CACAO – COCOA - CHOCOLATE*
The cacao tree produces the cacao beans. These are fermented, dried and roasted and then used to manufacture cocoa which is finally made into chocolate.
The Cacao Tree
The cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao) is a small evergreen tree in the family Sterculiaceae, native to the deep tropical region of the Americas. The tree is today found growing wild in the foothills of the Andes. It requires a humid climate with regular rainfall and good soil.
A tree begins to bear fruit when it is four to five years old. The fruit, called a cacao pod, is up to 30cm in length and 20cm wide, ripening to a brownish-yellow to purple colour and weighing up to 500g when ripe. A mature tree may have 6,000 flowers in a year, yet only about 20 pods. The pod contains 20-60 seeds, usually called ‘beans’. Each seed contains a significant amount of fat (40%-50%). Their most noted active ingredient is theobromine, a compound similar to caffeine.
The scientific name Theobroma means “food of the gods”. The Maya believed that the kakaw (cacao) was discovered by the gods in a mountain in the Andes. According to Maya mythology, the Plumed Serpent gave cacao to the Maya after humans were created.
Cacao production has increased from 1.5 million tons (MT) in 1983-1984 to 3.5 million tons in 2003-2004. The top five countries in production are: Cote d’Ivoire (1.330MT), Ghana (0.736MT), Indonesia (0.610MT), Nigeria (0.366MT) and Brazil (0.214MT).
The flavour of the cacao beans is not only dependant of the variety (four major types of cacao are cultivated), but also on the soil, temperature, sunshine and rainfall. It is now possible to buy chocolates made with cacao beans from one single region and thus compare the aromas: these chocolates are often called ‘speciality chocolates’, in contrast to ordinary chocolates which are made with mostly cheap cacao beans from several regions and with more than one cacao variety.
Fermentation of Cacao Beans
The cacao fruits are opened and the pulp and seeds are transferred to large containers. The cacao beans (seeds) are then transferred to wooden crates or baskets with banana leaves in between and on top to enable optimal fermentation.
The duration of the fermentation depends on the variety and is from two to more than seven days. The length of the fermentation also affects the aroma, so if a well-developed aroma is wanted the beans undergo fermentation for a longer time.
The fermentation process transforms the flavour to what we associate with cocoa and chocolate. Without the fermentation process there will not be any chocolate flavour.
Drying and Roasting Cacao Beans
When the fermentation is terminated, the cacao beans are dried, either sun-dried or with electric heaters.
The drying process takes one to two weeks. During that time, the colour changes from reddish brown to dark brown.
Cacao butter is made by cold pressing the raw cacao nibs (the nib is the cacao bean removed from its shell) to preserve the full vitality of the raw cacao. Because it has not been heat-damaged, it melts at approximately 35 degrees C.
The beans are then polished by machine to obtain an improved visual appearance before being packed for distribution.
The beans are sometimes treated by an alkali in a process called “dutching”. This process removes some of the acidity of the beans and gives a more smooth flavour and a darker colour.
The beans are finally roasted to develop the final chocolate flavour. The temperature and time of roasting affects the flavour and colour of the chocolate. Finally, the shells are removed (“winnowed”) from the roasted beans and the beans are ready for making cocoa and chocolate.
Manufacture of Cocoa
After roasting and winnowing, the beans are ground, making cocoa liquid. The heat generated by the grinding process melts the fat, thus producing a liquor (sometime additional heating is required). The liquor hardens to unsweetened chocolate when it cools below 35 degrees C.
Pressure can be applied to the cocoa liquor (while slightly heated) to remove some of the fat, which is called cocoa butter. The remaining cocoa solids contain 10-25% cocoa butter depending on the brand. The solids are ground to cocoa powder.
Cocoa used for cooking is normally unsweetened. Please note that cocoa, as commercially available, generally contains added flavours, ie it is not pure. Always read the label.
Manufacture of Chocolate
Cocoa liquor and sugar are mixed and progressive grinding leads to smaller and smaller particles. More cocoa butter is added in addition to an emulsifier and flavouring agents, especially vanilla. During the continued grinding the mixture becomes smooth.
The next step is called “conching”. This involves mixing, heating, agitating and aerating for 24 hours to obtain the final smooth texture (like velvet) and less bitter flavour.
The next step is “tempering”. This is done by mixing the melted chocolate at a controlled temperature until the right form of tiny chocolate crystals are formed, giving the chocolate the desirable appearance and texture.
Finally, the chocolate is moulded and cooled rapidly.
Is Chocolate Good or Bad for Health?
Chocolate has a long history as a food favoured by many cultures. Today it is a luxury food. Should it be eaten sparingly, if at all? Or does it have health benefits and hence can be consumed in moderation, as part of a nutritious well-balanced diet?
In my November 2005 newsletter Polymeal verses Polypill, chocolate is one of the ingredients of the polymeal included for its known health benefits.
