Recently I went to a science talk about chocolate–how it’s made, its chemistry, its health effects, etc. This was an informal talk held in a local pub, so I got to munch on fish & chips at the same time!
The speaker was a scientists who works for Theo Chocolate, a Seattle company that makes high end, fair trade, organic chocolate for markets like PCC and Whole Foods (you can also buy it at Bartell Drugs). So while the talk was mostly about the science, it ended up also being an effective sales pitch for Theo, especially since they were passing around plates of samples.

Most chocolate comes from Africa, especially the Ivory Coast, which is on the brink of civil war, so chocolate prices may be about to go up. Chocolate comes from a tree:

The tree grows a melonlike fruit, the seeds of which are harvested and fermented. The seeds are cacao beans. The fermentation process is low-tech; the beans just rot in a pile. There are a great many more steps involved in turning them into chocolate. I think the guy said there were 14 or 15 steps, but he didn’t go through all of them. I know they include grinding, conching (a process that removes some of the unwanted byproducts of fermentation), and roasting. The flesh of the melonlike fruit, though edible, is generally wasted. It makes a passable juice, but the African farms that grow cacao aren’t set up to process juice.

The cacao bean is 50% fat, so no liquid needs to be added to make chocolate. To make dark chocolate, all you really need is cacao beans and sugar. For milk chocolate, you need to increase the fat content a bit (so add cocoa butter) and add milk.

Of course, most cheap chocolates are loaded with many more ingredients, many of them emulsifiers and cheap fillers that crowd out the more expensive cacao beans.

Theo is one of very few manufacturers that imports the whole bean and grinds it themselves. If you live near Seattle, you can visit their factory and see this process. Most companies import cocoa powder or other forms of chocolate that have already been through most or all of the processing stage.

The “active ingredient” of chocolate is theobromine, which is famously toxic to pets. We humans have slightly different liver chemistry and can tolerate it, possibly because we have a long evolutionary history of consuming fermented foods. Theobromine is chemically similar to caffeine. It lowers blood pressure, stimulates the heart, and can act as a diuretic. Experiments have found that eating dark chocolate on a regular basis can lower your blood pressure.

Chocolate is also loaded with antioxidants–no surprise, because it is a plant product! Chocolate itself isn’t unhealthy, but it has a reputation for being so because it’s typically paired with tons of fat and sugar (and its natural fat content is quite high, although the fat in chocolate is a fairly healthy one). The scientist mentioned that Theo is working on some kind of process now to separate the “good stuff” in chocolate from the fats and other undesirables. After learning all this fun stuff, I’ve started looking at ingredients lists for various types of chocolate. I’m a serious chocolate lover, so I tend to buy the good stuff–Ghirardelli, often, for making chocolate chip cookies and other desserts. Ghirardelli is not bad. Its ingredients list is pretty short, with only one emulsifier added (soy lecithen). I’m afraid to look at the list for a Hershey bar.

But of course I went to Whole Foods and bought some Theo chocolate.

And WOW. The stuff tastes amazing. It has a much more complex and interesting flavor than any other chocolate I’ve tried. The ingredients list is just cocoa beans, sugar, coca butter, and ground vanilla bean. That’s all. (Remember, unlike most manufacturers, Theo grinds its own beans. Ghirardelli lists “unsweetened chocolate” as an ingredient, not cocoa beans, which makes me wonder if there may be more ingredients hidden in the “unsweetened chocolate.”)

So, I learned all about chocolate. And now I’m hooked on the good stuff!