You have probably heard the hype that chocolate—when eaten in moderation—actually offers the body a vast array of health benefits. This is great news, right? You have yet another reason to eat your favorite treat, and you’re out of excuses not to have just one more truffle.
But before you go thinking that “chocolate is healthy,” it’s important to note that the quality of your indulgence is just as important—if not more—than the quantity.
The cultivation and cultural uses for cacao (pronounced ka-KOW) can be traced back to a time when money literally grew on tress. Cocoa beans—the seeds of the cocoa tree— represented a major system of currency in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations (like the Aztecs).
The Latin word for cocoa—Theobroma—translates into “food of the gods,” and, indeed, both the bean and the beverage played a large part in ancient rituals. The Maya, for example, believed that cacao was discovered by the gods and given to the Maya after humans were created from maize; they celebrated an annual festival to honor their cacao god. Similarly, the Aztecs regularly offered cacao to their deities.
After the European discovery of the Americas, cacao spread to France, England, and other areas of the continent. By the mid-1600s, both the culinary and medical uses for the crop were in high demand, and cacao plantations soon sprung up in the Caribbean (under the control of the French) as well as Spain’s Venezuelan and Philippine colonies. Chocolate shops opened in Europe. Every country was producing chocolate treats by the 1700s, and the steam engine soon made cocoa bean grinding much easier, reducing production cost and increasing consumer availability.
Today, people all over the world enjoy chocolate in many different forms—but do you know which form actually provides your body with health benefits?
What’s the Difference?
There are three main ways we refer to this sweet treat: cacao, cocoa, and chocolate. Generally, most people refer to the raw, superfood form of chocolate as cacao and the more processed form as cocoa; however, cacao, cocoa, and even chocolate—particularly dark chocolate—may refer to the same thing, so be sure to read labels! It’s important to know the basic differences between types of chocolate so you know exactly what you’re feeding your body.
Cacao typically refers to the raw, unprocessed cocoa bean. This is chocolate in its purest form. Beans that have not been processed or heated constitute raw cacao, and that is what the health world is referring to when boasting about the health benefits of chocolate. The more that cacao is heated during processing, the less its nutrients are retained. Nibs are a popular form of cacao—these are simply cacao beans that have been separated from their husks and broken into smaller, bite-size pieces.
Raw cacao is quite bitter, so some folks are unable to handle the sharp taste—but if you can, the health benefits abound! These include:
- Antioxidants, which absorb damaging free radicals
- Fiber, which helps with digestion
- Mood-boosters, like endorphins and serotonin, that promote a healthy sense of well-being
- Vitamins, such as E and B complex
- Minerals, such as iron, zinc, and magnesium
- Flavanols and theobromine, which may improve blood flow and reduce blood pressure
Cocoa is a term usually used to describe forms of the substance that have undergone some processing but are at an intermediate step and not ready for direct consumption: cocoa butter, cocoa powder (cocoa solids), and cocoa liquor. It is also often associated with the chocolate-flavored beverages descended from the original bitter drinks that endured for hundreds of years.
Cocoa butter is the special fat of the cacao bean; it’s often overlooked by culinary consumers but is the most important aspect of making great chocolate. Nature’s special blend of fats and the chocolatier’s careful manipulation of them lead to both the melt-in-your mouth quality that is so addictive and the characteristic snap of well-made chocolate. It is also highly regarded by cosmetics manufacturers for its moisture-enhancing and antioxidant properties. Cocoa powder is a byproduct of cocoa butter production, the ground form of a solid press cake that is left behind. Cocoa liquor is a slurry—a mixture containing both the fat and solids from cacao beans—that is ready for further processing into chocolate. Dutch processing is a common practice where the chocolate is treated with an alkali (a basic, ionic salt) to neutralize acidity and impart a rich, reddish color.
Chocolate is the finished form of this sumptuous substance—although getting there involves quite a bit of processing. The chocolate we are familiar with adds an extra dose of cocoa butter (obtained by the pressing mentioned earlier), which is the key to producing a solid bar of chocolate. Mechanical manipulation results in a fine, smooth texture, while controlled melting and recrystallization of the cocoa butter complete the process.
Label reading becomes important here, because some manufacturers substitute cheap fats for the additional cocoa butter in order to create the chocolate. These unhealthy substitutes have a higher melting point than cocoa butter (closer to or higher than body temperature) and can be identified by the waxy “coating” you feel on the roof of your mouth that is characteristic of eating cheap almond bark. Some manufacturers go really cheap and use no cocoa butter at all, reconstituting their product (often referred to as “coating”) from dry cocoa powder.
Milk chocolate is a fairly recent development in the history of chocolate with its own complexities, as you might imagine when considering that cocoa butter fats are solid at room temperature, while milk contains a significant amount of water. It took a lot of effort for Peters and Nestlé to figure out how to make that oil-and-water combination stick. (Hershey figured out his own way, too, but not without souring the milk.) Although it might taste better (that sweet, creamy flavor we associate with chocolate treats), milk chocolate is too diluted to offer much in the way of health benefits—and, in fact, can contribute to the very diseases and conditions that raw cacao works to combat, like high blood pressure.
Dark chocolate leaves out the milk, so there is more room for cacao. Reading the label can be tricky, though. The cocoa percentage quoted on the label represents only the amount of the product that is derived from cacao (the rest is mostly sugar). This can be any combination of cocoa solids (cocoa powder) and fat (cocoa butter); many manufacturers won’t specify. You can get an idea, however, by checking the grams of fat per serving on the nutrition label and comparing that to the total grams per serving. The difference between the percentage that is fat and the total cocoa percentage tells you how much of the bar is made up of the parts that affect your health the most—including an abundance of flavanols that lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol while raising HDL cholesterol.
As far as health benefits are concerned, a basic hierarchy of chocolate products goes like this:
- Raw, unprocessed cacao beans
- Organic, unroasted cocoa powder (without alkali)
- Organic dark chocolate with the highest percentage of cocoa solids and the lowest amount of added sugar
So, when choosing a chocolate product for its health benefits, check the label for a few key items. Look at the percentage of raw cocoa contained in the product, if there has been any sugar added, and if the product was processed with alkali.
Harvesting and Processing
We’ve already established that chocolate grows on trees—specifically the Theobroma cacao tree, which is native to Mexico, Central America, and South America. Much of modern-day cacao is actually grown in West Africa, but the harvesting process remains the same.
These trees thrive in tropical weather; they produce pods that contain about 40 to 60 cacao seeds as well as cacao pulp. Most harvesters carefully remove the seeds and implement a one- to two-week natural fermentation and drying process to create raw cacao beans. High amounts of antioxidants and flavonoids often result in an extremely bitter taste. The pulp is naturally much sweeter and contains all of the same antioxidants as found in the seeds, though it is usually overlooked in favor of the seeds.
When cacao beans are roasted at high temperatures or combined with sugar and extra fat, much of the nutrition is lost or diluted—and, unfortunately, this is the type of chocolate (usually milk chocolate) that many of us have been exposed to for much of our lives. Dark chocolate has the connotation of being healthier, but there are loose rules surrounding the term dark, so keep the above hierarchy in mind when shopping.