Chocolate is one of the world’s, and this country’s, most popular foods. In fact, Americans consume nearly 20 pounds a year per person. (See the chocolate-based recipe at the end of this post.)
It all starts with cocoa beans taken from the cacao tree, originally found in tropical parts of the Western Hemisphere; these beans are processed into a paste that is turned into cocoa powder, the basis for chocolate. It takes 400 cocoa beans to make one pound of finished product, according to the National Confectioners Association.
Cocoa and chocolate were first developed thousands of years ago by the Aztec, Maya and Toltec, peoples who populated much of what we now know as Central and South America. It was a bitter brew with a potent reputation (legend has it that the Aztec emperor Montezuma consumed 50 cups day from a golden chalice).
Spanish explorers took cocoa and chocolate back home with them, where they were sweetened to European tastes. From there, chocolate conquered the world.
Types of Chocolate
Exactly which ingredients are added to, or subtracted from, raw cocoa determine the different types of chocolate:
White chocolate. Made from cocoa butter, a fat extracted from the bean, along with a fairly substantial amount of sugar. Without the cocoa solids, white chocolate doesn’t contain the vitamins and minerals found in other types. “It’s like eating margarine,” says chocolate consultant Curtis Vreeland of Vreeland and Associates in Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, it’s still considered chocolate.
Milk chocolate. Made with sugar, milk and generally less than 45% cocoa solids; much of the mass-produced kind contains only 10%.
Dark chocolate. Contains sugar, cocoa butter and anywhere from 50% to 90% cocoa solids. “It is inherently healthier because it lacks all the sugar that milk chocolate is usually loaded with,” Vreeland explains. “Using a coffee analogy, if you want to taste the flavor of your expensive Purple Mountain or Guatemala brew, you shouldn’t load up your cup with milk and sugar.”
Dark Chocolate and Health
Dark chocolate’s healthy reputation helps explain why an increasing amount of the chocolate sold in the US is of the dark variety.
When it comes to supporting these benefits, there is no shortage of studies: Dark chocolate has been linked to improved brain power, lower blood pressure and better cardiovascular health, among other positive effects.
What accounts for these benefits?
For one thing, dark chocolate “contains a multitude of vitamins, such as A, B1, B2, C and E, and minerals, such as calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, chromium and phosphorus,” says Wlady Grochowski, co-owner of the Montana-based La Châtelaine Chocolat Company.
But what cocoa really brings to the table arepolyphenols, substances that account for much of dark chocolate’s health value.
The darker the better, as far as well-being is concerned, but 100% cocoa would be too bitter for most. That’s why confectioners tinker with the process, looking to keep cocoa content high without compromising sweetness and flavor.
“A lot of bitterness can be removed in the roasting, and it should end up being smooth and non-grainy, and melt in the mouth nicely,” says Grochowski.
“Good-quality dark chocolate has a minimum of 60% cocoa,” says UK-based chocolate expert Jennifer Earle. “Personally, I’d opt for the highest cocoa percentage that you can cope with.”
Good news for chocolate lovers, indeed, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to gorge yourself; the recommended “dose” is around 1.5 to 3 ounces a day.
Chocolate for Energy
Chocolate is worth chucking in your pocket before you hit the slopes or trails.
After all, chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, has powered soldiers: Known as the “D ration bar,” four-ounce chocolate bars were carried by World War II troops for energy. Due to high levels of cocoa, they were extremely bitter, and so dense that soldiers had to cut shavings off to consume them.
“Dark chocolate is packed full of vitamins, minerals andtheobromine, which is a relative of caffeine so it’s a stimulant,” says Earle. “But it has a slower release and is more stable than caffeine, so it’s an excellent source of energy. Plus the combination of sugar and fat is a good mix of slow- and quick-release energy compared to other sweets or carbs.”
Fun fact:Vreeland reports that several marriages resulted from messages female candy workers placed in some of the 6 million tins of chocolate shipped to American troops in the 1940s.
Chocolate as a Luxury Food
Chocolate with caramel or nuts…yawn. The latest trend is chocolate combined with savory concoctions.
“I see more chocolate using spices and herbs as interest in botanicals has been growing generally,” Vreeland says. He has seen some with olive oil, smoky flavors and even black rice and quinoa.
Pairings that Earle has seen include miso, natto (a fermented soyfood) and balsamic vinegar. “Plus tropical and unusual fruits like calamansi lime and yuzu (another citrus fruit) paired with herbs like rosemary or spices like cardamom,” she adds.
Single-origin chocolate, made with beans from one region, is another trend.
“Different flavors come out from the earth like wine,”Grochowski says. “You can have floral scents, tobacco, citrus, fruity.” A cocoa from Madagascar takes on a reddish color and fruity scent, while Cuban cocoa is more peppery, he explains.
Chocolate Granola Parfait
This may sound more like a dessert than a breakfast (and you probably could use it that way), but it is packed with nutrients. Don’t be afraid to get creative with the toppings!
1 1/2 cups chopped raw pecans
1 cup chopped raw hazelnuts
1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/4 cup hemp hearts
1/4 cup flax seeds
1/4 cup coconut sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups riced cauliflower
1/4 cup clarified butter (can use regular butter or coconut oil)
1/4 cup natural peanut butter (or other nut butter)
1/4 cup agave nectar
1/2 cup 60% cacao dark chocolate chips
3 cups whole-milk yogurt
Optional: banana slices, fresh berries, 3 tbsp natural nut butter
Yields: 4–6 servings
Source: Excerpted fromCauliflower Power by Lindsay Grimes Freedman (Workman)
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