IDIOTS GUIDE: Chocolate
I come from a family of chocolate enthusiasts. We treat ourselves to a gigantic box of Godiva truffles every winter, and one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever gotten my father was a shirt that read, “If you give me chocolate, I’ll be nicer” Also, regardless of what I bake, chocolate chips seem to find their way into the batter. The biggest crisis in the Sikowitz household is perhaps when our stack of one-pound Trader Joes dark chocolate bars is in danger of being depleted. This week, I set out to acquire at least a rudimentary understanding of this staple in my diet, and my search yielded some interesting information to which every chocolate lover should be privy:
Did you know that chocolate consumption has been associated with lowered blood pressure, weight loss, decreased stress, and reduced risk of heart attacks, stroke and diabetes? Does this sound too good to be true? It is, to a certain extent. Unfortunately, eating massive quantities of Snickers and Milkyways will not engender any of these positive effects. So how can one distinguish between chocolate that can augment health and that which cannot? An examination of chocolate manufacturing provides insight as to the origins of chocolate’s health benefits.
Chocolate is, at base, a product of the “Theombra Cacao” tree, whose name aptly means “food of the gods.” The tree bears brightly colored fruits called cacao pods. When ripe, the pods can be split open to reveal around 40 seeds surrounded by a white, fleshy substance called “baba.” These beans are the source of chocolate’s rich taste and variety of healthy properties. But in contrast to the sweet, pulpy baba that surrounds them, raw cacao beans are extremely bitter.
Transforming the almost inedible beans into delicious chocolate is no easy process. After being harvested from their pods, cacao beans are left to ferment for two to eight days. They then must dry completely and are subsequently shipped to chocolate manufacturers. At the manufacturing facilities, cacao beans are roasted and winnowed to remove the shells. The remaining interiors of the beans, known as the cacao “nibs,” are ground into a thick paste called “chocolate liquor.” (And no, the paste does not contain alcohol.) The liquor is sometimes pressed in order to separate the cocoa butter (the fatty component of cacao) from the remaining cocoa solid, which is ground to form cocoa powder. Unpressed liquor is blended with milk, sugar, and extra cocoa butter to form the chocolate we know and love.
The endless variety of chocolates available stems from the ratio of liquor to additives, and this also determines the type and “healthiness” of the end product. Unsurprisingly, the fewer the additives, the greater the health benefits.
“White chocolate” is arguably a misnomer, as this substance does not contain any cocoa solids. Instead, it is comprised solely of cocoa butter, sugar, milk, and flavorings. Accordingly, white chocolate cannot be attributed to health benefits.
Milk chocolate similarly does not maintain healthy properties, as it typically contains only 10-20% cocoa solids. The high ratio of solids to other components explains milk chocolate’s light brown color, sweet flavor and creamy texture.
Dark chocolates’ higher cocoa solid contents give them their dark brown color, slightly bitter flavor and more grainy texture. Sweet dark chocolate (Hershey’s Special Dark) contains 35-40% cocoa solids whereas semi-sweet dark chocolate (your standard baking chip) contains 40-62% cocoa solids.
Bittersweet dark chocolate contains 60-85% cocoa solids, and unsweetened chocolate contains almost 100% cocoa solids. Studies show that chocolate containing 70% or more cocoa solids have the greatest correlation to health benefits when enjoyed in small quantities.
So, next time you’re nibbling on some chocolate, take a minute to think about how much went into making so wonderful—and if it happens to be dark chocolate, you might also have one less reason to feel guilty.
For more information: