What is Dark Chocolate?

What is dark chocolate?  Dark chocolate is known to have a good amount of cacao and a lower amount of sugar. 

However, is a high percentage of cacao really the best choice to get the most antioxidants and a great tasting chocolate bar?

Will you really get the most health benefits from an 80% dark chocolate bar compared to a lower percentage artisan dark chocolate bar?

Dark chocolates will have a higher percentage of the actual bean product or chocolate liquor in them and less fillers like sugar.

Most people are so hung up on the percentage of their chocolate bars, they forget to think about the quality of the chocolate they are consuming.

Every step of the chocolate making process can influence the quality of dark chocolate.  This includes how the cacao beans were stored, fermented, dried, packaged, roasted, conched, and tempered.

All of these chocolate making steps determines how many antioxidants will be left in your dark chocolate bar. 

Also, the flavor of your chocolate bar can be influenced by the type of cacao beans used and how the cacao beans where grown. 

What is Dark Chocolate and
The Different Types of Cacao Beans?

Did you know that there are different types of cacao beans that have different qualities that can go into making dark chocolate? 

There may be as many as 10 varieties of cacao beans out there, but these are the most well known.

Criollo cacao beans make up about 1 to 5% of the cacao beans grown today.  These are the cacao beans that were consumed by the Mayans.

It has been said that Criollo beans were discovered in Mexico, but they may actually originate from the Amazon.  High quality Criollo beans are white to porcelain in color and are one of the most expensive beans.

They are often referred to as the "KIng of Cacao" because of thier complex array of flavors.  Criollo beans require just a little fermentation and short roasting time to draw out their rich delicate flavor.

These heirloom cacao beans grown on cacao trees with very deep roots have many sub-varieties such as Porcelana, Chuao, and Carupano.

Forastero cacao beans originally came from the Amazon and the Forastero cacao trees are very productive.  They are easy to grow, but their cacao may be lower in quality, flavor, and in nutritional value.

Most of the chocolate you've eaten and produced these days will come from this variety of cacao bean - about 80%.

Forastero cacao beans will have a more bitter taste and require longer periods of fermentation and roasting to bring out their chocolate flavor.

A few sub-varieties of the Forastero cacao beans are Cundeamor, Calabacillo, and Amelonado which offer slightly different flavors.

Trinitario cacao beans originate from Trinidad and are a crossbreed of Criollo and Forastero cacao trees.  The Trinitario tree has the hardiness and high yields of the Forastero. 

And the Trinitario cacao beans will have the exceptional flavor of the Criollo.

These cacao beans have an aromatic fruity flavor and are the type of beans used to make high quality dark chocolates which makes up 5% to 10% of the market.

Trinitario beans require a short to medium length of fermentation.  And a short to medium roasting time brings out their chocolate flavor.

Nacional cacao beans may be the rarest and most expensive of the cacao bean varieties.  Nacional trees can be found growing in places like Peru and Ecuador.

Nacional beans are considered to be an heirloom variety and make up about 2% of the world's cacao production.

These very rare beans have a floral, fruity, and complex flavor profile.  They are rich and creamy with very little bitter notes.

Nacional beans are called white cacao beans because most of the beans will have a whitish hue or light violet color.  Also, the crushed beans will resemble milk chocolate even without adding any milk products.

Be careful not to over-roast or conch the Nacional nibs or you might lose some of their flavor.

What is Dark Chocolate and
The Different Percentages?

Basically, the percentage of cacao listed on your dark chocolate bar will tell you just how much chocolate liquor which is the cacao solids (cacao powder) and the cacao butter (cacao bean fat) combined.

Just to be clear, a lot of dark chocolate bars will include extra amounts of cacao powder or cacao butter into their recipes. 

And the percentage on the dark chocolate bar will reflect these additions.

Dark chocolate bars should always have chocolate liquor, cocoa mass, or cacao or cocoa beans listed as the first ingredient. 

Sugar is usually added to dark chocolates to balance its somewhat bitter taste and it's rare to find a dark chocolate bar that doesn't include a little sugar.

In conventional dark chocolates, soy lecithin is added as an emulsifier.  And additional filler ingredients can include vanilla, salt, milk solids, and spices.

Technically, anything called dark, semi-sweet, and bittersweet chocolate must contain at least 35% cacao and less than 12% milk solids.  The rest is left up to the manufacturer.

Semi-Sweet Dark Chocolate - usually contains 35 to 60% chocolate liquor which includes any extra cacao butter or powder.  The rest of the chocolate bar will be 65 to 40% filler ingredients like sugar, vanilla, lecithin, milk solids, etc.

Bittersweet Chocolate - usually contains 65 to 80% chocolate liquor plus any extra cacao butter or powder.  And the rest of the chocolate bar will be 35 to 20% filler ingredients like sugar, vanilla, spices, salt, lecithin, etc.

As you can see by what is dark chocolate percentages, when the chocolate liquor content goes up - the sugar and filler content goes down.

What is Dark Chocolate that's called Unsweetened Chocolate?

Basically, unsweetened chocolate is 100% chocolate liquor and this type of chocolate does not contain any sugar or fillers.

Unsweetened chocolate is the simplest form of dark chocolate because it's made from only two ingredients - the cocoa/cacao solids and cocoa/cacao butter.

The fat content of a cacao bean is 52 to 55% which is typically the amount of fat found in unsweetened chocolate.

The exact ratio of solids to cacao butter will vary slightly depending on if the producer of the unsweetened chocolate added extra cacao butter to create a smoother unsweetened chocolate.

Unsweetened chocolate is also called baking chocolate or bitter chocolate.  This type of chocolate is mainly used for baking as it's too bitter to eat like you would with a dark chocolate bar.

You can always substitute unsweetened chocolate with dark chocolate in your baking recipes by slightly increasing the sugar in the recipe.

What is Dark Chocolate Tips?

If possible find out what type of cacao beans were used in the dark chocolate bar and the chocolate making protocols of the company.

Look for cacao beans that were grown by farmers in a sustainable way without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers.

Have you seen any of these words on your dark chocolates - "Fair Trade" or "Direct Trade"? 

Fair trade is a way to address the economical, social, and environmental issues that surround the chocolate industry.  To give the people growing cacao a fair wage and to promote sustainable practices.

As noble as this sounds, only 10% of the farms are regularly inspected and may actually be practicing ethical sourcing of their cacao beans.

Direct trade goes beyond fair trade and means there's a direct relationship with the chocolate maker and the farmers who source their cacao.  And there are no middlemen who can take a significant cut of the profits.

Direct trade often leads to higher wages for farmers, more sustainability, and better farming practices.

Look for dark chocolates that have minimal ingredients that are organic and have been ethically sourced. 

What is Dark Chocolate
that is Artisan Chocolate?

Most artisan dark chocolate bars have a story to tell and are produced in small batches.  And they will focus on the flavor and quality of the cacao beans. 

It's not uncommon for artisan chocolate makers to process their beans with lower temperature techniques to preserve the nutrients and flavor of the beans.

Their ingredients are usually of a higher quality, are sometimes inventive, and artisan chocolates are more beautifully packaged.  And there should be no soy lecithin or artificial ingredients in artisan dark chocolates.

This should make you question what is dark chocolate percentages without the quality? 

Because it's very possible that a 65% artisan dark chocolate has the potential to be higher in antioxidants than conventional 80% dark chocolate bars!

What is Dark Chocolate that's Dutched?

Dutching is a processing method that involves the treatment of chocolate with alkali.  This processing method changes the color of the chocolate and reduces its bitter flavor.

However, this process will impact the flavanols in dark chocolate and lower the health benefits of consuming dark chocolates.

Several studies have demonstrated that dutching significantly reduces the amount of antioxidants in chocolate.  And you should avoid consuming dark chocolates and cocoa powders that have been dutched.

So what is dark chocolate that's dutched?  It will be listed as "processed with alkali" on the ingredients list.

What is Dark Chocolate's
Antioxidant Level?

Raw cacao beans are loaded with powerful antioxidants that help to fight free radicals, inflammation, and help with your circulation.

Cacao beans are particularly rich in flavanols and the unique flavan-3-ols in the beans are what gives chocolate its bitter taste. 

These flavanols have a relatively stable shelf life and under the right storage conditions will still show high antioxidant activity for years.

The question is just how many flavanols or antioxidants are left after the processing of cacao beans and what is dark chocolate's antioxidant level?

Various studies have shown a decrease in the amount of antioxidants in the products and in the chocolate that's made from cacao beans. 

As you might expect, the amount of the decrease in flavanols or antioxidants depends on how the cacao beans were processed. 

Therefore, the percentage of cocoa or cacao in dark chocolates isn't a very reliable indicator of their flavanol or antioxidant content.

Antioxidants will be lowered by the fermentation process, drying of the beans, roasting of the beans, and the alkalization or dutch processing.

Although, dark chocolates made with high quality beans, fermented with precise control, dried with natural methods, roasted at lower temperatures, and without dutching should contain an adequate amount of antioxidants.

What is Dark Chocolate's
Anti-Nutrients?

Even though there are many health benefits of dark chocolate, chocolate is known for having a high amount oxalic acid.

Oxalic acid or oxalates is what is dark chocolate's worst anti-nutrient because oxalates are known to create kidney stones and many other health problems.

I personally cannot handle a dark chocolate bar above 70% because of this anti-nutrient and prefer the 55 to 65% range.  I love chocolate, but I can't eat a lot of chocolate anymore.

Chocolate is also known to contain high amounts of phytic acid as well. 

Both of these anti-nutrients can block important minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and iron.

Properly fermenting cacao beans for a week and roasting cacao beans may adequately help to lower the amount of phytic acid in dark chocolates.

And it's possible that fermenting cacao beans will help to remove some of the oxalates, but roasting will not remove this anti-nutrient from cacao beans.

Boiling is a solution to remove the soluble oxalates, but it's not a technique that is used to make dark chocolates.

One solution is consuming oxalate rich foods like dark chocolate with a food that's a good source of calcium like a glass of milk.

The calcium in milk should bind to most of the soluble oxalates during digestion which prevents the oxalates from being absorbed into your bloodstream.

However, "studies" indicate that milk products can block the absorption of all the great antioxidants in chocolate.  Other "studies" have shown that only 30% of chocolate's antioxidants get blocked.

What is Dark Chocolate's
Aging Process?

Aging isn't really necessary if you start with quality cacao beans and follow chocolate making techniques that create great tasting dark chocolates. 

However, aging should be done if the chocolate contains a lot of "off flavors". 

"Off flavors" can literally float away into the air when chocolate is properly aged.  Aging is also thought to develop more stable beta crystal formation.

When dark chocolate is molded its crystal structure continues to develop for a few weeks and aging can develop a more rounded flavor profile.

Some chocolatiers will pour the "conched" chocolate liquor into large blocks and leave the blocks of chocolate to age, sometimes for months before tempering the chocolate.

There is another innovative reason to age chocolate and that is to impart other flavors into your chocolates.

Did you know cacao butter has an amazing ability to absorb other aromas?

One innovative chocolate maker is storing chocolate (sometimes for years) in ex-cognac (for example) oak barrels and in fragrant wooden containers.

The cacao fat in the chocolate will extract the aromas from the aging vessel or from aromatic mediums of your choosing.

The lesson is that aging chocolate can help to develop the flavor profile of your chocolate because the flavor of chocolate can develop and change radically over time just like wine!

What is Dark Chocolate's Future?

I hope the future for dark chocolate involves focusing more on using older varieties of cacao beans like the Criollo or the Nacional.

Instead of focusing on the cacao beans that are being grown for the mass production of chocolate.

And farmers should employ "organic" methods to create better soil to grow nutrient dense beans.  This can be done by using compost, compost tea, and other sustainable practices.

Farmers as well as the companies that make dark chocolates should be compensated for in a way that creates a healthy living for all involved.

My last wish is that chocolatiers that produce artisan chocolates focus on techniques that will produce dark chocolates that taste great, have lots of antioxidants, and don't come with a lot of anti-nutrients.

And I think it can be done with 65 to 70% dark chocolate that's made from heirloom bean varieties that were grown in healthy soil.

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