Chocolate has long been revered by humans. The Aztec and Mayan civilisations using it for medicinal purposes and the health benefits were recorded as long ago as the time Cortes arrived in then-Mesoamerica1. In Europe, doctors were recommending patients drink cacao for their health in the 1700s1. 300 or so years later and we’re beginning to un-ravel the molecular basis for the health benefits of this widely loved food.
Polyphenols are antioxidants present in cacao but their levels differ depending on how it was grown and processed between tree and your chocolate bar 2. Tree cultivation, bean maturity, climate conditions and processing of the bean can negatively affect levels of polyphenols in the cacao2.
How Cacao is Made
The process that takes chocolate from bean to bar is different for every chocolate, or cacao, you buy.
The process makes a difference to not only the flavour and texture of the final bar but the health benefits it provides1. Processing of chocolate from bean to bar takes place in some variation of the following stages:-
- Cacao beans are the raw material for cocoa and chocolate. They’re generally grown within 20 degrees latitude of the equator with most being harvested in West Africa. The three main varieties of bean are; Criollo, Forastero and Trinitaro, the latter being a cross-breed of the first two1.
- The beans are harvested by people, not machines, and transported to a processing plant. This may be done using mules and baskets to carry the bean as the land the cacao trees grow on may not be accessible to machinery.
- The beans are then fermented for 48 hours during which time they are turned regularly. This ensures each bean ferments at the same rate and the end flavour is uniform 3.
- The beans are then spread out on wooden tables to dry.
- Next comes roasting to bring out flavour. The temperature of roasting differs widely but below 45°C ensures the bean maintains the chemical structure that gives health benefits – flavonoids are not destroyed at the same rate as at higher roasting temperatures.
- Rapid cooling follows roasting, to ensure the beans maintain flavour and don’t continue to roast.
- The beans are then milled – a process which turns them into a thick liquid called Cacao Liquor which still contains the fat part of the cacao.
- The next step involves pressing the Cacao Liquor to separate the fat portion (cacao butter) from the ‘cake’ – which will become the cacao you eat as chocolate.
- The cacao is now in a dry and solid state. If the cacao is to be ‘dutch processed’ (see more below) it will be soaked in an alkaline solution however this removes nutrients. Non-dutch processed is not soaked but milled to a flour-like consistency then sieved to add to the fine quality of the powder.
That’s it – cacao from bean to powder. It’s this cacao powder that is made into chocolate bars you eat or use directly in cooking.
Types of Cacao
If you’re confused about the difference between ‘raw’ and normal cacao it wouldn’t be surprising. There is no legal definition of ‘raw cacao’ or ‘raw chocolate’. Many times, ‘unroasted’ would be a better definition for ‘raw’ chocolate as the process from bean to bar takes in fermentation and other steps which may bring the temperature of the bean above that which would make it ‘raw’. However, this is not always the case as fermentation and roasting can be temperature controlled to below 45C.
Natural cacao: A reddish brown powder which has had the cacao butter removed (the fat component of the bean). It has a more bitter taste than processed cacao and has an acidic pH of around 5.3-5.8.
Dutch processed cacao: Is soaked in potassium carbonate at the beginning of processing to reduce acidic pH to an alkaline 6.5-7.6. The result is a darker, less bitter powder. Most cacao made for drinking chocolate is processed in this way.
Raw cacao: This is something of a grey area. ‘Raw’ cacao must still have been fermented, dried and crushed – and pressed to remove the butter by some means. The description for raw is un-regulated so you rely on good information from the manufacturer to truly know how your chocolate or cacao was made. The general acceptance is that the temperature has been kept below 45C and assuming fermentation temperatures are also controlled.
How Taking Cacao from Bean to Bar Affects its Health Giving Properties
Flavonoids are thought to be one of the main reasons cacao is so good for health. Flavonoids are a sub-group of a set of compounds known as polyphenols which are found widely in fruit and vegetables. Some plants are more abundant in flavonoids than others and contain different kinds. Cacao contains a group of these polyphenols called flavan-3-ols, which are also found in some kinds of tea and wine 1.
Cacao has some of the highest levels of flavonoids of any food, meaning it has one of the highest antioxidant capacities to boot 4.
The flavonoids found in fresh cacao beans are different to those that have been turned into cacao powder1. The method used to make the cacao affects the chemical composition.
Just as foods look different after they have been processed (for example flour looks different to wheat), their chemical nature has often also been altered. Flavonoids are relatively delicate compounds, meaning they can be damaged by processing methods (from roasting to fermentation). This may reduce some of the health benefits of cacao once it’s been taken from bean to bar, however it’s important to remember that the original cacao bean is not edible until it has been somewhat processed. Natural (not dutch) processing removes some, but not all, of the antioxidant compounds 5.
Flavon-3-ols are found in dark chocolate but are higher still in cacao that has not been dutch processed 6. In fact, dutch processing causes a loss of two important flavan-3-ols, epicatechin and catechin, by up to 98% and 80% respectively 5.
Flavanols are also reduced when cacao beans are fermented and when they’re roasted – although these processes are necessary to make the beans edible. While flavonoids are good for health, they affect the flavour of the chocolate. A higher percentage of flavonoids in the chocolate will increase the bitterness1. Normal processing removes some of the bitterness and makes cacao into the delicious food we know and love 7; 1.
Does Cacao Powder Contain Caffeine?
You may be familiar with the common claim that chocolate contains caffeine. We at Lucy Bee were hoping this wasn’t the case as we love our late night hot chocolate before bed just as much as our mid-morning cup too!
Cacao powder instead contains an alkaloid called theobromine8 (don’t be misled by its name- it contains no bromine). Theobromine can cause similar effects to that of caffeine, hence the source of the confusion. However cacao powders can vary in their levels of theobromine, usually from around 2-10%.
Benefits of Pure Cacao Summary
Cacao has a nutritional profile that largely sustains its allure. It’s worth bearing in mind however that it’s cacao which has this profile and there isn’t enough of this in milk chocolate for it to be good for health; especially once you consider the sugar content. Chocolate that is 70% cacao or more will have benefits to health but the higher the percentage the better when it comes to health effects. I love making my own chocolate truffles using Lucy Bee Coconut Oil and Cacao Powder.
1. Pucciarelli (2013) Cocoa and Heart Health: A Historical Review of the Science.
3. Albertini (2015) Effect of fermentation and drying on cocoa polyphenols.
4. Scapagnini (2014) Cocoa bioactive compounds: significance and potential for the maintenance of skin health.
About Lucy Bee Limited
Lucy Bee is concerned with Fair Trade, ethical and sustainable living, recycling and eating close to nature with additive free products for health.
Members of the Lucy Bee team are not medically trained and can only offer their best advice. Any information provided by us is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.
Please note you should always refer your health queries to a qualified medical practitioner.