Some Surprises About Chocolate

I just returned from a wonderful trip to Costa Rica where I visited a cacao farm.  As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), I know about the dark chocolate nutritional value.   But this farm tour opened my eyes to what I never thought about.

Prior to my Costa Rica trip, I had only been to a chocolate factory in the U.S. decades ago.  I remember cocoa, fat, and milk pouring into large vats and then mixed to the proper consistency.

My Costa Rican tour was a  bit different experience as this tour took us through a cacao farm where we saw the cacao tree bearing oval fruits or pods about 5-12 inches long containing many seeds known as the cacao beans.  (You may be thinking I misspelled the farm, tree and bean but it the world of chocolate making, the tree, pod and beans are referred to as “cacao” and the bean post-roasting is referred to as cocoa—my first learning)  Cacao pods are ripe when they are a vibrant yellow, orange, or purple color.  They hang from the trunk and the largest branches of the tree, very different from where we find apple, orange and peaches on trees (my second learning).   On the tour, the guide split open a cacoa pods that contained several seeds surrounded by white pulp.  I was able to suck on the pulp which had a sour taste, not at all resembling chocolate.   The beans were then cleaned and fermented for five to seven days.  After fermenting they were dried.  I sampled fermented and then dried cacoa beans.  They didn’t taste great and I gladly spit them out. 

Now that I’ve come home and read more about chocolate making, I understand that many farms export the fermented and dried beans to a chocolate maker.  But, on our tour,  the process of chocolate making continued.  After drying, the shells were separated from the meat of the beans called the “nibs.”  I tasted the nibs; they tasted more like chocolate but bitter.  The nibs were ground into a paste to form a chocolate liquor and then  30% pure cane sugar was added (from the sugar cane plant) followed by more rolling, kneading, heating, stirring and aeration until the mixture was smooth. Another tasting and now this 70% dark chocolate (pure cocoa meat mixed with 30% cane sugar) tasted wonderful! 

So here was my embarrassing moment and third learning.  The tour guide explained that white chocolate is not chocolate.  White chocolate is made from the cocoa butter, sugar and milk powder—but not cocoa solids.  At the point that chocolate liquor is formed, the chocolate liquor can be separated into cocoa solids, which provide the flavor, and cocoa butter, which is the fat. Though white chocolate contains extracted cocoa butter mixed with sugar and other flavors, it lacks the cocoa “cake” that defines real chocolate.  

So, what does it mean to buy a “pure” chocolate bar?   Ideally, look for dark chocolate made with as few ingredients as possible.  The cocoa bean contains 50% cocoa butter.  If the first ingredient states chocolate liquor or cocoa meat, it already contains the fat.  If the first ingredient is cocoa powder, cocoa butter should be the second ingredient.  Sugar is necessary to balance the natural bitterness of cocoa, and the percent chocolate on the package is based on the weight of sugar added.  Look for sugar (ideally cane sugar) as the second ingredient, or third ingredient after cocoa butter.  A 60-70% dark chocolate bar seems to be the happy place of losing the cocoa bitterness without losing the rich flavor. Pure chocolate would have no other ingredients except possibly a flavor such as vanilla, almond or sea salt.

So I’ll end this story by summarizing what I always knew about the benefits of this wholesome chocolate. Each ounce of chocolate contains about 160 calories,  3 grams of fiber, and 2 grams of protein.  It contains minerals such as magnesium, copper, iron and manganese.  It contains both monounsaturated and saturated fats.  Chocolate is rich in flavonoids, known for cardiovascular benefits and contains phenylethylamine, theobromine, tryptophan, and anandamide,  all thought to be helpful with mood. 

This chocolate from the farm I visited fits into the category of natural, wholesome, and organic, perfect for including (in moderation as with everything else) as a regular part of our diet.  As long as you are not allergic or have been told to avoid, eat this wholesome chocolate!  Spread the word.