What is chocolate? It is the result of fermenting, drying, roasting, and pressing the seeds from a large mango shaped fruit from the cacao plant. The fruit, commonly called pods are about as big as your hand and are tough skinned and colorful on the outside. The colors range from orange to green to yellow to brown. Inside, the flesh is white and fibrous, and tastes similar to a mild plum or lychee, with a subtle bittersweet aftertaste. In this blog I am going to use the words cacao and chocolate interchangeably.
The flesh decomposes very quickly so it is illegal to export unless it is frozen before shipping. I have only seen cacao fruit smoothies in one shop in San Francisco. The chocolatier named Dandelion Chocolates in the Mission district has a boutique and cafe that sells them.
Inside the pulp are dark purple seeds. These are the magic beans we are going to discover more about today. They turn darker after drying and roasting and begin to look dark brown or even black the longer they are roasted.
Cacao trees are naturally found in Central and South America. Nowadays they are cultivated all over the world in tropical and subtropical climates. Chocolate consumption has been around for a couple of thousand years, but adding sugar to the bitter cacao has only been done in the past 200 years.
The first person to come into contact with cacao and its importance in the culture of the Americas was Christopher Columbus. He and his crew saw the locals using the cacao beans as currency.
There are 3 types of cacao plants:
Forastero-most common plant found and accounts for greatest mass
Criollo-rarest with the most delicate aroma and flavor, more expensive
Trinitario-hybrid between the two
Originally the cacao beans were fermented, dried in the sun, and then ground on a flat surface or with a mortar and pestle. It was boiled with water or wine or both. It was consumed at hot, warm, and cold temperatures. It was extremely bitter. Sometimes it was seasoned with vanilla, pepper, or cinnamon. It was used as medicine. Those of you who know me know I love the saying by Hippocrates, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Chocolate was drunk for many reasons in the era when it was first believed to be consumed, about 500 A.D. Cacao was seen as an aphrodisiac, an immune builder, as a source of long lasting energy, and suppressed appetite, the last two items probably due to the high fat content.
When the Europeans first consumed the drinking chocolate in the 1500s and 1600s the documents reported it was too bitter and unpleasant for their palate and took some getting used to. Even when mixed with water or wine, it was an acquired taste, like medicine. Later on the Europeans added sugar and took out the wine and chili pepper. That's when chocolate drinking houses took off in popularity, rivaling tea and coffee houses.
In the 1800s the hydraulic press was invented. This made it possible to separate the cacao fat from the powder solids in the beans. That process made it easier to not have the fat float on top of the hot chocolate they were making. It also led to the creation of the first chocolate bar, because with the fat separated, it was much easier to blend the sugar evenly with the powder solids and then remix back in the fat later on. It also led to other powdered ingredients blending very well into the mixture, like powdered milk, thus leading to the world's first milk chocolate bar.
In the past 70 years the processed food industry has added a lot of unnecessary ingredients to our beloved chocolate. I personally believe this is due to the overflow of too much corn and soy farming in the United States, subsidized farming practices backed by our government, leading to innovative uses for the extra produce and their offshoots.These additives and preservatives give the chocolates a longer shelf life and a shiny, silky luster.
Most chocolates are sweeter than they were 70 years ago as well. Some chocolates have no real cane sugar in them at all, opting for high fructose corn syrup instead. There are some with added emulsifiers and thickeners. The most common added thickener and emulsifier used in chocolate production is soy lecithin.
Soy is a well known plant that is adding to the estrogen dominance in our hormonal system, society wide, creating an out of balance endocrine system. There is soy in plastics, plastic wraps, and every man made container holding our organic products. Soy is in our cereals, and every other processed and packaged foods. Soy is even in our cleaning products and in the fumes we inhale from air fresheners. Soy is in our personal care products.
