Chocolate and Valentine’s Day are basically inextricable—but chocolate is one of my favorite sweet treats almost anytime of the year, not just in February. I especially like the dark, dark chocolate that is not very sweet at all—in fact the more bitter, the better! This version is healthier since it is less adulterated than so many other options out there, with fewer unhealthy ingredients, and without the milk products to which many people are intolerant. In the last 10 years the varieties of chocolate have expanded exponentially—considering all the dark and milk selections available, and the options for different additions of fruit, nuts, and seeds, etc. These days it can be a little overwhelming to choose a chocolate confection, with so many options and numerous new ones constantly appearing. Consumers scan not only for ingredients but for percentages of cacao content, and also often look to see which are Fair Trade, sustainably grown, or organic.
Chocolate is derived from the beans of the cacao tree—also called the cocoa tree—which is native to the tropical areas of Central and South America. It thrives best within 20 degrees of either side of the equator. The scientific name for this tree is Theobroma cacao—theobroma meaning “food of the deities”—and it is an understory evergreen tree that grows about 13 to 26 feet tall. The fruit of
this tree is referred to as a cacao pod. When ripe, the pods weigh about a pound, and are about 6 to 12 inches long and 3 to 4 inches wide. Cacao pods are harvested from the tree using machetes. The pod is then cut open so the beans can be extracted along with the delicious pulp around each bean. The beans are shelled, dried, and then fermented in bins for about 7 days. At this time they are ground up into cacao nibs. The nibs are then ground until a liquid is produced—this is known as chocolate liquor, pure chocolate in liquid form. Further processing of the chocolate liquor can result in cocoa butter, cocoa solids, and cocoa powder. Last but not least the liquor is then blended with sugar, milk powder, and flavorings such as vanilla, to produce chocolate of various types. As you can imagine the production of chocolate takes a lot of hard labor and the final product tastes much different than the original, bitter fermented beans! If you want to try the unprocessed form of chocolate, cacao nibs are sold in the Bulk Department of the Co-op. They are crunchy, bitter, and do not melt in your mouth. They can be added to a snack mixture with nuts, seeds, or dried fruit, or added as a topping to baked goods that may already have cocoa or chocolate as an ingredient.
The Aztecs and the Mayans first became knowledgeable of the cacao tree and chocolate’s health potential when they ground the bitter beans into a brew that they drank, what they referred to as “bitter tea” or xocolatl. Cacao beans were used for the treatment of heart conditions, depression, and other health problems. Chocolate, primarily the dark variety, contains a high level of flavonoid antioxidants. Current research indicates that these antioxidants have some positive impact, especially in regard to cardiovascular health and the brain. It has been shown to lower blood pressure and to improve the function of the cells lining the heart and blood vessels. The flavonoids in dark chocolate have been shown to accumulate in the areas of the brain that are involved in learning and memory. It should be stressed again that these health attributes apply to the consumption of dark chocolate varieties and not the sweeter or milk chocolate varieties or chocolate products that contain a lot of other ingredients like large amounts of cream, butter, or sugar, for example. Chocolate is best eaten in moderation—a portion of a couple ounces or less. The benefits are outweighed if larger amounts are consumed. Chocolate does contain caffeine and theobromine, and for some people too much chocolate causes anxiety, heartburn, and abnormal heart rhythm, so beware if you are sensitive to these substances. (Theobromine is also what makes chocolate toxic for dogs and cats.) It is easy to overindulge in this delicious treat and it should be recognized as such! Of course to be fully enjoyed it should be consumed slowly and mindfully—savoring the taste and texture, and with appreciation for all the hard work that goes into making chocolate from this precious tropical tree!
When shopping for chocolate, buy chocolate that has a 70-percent or higher cocoa content to get the most nutrition punch for your dollar. Choose varieties that have the Fair Trade logo or are organic. The Fair Trade seal on the label ensures that the people working in this industry are making a fair wage for their hard labor, and the organic seal means that it is produced without harmful chemicals and pesticides.
One of my favorite ways to consume chocolate—other than by breaking off small pieces at a time—is to melt it and dip assorted pieces of cut fruit such as bananas, strawberries, oranges, clementines, or mango. Allow the fruit to chill once they have been dipped into the chocolate, then serve on a platter. This is a perfect combination of delicious, nutritious fruit with a hint of added sweetness.
By Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist