From Bean to Bar

In This Article

All About Chocolate

It’s hard to say “no” to chocolate when the research is so compelling. There are so many studies touting the health benefits of dark chocolate and cacao. (1) Cacao comes from the species of theobroma, or “food of the gods,” and has been consumed as far back as 1000 BCE. (1)

Cacao and dark chocolate over 70% cacao, along with coffee and tea, are loaded with over 300 powerful chemicals and antioxidants that deliver numerous health benefits. However, only a few of these constituents have been fully studied. (1) Most of the therapeutic benefits science has found so far are attributed to antioxidant activity.

Currently, there is much debate over which is better: raw or roasted cacao. While there seems to be some evidence supporting both versions of cacao, let’s explore further. The health benefits of dark chocolate seem to be directly linked to preserving its natural constituents. Does raw chocolate answer that call? The problem is that for hundreds of years, chocolatiers were developing techniques to make chocolate taste better with little knowledge of its potential health benefits in its less processed forms.

From Bean to Bar

With many raw chocolate products hitting the shelves, let’s investigate whether these raw bars are actually delivering a more potent effect.

Let’s evaluate the science comparing the health benefits of raw versus roasted cacao as we go step-by-step through the process of making chocolate, from bean to bar.

chocolate green cacao fruit

Harvest and Fermentation

Cacao pods are harvested by hand twice a year and split open with a machete. The cacao beans are surrounded by a sweet pulp which was traditionally eaten. It is unclear when the bean was initially ingested, as it is extremely bitter and instinctive to spit out. (6) Without some processing, it is hard to imagine it being a sought-after food.

The beans are scooped out of the pod, separated from the pulp, and put in a box or on a big banana leaf. Back at the ranch, the beans are put in a big box where the sweet pulp begins to naturally ferment the beans. This stops the beans from germinating and starts the process of the beans’ journey towards becoming chocolate. The fermentation process is also said to improve the flavor, decrease bitterness, and shorten the drying time of the bean. (4)

Raw chocolatiers do not always ferment the beans. Raw cacao beans can be dried on a hot roof instead of being fermented. The raw cacao beans are then shot against a wall with a big fan where the hard shell of the cacao bean is cracked off, releasing the cocoa (chocolate) nib.

In my research, studies suggest that non-fermented cacao beans have as much as 80% more antioxidant flavanols, epicatechin and catechin (naturally-occurring chemical compounds) than fermented beans. (2,4) So it seems that the fermentation stage may actually be compromising some of the antioxidant properties of the chocolate.

Score

Raw: 1 Heated: 0

Drying

cacao beans drying

After fermentation, the cacao bean is now called a cocoabean. The cocoa bean still has a high moisture content, so it must be dried. Drying can be in the sun or in air-circulated sheds. The raw chocolate process has already dried the bean on a very hot roof and separated the shell from the cacao nib. The drying process seems to have no significant effect on the antioxidant properties of raw vs. heated cacao. (2)

Score

Raw: 1 Heated: 0

Roasting (This process is skipped in the raw chocolate process.)

The beans are then roasted for 9-10 hours depending on the type of bean and desired effect. During the roasting process, the shells are cracked, separating the cocoa nib from the shell. The shells are blown away through a process called ‘winnowing.’ The cocoa nib contains about 53% cocoa butter.

While one would think that it is the roasting process that actually decreases the antioxidant properties of cacao, studies are unclear. Surprisingly, some studies show that antioxidant activity is decreased if roasting is at a temperature less than 70 degrees Celsius, and when the roasting temperature exceeds 120 degrees Celsius, the antioxidant properties are boosted by more than 600%! (2,4) Interestingly, the main flavonoids found in cocoa not only support antioxidant protection and beneficial vascular processes in the body – they have been found to influence cardiovascular health as well. (7-9)

Most raw chocolate lovers suggest that raw chocolate contains higher levels of antioxidants than roasted chocolate. Regarding some of the flavonoids such as catechin and epicatechin, roasting actually seems to boost levels.

With over 300 chemicals to measure, it is quite possible that the raw chocolate will outperform roasted chocolate in the long run, but it is safe to say that good quality dark chocolate stands up to the tests. In fact, it is safe to say that the vast majority of research exploring the health benefits of dark chocolate were done with chocolate processed in conventional ways.

Score

Raw: 1 Heated: 1

Alkalization

The cocoa nibs undergo an alkalization process also called “Dutch processing.” This is usually done with potassium carbonate to decrease the acid content and to develop the flavor and color. This process is not performed with raw chocolate. Studies suggest that this process significantly reduces the flavanol content of cocoa nibs or powder. (3)

Score

Raw: 2 Heated: 1

Pressing and Milling

roasted cacao beans

After fermentation, the cacao bean is now called a cocoabean. The cocoa bean still has a high moisture content, so it must be dried. Drying can be in the sun or in air-circulated sheds. The raw chocolate process has already dried the bean on a very hot roof and separated the shell from the cacao nib. The drying process seems to have no significant effect on the antioxidant properties of raw vs. heated cacao. (2)

Score

Raw: 1 Heated: 0

Conclusion

While I am a big believer in non-processed foods, it seems very clear to me that the research is still not conclusive enough to be able to accurately say that raw chocolate has more health benefits than conventionally processed or heated dark chocolate. While there are tons of articles online stating the benefits of raw versus heated chocolate, few (if any) have referenced any hard science to back it up. I would love to see further studies on raw chocolate.

With more than 300 health-promoting chemicals in chocolate to test and evaluate, along with the wide variation in cocoa-processing strategies, there simply do not seem to be enough facts yet that have been proven by research. (5, 6) That said, the majority (if not all) of the studies that support dark chocolate benefits were done with cacao that has been heated. I also realize that many of the 300 health-promoting chemicals in chocolate may be damaged by the roasting process, but it seems as of now we are still waiting for more scientific studies on this (both literally and figuratively) sweet subject.

Yes, the alkalization and fermentation processes seem to negate some of processed chocolate’s antioxidant properties, but roasting at high temperatures boosted antioxidant benefits by over 600%. These numbers are hard to ignore. Perhaps the bean is so dense in its naturally-occurring state that it needs cooking to make available the full bouquet of its medicinal properties.

Let’s keep this door open as we learn more and more about this incredible fruit.

What role has cacao played in your life?

References

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24915376
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20843086
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18710243
  4. http://www.heritagesciencejournal.com/content/1/1/9
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19735732
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19019025
  7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12589329
  8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15640494
  9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18296357

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