Ever wonder how chocolate is made? Here's a quick snapshot: Chocolate is made from the seed of the cacao tree.
Cacao podsare harvested from the cacao tree and their seeds (known as cacao beans/cocoa beans) are left to ferment for several days to minimize bitterness. The seeds are then roasted – a process that further intensifies flavour, dries and darkens the seeds. The outer shell (husk) of the seeds is removed revealing the inner kernel of the seed called cacao nibs (you may have come across these nibs before – they are sometimes sold with sweet flavoured coatings). The cacao nibs are then crushed and ground into a thick paste called chocolate liquor which is essentially a combination of cocoa solids and cocoa butter.
At this point, the chocolate liquor can be used to make cocoa solids (such as cocoa powder) or the sweet/semi-sweet commercial chocolate that we are familiar with.
To make cocoa powder, the chocolate liquor is compressed to remove a significant portion of the cocoa butter that is naturally found in the cacao nibs. What remains is a dry mass (cocoa solid) that is ground into a powder.
For commercial chocolate, cocoa butter from the chocolate liquor is retained along with the cocoa solids but manufacturers will also add things like sugar, milk, or condensed milk (more sugar and fat), and soy lecithin for texture and taste. The amount of additives relative to the percentage of cocoa content in a commercial chocolate will determine whether it is classified as milk chocolate or dark chocolate or something else (white chocolate, for instance, contains no cocoa solids). The greater the percentage of cocoa (or cacao) retained in a particular chocolate product, the greater the potential health benefits. This is because the health benefits of chocolate revolve around the flavonoid activity found in the cocoa bean itself, not in the manufacturer's additives.
So what about those Flavonoids? Flavonoids are a group of chemical compounds naturally found in certain plant-based foods (green tea, red wine, berries, tree fruit, spices, nuts/beans) that operate as antioxidants, or disease fighters, in our bodies.
And when it comes to cocoa, there's plenty of fight. In fact, food scientists at Cornell University found the antioxidant activity in cocoa to be nearly twice that of red wine and up to three times that found in green tea.
In terms of health protection, research suggests that flavonoids in cocoa help stimulate the production of nitric oxide in the body which can in turn help relax blood vessels, leading to lower blood pressure and improved heart health. Other studies have similarly linked the antioxidants in cocoa to reduced LDL cholesterol levels. In addition to its antioxidant content, cocoa also contains a host of minerals including calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, iron and zinc. When buying commercial chocolate, choose a minimum 70% cocoa (or cacao) content in order to maximize these health benefits. If you are new to dark chocolate, use a graduated approach that will allow you to slowly habituate to the new taste. Gently reduce milk chocolate in recipes while replacing the reduced portion with dark chocolate (3/4 milk chocolate and 1/4 dark chocolate at first and moving to half/half and so forth, over time).
In time, you will grow accustomed to the new taste and may well find it far more satiating and less addicting. A square or two of 75% cocoa chocolate in the evening will satisfy a craving without priming the pump the way milk chocolate does (that insatiable desire of wanting another sugar fix with the ensuing blood sugar roller coaster...).
Chocolate Avocado Pudding with Coconut Milk ~ Egg free, Dairy free