What is Dark Chocolate?

What is dark chocolate and is a higher percentage of cacao really the best choice for a great tasting chocolate bar?

And will you get more chocolate 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.

Keep in mind, that every step of the chocolate making process influences the quality of the chocolate you will be consuming. 

This will include how the cacao beans were fermented, dried, packaged, roasted, conched, and tempered.

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

And the flavor of the chocolate bar will 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 and were the beans used by the Mayans.

These beans were discovered in Mexico, but may originate from the Amazon.  High quality Criollo beans will be 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 a short roasting time to draw out their rich delicate flavor.

Criollo cacao beans have many sub-varieties such as Porcelana Blanca, Rio Caribe, Chuao, Puerto Cabello, Ocumare, and Carupano.

Forastero cacao beans originally came from the Amazon and Forastero cacao trees are very fruitful.  Most of the chocolate you've eaten and produced these days 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.

There are a few sub-varieties of the Forastero cacao beans such as 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/cocoa beans listed as the first ingredient.  In general, any chocolate with a percentage of 50% or over is a dark chocolate bar.

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, and spices.

Sweet Dark Chocolate - usually contains 35 to 45% chocolate liquor which includes any extra cacao butter or powder.  The rest of the chocolate bar will be 65 to 55% filler ingredients like sugar, vanilla, spices, lecithin, etc.

Semi-Sweet Dark Chocolate - usually contains 40 to 62% chocolate liquor which includes any extra cacao butter or powder.  The rest of the chocolate bar will be 60 to 38% filler ingredients like sugar, vanilla, spices, lecithin, etc.

Bittersweet Chocolate - usually contains 60 to 85% chocolate liquor plus any extra cacao butter or powder.  And the rest of the chocolate bar will be 40 to 15% filler ingredients like sugar, vanilla, spices, 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.  And this type of chocolate is mainly used for baking as it is way too bitter to eat like a chocolate bar.

And 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", "Direct Trade", and "Sustainable Chocolate"? 

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.

Sustainable chocolate is more rare to see and implies conservation of the land, preservation of rare cacao varieties, highest wages for farmers, and good tasting chocolates.

You want to look for dark chocolate bars that have minimal ingredients that are also 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 fight free radicals, inflammation, and help with your circulation.

Cacao beans are particularly rich in flavanols and the unique flavan-3-ols in cacao 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.

The question is just how many flavanols or antioxidants are left after the roasting process of the cacao beans?  What is dark chocolate's antioxidant level?

Studies have shown that antioxidants decrease in cacao products depending on how much processing cacao beans receive.

Cacao beans that are dried and roasted at lower temperatures will contain more antioxidants than beans that were roasted at high temperatures. 

What is Dark Chocolate and
Is it Allowed On a Vegan Diet?

Dark chocolates are considered vegan, paleo, and keto friendly because you won't find any milk products in this type of chocolate. 

And dark chocolate is usually lower in carbs.

Milk products are not allowed on a vegan diet and are usually only found in chocolates that are labeled as "milk chocolate" or "white chocolate".

Dark chocolate comes from the fruit of the cacao tree.  The fruit of the cacao plant is actually a pod that contains cacao beans that are full of chocolate.

Therefore, vegans are technically allowed to have any type of chocolate as long as it does not contain any milk or milk derivatives.

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.  And other "studies" have shown that only 30% of chocolate's great antioxidants will 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 heirloom varieties of cacao beans like the Nacional.

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

And farmers that grow cacao beans should employ "organic" methods that involve creating better soil to grow nutrient dense beans which can be done by using compost, compost tea, and other sustainable practices.

Farmers as well as the companies that make dark chocolate 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 a lot of antioxidants, and don't come with a lot of anti-nutrients.

And I think that can be done with 65 to 70% dark chocolate.

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