morning smoothie. Combine banana, almond milk, protein powder, frozen fruit, cinnamon, and raw cacao for a breakfast shake that will inspire an early and energized start to each day.
We hope you enjoyed this free guide from Priority Chef. If you have questions, comments, or other feedback, please feel free to contact us, or sign up for our monthly newsletter.
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ASEAN's Cocoa Bean Production Under Threat. Published Sept 17, 2019, in The Asian Post.