Soy and corn are the largest crops known for using GMO practices in the USA. If women have too much estrogen in our body, called estrogen dominance, the other hormones go out of balance, which may lead to inflammation, weight gain, hot flashes as we get older and nearing menopause, and we may experience mood swings. In men, it may affect testosterone going down, leading to metabolism imbalances, weight gain, the dreaded man-boobs, and overall fatigue.
So the point here is to eat cacao products in the closest form that nature made it. Our bodies understand nature. Our bodies can more readily absorb the nutrients in food if they are close to their natural form. What is in the cacao that is good for us?
Let's start with the fat. Cacao fat is a saturated fat. Recently saturated fat has been let out of jail like eggs were about 10 years ago. New studies indicate that healthy sources of saturated fat satiates the appetite for a long period of time. It allows the food we eat alongside the fat to be absorbed slower so the glucose levels in the bloodstream remain stable for longer periods of time. This in turn gives us energy to go about our daily activities. Fat does not turn into fat like previously believed in the old dogma of 70 years ago, if it is the right kinds of fat.
Our brains are over 2/3 fat, so fat literally feeds our brain power. Chocolate has been found to help with focus and memory. Furthermore, the fat in chocolate coats the teeth and may actually prevent plaque from forming. It is the sugar in foods that cause cavities, not the fat. Like any other food with sugar, brush your teeth afterwards to thwart the plaque from forming. We can solve the sugar dilemma by using chocolate products without sugar and without chemical sweeteners. I like ones used with coconut dew crystals or xylitol made from the bark of the birch tree. Some products are made with stevia but personally I find that stevia has a metallic aftertaste. It is subjective, like wine, coffee, or beer varietals. We will sample some products today made with sugar and without and you tell me your impressions.
Chocolate contains polyphenols. Polyphenols are compounds in plants that are tannic, which means bitter or acidic in our observation during taste. The polyphenols compounds are good for the body because they are alkaline in nature even though the taste or smell may be acidic. Alkalinity in the body's systems has been linked to a lower inflammatory response to all foods and stressors overall, which is good for keeping joint aches and pains down as well. The polyphenols in chocolate are found in other plants too, but the highest source of polyphenols are in chocolate, coffee, black tea, and spices. The bitter aftertaste in high quality chocolate is your clue that it contains polyphenols.
Chocolate contains bioflavonoids. Bioflavonoids are components in plants known to be antioxidants. This means they provide oxygen to every cell in the body and rid the body of toxic byproducts when cells deteriorate. Where do we get the toxic products to put into our body in the first place? It is in our environment, the air, the chemicals we use to clean or the chemicals others are using to clean, the foods we choose to eat, and in the atmosphere as byproducts of modern living and societal choices. Antioxidants are also an anti-inflammatory. We want our system not to be inflamed because this puts our hormones in fight or flight mode all of the time as our body tries to heal. Bioflavonoids reduce the body of heart disease. We may find bioflavonoids in dark colored vegetables as well.
Chocolate has over 300 chemical components in it that, when combined, have the wonderful ability to release pleasure hormones in the brain. The pleasure hormones are oxytocin, dopamine, and seratonin. When these hormones go up the fight or flight hormone cortisol goes down, thus leading to a general mood elevation.
Keep in mind here that I'm talking about high quality chocolate. I encourage you to purchase fair trade, sustainable, organic chocolate. Fair trade means child slave labor was not practiced in the cultivating of the chocolate and a fair wage for community standards was paid consistently to the farmers and manufacturers.
Finally I want to share with you the facts about raw chocolate. Raw chocolate is prepared in small batches that are not allowed to heat above 118 degrees Fahrenheit in any step of the process, in the fermentation, the roasting, the grinding, pressing, separating of fat from powder, remixing, etc. It is a slower process, and costs more to produce, but the enzymes and antioxidant properties are at their highest when the consumer eats it. I personally taste the difference and feel different afterwards when eating raw chocolate.
Okay, so let's taste chocolate!
I want to hear from you!