November 29, 2018 6:09 am 1 Comment
Got your Advent calendar ready? If not, we’ve still got one or two left – call us and we’ll rush them out to you. It’s very nearly December 1st, which for many people means the perfect excuse to eat chocolate every single day!
Not all Advent calendars are chocolate, of course. Mean parents (like me) insist that a slightly wonky picture of a drum or a wreath, hidden inside a paper door, is a sufficiently exciting build-up to Christmas. More indulgent parents go well beyond chocolate, making and buying Advent calendars that contain cute little presents instead. (And of course, the true meaning of Advent has nothing to do with any of this.)
But let’s bypass the Christmas hype for now and concentrate on the chocolate. Is it really OK to eat it every single day? Is doing so actually a positive move for your health, as some people claim? And can there ever be any such thing as healthy chocolate?
Can something as perfectly scrumptious, deliciously creamy, helpfully mood-improving and wonderfully comforting as chocolate ever truly be healthy? Some people argue that it can. To find out how – and to separate the saintly stuff from the sinful – we need to go back to the very beginning. How is chocolate made? And at what point does it start – or stop – being healthy?
The story of chocolate
Chocolate begins on a tree: the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), which grows on plantations in a narrow band around the Equator (called the Chocolate Belt, or Cocoa Belt).
The cacao tree produces pods (around 2,000 each year!). They’re shaped like footballs and grow out of the trunk and from the branches. Inside the pods you find the seeds, commonly referred to as cocoa beans. Sticky with the pulp of the pod, the beans, in their natural state, have an unpleasantly bitter taste.
The beans are placed in pits or bins, covered with leaves and left to ferment – a process that turns the sugar inside them into acid and makes them edible. The beans change colour too, to a wonderful dark brown, and the sticky pulp melts away.
The beans are then dried off and cleaned to remove any foreign matter. They’re placed in ovens at a high temperature and roasted for up to two hours. This brings out more of their flavour and further dries and darkens them.
The outer shells of the beans are now easier to remove. Inside, there’ll be little broken bits of beans, sold at Naturally Good Food as ‘nibs’. These are still bitter, but not inedible, and have a rich chocolate-y taste.
Those bits of beans not being sold as nibs go through to the next process. In this, they’re crushed and ground into a thick paste, called cocoa liquor or cocoa mass. This can be separated into two elements: cocoa solids and cocoa butter (a fat), which are present in roughly equal proportions.
The chocolate we buy in the shops is a mixture of cocoa solids and cocoa butter, in varying proportions. Some chocolate bars will have more cocoa butter, giving them a smoother texture. Others might have a higher percentage of solids, resulting in a more pronounced flavour. All chocolate will have undergone several other processes, such as rolling, mashing, swirling, aerating and tempering. It’s likely that other ingredients will have been added to the mix, including milk, oil, emulsifiers, sweeteners and flavourings (such as vanilla).
Various types of chocolate are sold in the UK and they all have different names. Here’s a quick guide.
Milk chocolate: this is lightish brown. It contains a mixture of cocoa solids and butter, mixed with dairy milk and sugar.
White chocolate: this is a creamy white colour. It contains cocoa butter, mixed with sugar and dairy milk, but has no cocoa solids.
Dark chocolate: much darker brown – sometimes close to black – this contains a higher proportion of cocoa solids and butter, with no (or very little) dairy milk, and a lower proportion of sugar.
Plain chocolate: this is simply another term for dark chocolate.
Non-dairy or vegan chocolate: much dark or plain chocolate is suitable for vegans. In some other types of chocolate (including white chocolate), a non-dairy milk, like rice milk or oat milk, is used instead of dairy milk to give a vegan option.
Cooking chocolate: this chocolate is specially formulated to melt quickly and produce a glossy finish in baking, without the need for tempering. Its taste tends to be less rich and intense.
Raw chocolate: the term ‘raw’ means that the chocolate has not been heated above 42C. After harvesting and fermentation, the cacao beans are left to dry naturally in the sun, rather than being roasted in ovens.
Cacao: a term that’s used to refer to raw chocolate. In brief, if the beans have been roasted, it’s ‘cocoa’; if they’re raw, it’s ‘cacao’.
It’s the dark and the raw chocolate, and the word ‘cacao’, that we’ve got our eye on, when we talk about ‘healthy chocolate’. So let’s look at these in more detail.
With dark chocolate, the sugar content is crowded out by the higher proportion of cocoa solids and butter – and it’s there that you’ll find the good stuff. Cocoa solids and butter contain a host of minerals: iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium, along with fibre. They’re also rich in antioxidant polyphenols and catechins, which are thought to protect against cell damage, and in flavanols, which can lower blood pressure.
Raw chocolate and cacao
Does it matter whether you roast your beans or not? Devotees of raw chocolate (cacao) say that it does. They believe that the hot ovens destroy the nutrients found in the beans, while natural sun-drying preserves them. They claim that levels of iron, zinc, magnesium and copper are significantly higher in raw chocolate than in roasted, and argue that antioxidant levels are higher too – especially those of the heart-protecting oleic acid. Altogether, they highly recommend eating raw chocolate to benefit the immune and cardiovascular systems, provide protection against strokes, and lower insulin resistance and blood pressure.
What about Super-cacao?
At Naturally Good Food we also stock a product called Super-cacao, from Aduna. This is (raw) cacao powder made from specially selected, high-flavanol beans. According to Aduna, the blend contains twice the flavanols of regular cacao. It’s also high in protein and fibre and is a particularly rich source of magnesium and potassium. It tastes good, too!
Should you really eat chocolate every day?
Advent or not, should you really eat chocolate every day?
Perhaps not. The healthy chocolate arguments sound convincing, but they have their detractors. This article, for example, goes a long way to demolishing the whole theory:
And while your dark or raw chocolate bar, powder or drink might well be bursting with flavanols, polyphenols and minerals, it’s likely to be packed with sugar too. Even the loudest supporters of dark chocolate suggest that it’s consumed in moderation.
But hang on a minute….
It’s Christmas (well nearly). And surely, that’s a time for believing, not debunking?! There remain some fairly robust arguments on the health side – and there’s little to suggest that the usual recommended two squares of dark chocolate a day will do you any harm.
You might not feel able to view chocolate as a health food, but it’s clearly better than a lot of the sweet rubbish out there. And it is, of course, truly delicious, especially when made with care and with the highest-quality ingredients. Perhaps it’s best simply to shelve the healthy chocolate debate for another year – after all, you’ve got 24 moulded chocolate Advent calendar shapes to get through right now.Aduna, Advent, cacao, chocolate, chocolate couverture, cocoa, cooking chocolate, Dairy free chocolate, dark chocolate, healthy chocolate, milk chocolate, non-dairy chocolate, organic chocolate, plain chocolate, raw chocolate, super-cacao powder, vegan chocolate, white chocolate
This post was written by Yzanne