Nutrients and other Active Components of Chocolate
Unsweetened chocolate is 45-55% fat, and sweetened chocolate is 20-35% fat. About half is saturated fat. Cacao beans contain approximately 50% fat which is comprised of two saturated fatty acids (palmitic and stearic acids) and one mono-unsaturated acid (oleic acid). Cocoa butter and chocolate are said not to raise blood cholesterol. However when consuming milk chocolate, where part of the total fat content comes from milk fat, the cholesterol levels may be affected.
The protein in chocolate is from 5%-15%, depending on whether the chocolate is unsweetened or sweetened. Proteins are needed for cell maintenance and repair.
In unsweetened chocolate, the sugar content is less than 2%. In sweetened chocolate, the sugar content can be as high as 65%, though generally about 50%. The cacao bean contains quite a lot of carbohydrates, most of which are either starch, soluble dietary fibres or insoluble dietary fibres. A very small proportion is simple sugars.
Per 100g, unsweetened chocolate has 470-500 calories (1974-2100Kj), and sweetened chocolate has 450-550 calories (1890-2310Kj).
Theobromine is a very mild stimulant of the nervous system and has a mild diuretic action (ie it increases the production of urine).
Cacao beans contain a very low amount of caffeine, much less than found in coffee, tea and cola drinks.
These are phytochemicals (from plants). It is estimated that cacao beans contain more than 600 plant chemicals, including antioxidants, which may protect against heart disease and cancer. The antioxidants are polyphenols, called flavinoids (see my January 2010 newsletter Phytochemicals), and include catechins, epictechins and procyanidins. Dark chocolate has the highest levels of these. The flavinoids, as well as having antioxidant properties, also reduce the blood’s ability to clot and thus reduce the risk of stroke and heart attacks. The antioxidant content of chocolate has been found to be significantly higher than tea (which however has no fat).
Phenlyethylamine is a mild antidepressant and stimulant similar to the body’s own dopamine and adrenaline.
· Essential minerals
Cacao beans are rich in a number of essential minerals including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper potassium and magnesium.
The vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, E and pantothenc acid are all present in cacao beans.
Is Chocolate Fattening?
Specific foods do not cause obesity. Overeating in general, along with inactivity, are the main culprits. If more food is regularly eaten than the body needs, the excess energy will be stored as body fat.
Chocolate is energy dense, which means that it contains high levels of calories/kilojoules for its weight. The high sugar content of sweetened chocolate is worse than the fat content in terms of negative effects on health.
Raw Cacao Beans
Raw cacao beans are available. They contain all the nutrients and active components discussed above without the added sugar, emulsifiers and flavours added in the manufacture of chocolate. It is said that they are a super food in their own right.
The beans are bitter compared to chocolate. Once accustomed to the bitter taste, the rich, nutty undertones will become a favourite flavour. They are not addictive like chocolate can be. It is best to buy organic beans that have not been heated.
Raw ground cacao beans are also commercially available.
Make your Own Chocolate
It is very simple to make your own chocolates at home, using raw ground cacao beans. This avoids the non-natural ingredients present in commercial chocolates. Melt 3/8 cup cacao butter indirectly, by placing it in a bowl within a larger bowl of very hot water. In a separate mixing bowl, place ½ cup raw cacao powder then mix in 4 teaspoons of agave nectar or honey. Then gradually add the melted cacao butter, gently folding in with a soft spatula. Put the bowl of chocolate mix back into a larger bowl of very hot water, so that it remains liquid enough to make the individual chocolates. Spoon the chocolate into tiny confectionary patty pans, within ice cube moulds. Place in the freezer to set.
You will find that the silky-softness and intense dark chocolate flavour of these chocolates are second to none. The ground cacao beans and the cacao butter are quite expensive. They make excellent gifts for special people.
Chocolate is not a ‘health food‘. There are some healthy things in chocolate, in fact quite a lot. But chocolate does have other components that are not good for you when you have too much of them in your diet - such as fat and sugar.
If you want to boost your intake of antioxidants while keeping your fat intake low, try drinking cocoa instead of eating chocolate, since it generally has a low fat content. And, of course, do not add sugar or milk!
· The main type of saturated fat in (non-milk) chocolate is stearic acid, which does not increase cholesterol levels. Milk chocolate contains fat that may increase cholesterol levels.
· Chocolate and cocoa contain antioxidants which may help protect the body against degenerative diseases, like cancer.
· Chocolate is a high fat food that must be consumed in moderation as part of a well-balanced, nutritious diet.
· Cocoa provides the same amount of antioxidants as chocolate, but with much less fat.
· Studies have shown that small amounts of unsweetened chocolate can be eaten by people with well-controlled diabetes without any significant adverse impact on their glucose control.
*Copyright 2010: The Huntly Centre.
Disclaimer: All material in the huntlycentre.com.au website is provided for informational or educational purposes only. Consult a health professional regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations expressed herein, with respect to your symptoms or medical condition.
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