When the studies were doing the rounds boasting the health benefits of cacao, I’m sure many took that as permission to somewhat overindulge in this exercise of chocolate eating. What the studies explained as health benefits such as antioxidants that protect you from free radicals in the body and polyphenols which act as an anti-inflammatory, many read along the lines instead of “Chocolate is the elixir of life”. Don’t quote me on that, but yes, even I took that as queue to face dive into a few too many bars of the rich, dark, decadent stuff.
Then the RAW cacao bandwagon gained speed and popularity because apparently everything in raw form is better for you. There is still a little thing called balance and if you’re interested in the topic of raw vs cooked food, you should grab a copy of Michael Pollan’s book called “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation“. I digress.
The mere term “raw cacao” is a bit of an oxymoron anyway. I was enlightened to the ins and outs of cacao processing in a recent trip to a chocolate factory in Matagalpa, Nicaragua; a region famous for producing some of the highest quality organic chocolate in the world. Whilst I was somewhat disappointed that there was not a single Oompa Loompa in sight, the chocolate certainly made up for this. I was also surprised to learn a few things about the cacao process and how in fact, it ain’t really as raw as you may think.
First though, the all important question must be asked and answered.
What’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?
Sorry to disappoint, but there’s not much difference at all. Let it be known, cocoa is merely derived from the Spanish word, “cacao” which is derived from the Mayan word Ka’kau’. Remember this too, it was the Mayans who we have to thank for cacao so I’m sticking with them.
The popular mainstream definition would have you believe cocoa as being the processed version of the Cacao seed (aka. cacao nibs). This is just what’s caught on in the media, health and marketing so I suppose it’s here to stick. It is confusing to say the least. In regards to the cacao and cocoa debate, there really is nothing more to discuss here folks. The rest of that discussion lies within whether the cacao has been burned and roasted and processed to a state of unrecognizable oblivion. Take for example, the Hershey’s chocolate bar.
In hope of not confusing you further, I will maintain using the word cacao. After all, I am in Central America at the moment and they do speak Spanish here. So it’s rather fitting, no?
So let’s take a journey through the cacao process so you can have a better understanding of WHY your raw cacao may not be so raw afterall.
The cacao fruit is harvested from the alien-like shells and the seeds are extracted for fermentation. Once the seeds are extracted
from the fruit and laid out for a few hours in the sun (which helps to kick start the fermentation process), the beans can then be gathered again for fermentation. This process is traditionally performed by placing the beans in heaped mounds or in baskets to encourage higher temperatures, like one would see in a compost pile. Alternatively, farmers may use the assistance of ‘sweating boxes’ where the heat can be retained and enabling the flesh to drain out underneath. The beans are stirred a couple times a day for up to 6-10 days (although towards 10 days may even be considered too long before mold starts to appear). Fermentation allows for the gooey flesh (the germ inside the fruit) to ‘melt’ away from the seed, leaving the much desired cacao seed. They are fermented to avoid rotting and to disturb the growth of any undesirable pathogens and bacteria which would occur if left for more than a few days.
Problems, such as mold, can arise when the beans are not properly fermented and dried. This may be the case if the temperatures are too low or during the rainy season. A study conducted by Cana Cacao in Costa Rica found that the best temperatures to ferment and dry beans were between 45°C to 50°C. As a general rule, the closer to 50°C (122°F) that the fermentation temperature can reach, the better the quality of the dried cacao is. This is why they encourage farmers to dry in sweating boxes or in larger 25kg heaps (at the minimum).
Now a note on the ‘raw cacao’ debate. Let’s keep in mind at this point that food is no longer technically considered raw if temperatures exceed 104-118°F (40-47°C), although even within the raw community, some say as high as 100°F (30°C) is the maximum temperature food should be exposed to before nutrients and enzymes are broken down. So to achieve the optimum temperature for drying cacao beans, the bean is no longer technically considered raw if we want to get nit-picky about the facts that some people love to do.
The beans are then laid out on sheet in the sun for a further 5-7 days. Any longer, and beans may be susceptible to mold. It’s a touchy process and one that requires constant monitoring! The research paper I referred to earlier about cocoa beans being grown in Vietnam states that this drying process also ‘allows acids in the cacao to evaporate off and produce a low acid, high cacao flavoured product.”
A very simple outline of this fermentation and drying process with drawings and all, can be found through the UN website here.
This is the point where ‘raw cacao’ processing stops other than to remove the husk from the bean inside (which is hard and tedious to do by hand with or without roasting). Therefore, to manufacture chocolate as we know it, the cacao butter needs to be separated. I love how the Chocolate Alchemy puts it,
“Finally, for those of you who have read about the nutritional value of chocolate and cocoa beans, and worry that roasting destroys these nutrients, please remember that all of the research (to the best of my knowledge) has been done on fully roasted, fermented cocoa beans and chocolate. Sure, if you over roast or over process it, you may well loose some nutrients, but I personally take the nutritional benefits of chocolate as a benefit, not a goal. The flavor is my goal in Chocolate Alchemy.”
3. Roasting and Winnowing
I won’t get too technical about this process, because just like with coffee beans, cacao bean roasting is an art form in itself. It’s a far gentler process though and one that aids in separating the outer husk from the bean (known as winnowing) and used to enrich the flavor of the cacao bean. If you’ve ever tried to crack open a raw cacao bean from this outer husk, you’ll find it quite the impractical task without the assistance of roasting. Of course, there’s machinery that’s commonly used to do this work. This process also significantly mitigates the risk of any mold, fungi and bacteria being passed on from the fermentation and drying process.
4. Pressing and Processing
This is where the magic is made to turn the cacao into the much lauded chocolate. Further processing is to extract the cacao butter from the bean because cacao nibs, as you’re probably aware, are solid at room temperature. The cacao mass is ground and pressed to extract the cacao butter in order to reduce it to a liquid form. The cacao mass is continuously churned at a low heat to stop it from solidifying. The separated solid mass is what is processed into cacao powder and the butter used in chocolate making.
So the verdict?
Well, as you can gather, technically, your cacao isn’t raw. The process it goes through in order to extract a delicious and safe-to-eat nib, requires, at the very least, a natural heating process experienced through the fermentation phase.
If you do so choose to eat REAL raw cacao (where ever you intend to source this from I’ll leave in your eager hands) it will be to your discretion. The degree to which your body can handle said ‘raw’ cacao, as it’s been noted some people can’t digest it well, is individual too. I’m not one to shy away from a bit of bacteria here and there, but personally, I have respect for the traditional practices that have been passed down through generations to process cacao and will leave it in the chocolatiers’ hands to continue making their freaking awesome stuff that I so thoroughly enjoy. Like I’m talking this stuff…
I see the use of the term ‘raw cacao‘ as more of a marketing gimmick so some companies can charge a higher price. Yeah, the hardcore raw foodists will be gobsmacked. You might be better off spending your time being concerned in finding a credible and quality organic source if you wish to continue to consume them by the bag. The emphasis should be on organic cacao to ensure you receive quality beans that have been grown in a sustainable and environmentally conscious manner.
If only we could all buy our cacao direct from the farmer, but yes, reality is that we don’t all live along the equator in the growing regions (lucky you if you do!) Some brands I’ve found that come highly recommended include Kiva and Viva Labs. Many still claim ‘raw’ status on their packaging but it’s more an emphasis on the fact they are naturally processed as opposed to being ‘alkali treated’ (aka Dutch processed). Studies have found that this alkalization processing actually decreases the amount of health benefits in cacao.
Stay tuned for next weeks post where I’ll dig deeper into the topic of whether your organic chocolate addiction is sustainable or not!
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