Dark chocolate is a superfood packed with numerous antioxidants, more than green tea or even red wine. The darker you go, the more antioxidants you’ll get, but there needs to be a balance between eating palatable dark chocolate and getting the health benefits.
Chocolate dates back to the Mayans who actually believed it was the food of the gods and drank it as a bitter fermented beverage mixed with spices or wine. It has also been used for medicinal purposes from ancient times. The Mayans used cacao in the early 15th century, in various forms to treat illnesses such as skin rashes, fever, fatigue and so on. And it still contains all the goodness if picked the right bar and eaten in the right quantity. Throughout history, chocolate is considered to be extremely healthy.
In the present times, however, most commercial chocolates contain ingredients that add fat, sugar and calories. Excessive consumption of the same can contribute to weight gain, a risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. Such chocolates do more harm than good; hence moderation is necessary. Also, these chocolates are majorly a combination of fat and sugars which doesn’t provide us with the nutrients that cacao originally contains.
Thankfully, a lot of craft chocolate makers are coming to the rescue by introducing the consumers to the world of ‘real chocolate’ by offering dark chocolates which strike the perfect balance of health and taste. The movement of the craft chocolate industry was started in the early 2000s and is gaining popularity as patrons become more careful about what they eat. In India as well a few chocolate makers are creating awareness about dark chocolates and its benefits and offering healthier options to the people of this country. The craft chocolate makers majorly focus on dark chocolates which is 50% and above. Such bars are packed with nutrients and antioxidants as they are made skilfully with the highest grade cacao and in small batches.
Most people love chocolate. Sometimes it gives us the quick boost we need. But there might actually be some scientific explanation as to why chocolate is so popular and has mood-boosting properties. This may be due to the fact that its full of antioxidants, flavanol and theobromine which helps us in controlling low blood pressure levels, combating depression, improves blood flow and helps in weight loss. One other major health benefit of dark chocolate is that it may lower the risk of cancer. Since dark chocolate contains phytochemicals with antioxidant properties, it has long been thought of as a way to prevent cancer.
Dark Chocolate or chocolate without milk additives typically contains more than twice as many antioxidants as a bar of milk chocolate while harbouring fewer calories. However, making dark chocolate is a lengthy process. Cacao beans are picked from the cacao tree when ripe, then cleaned and left to ferment for around two to nine days, using the naturally present yeasts or with a yeast-based starter, depending on the manufacturer. The beans are then covered by banana leaves or put in wooden sweating boxes to develop their flavour. The temperature, humidity and aeration will all add to the flavour.
After fermentation, the beans are dried and roasted, much like coffee, allowing them to darken in colour to a rich, dark brown and develop additional flavour and aroma. Roasting plays a crucial role in bringing out the flavours of the beans. It needs to be skillfully roasted to bring the best in the beans.
The roasted beans are then winnowed, which is a process that removes the bean’s outer shell, or hull, and leaves behind the inner bean, or nibs. These nibs are then ground or milled at high pressure to produce cocoa mass – also known as chocolate liquor – and cocoa butter.
The cocoa mass and cocoa butter are then mixed together with sugar to produce a paste that then goes through a process known as ‘Conching’. This is a careful process of heating and aerating the mixture under heat until it becomes smooth and creamy. The longer the mixture conched, the smoother the chocolate will be. It’s the most crucial step to make a smooth bar with lower acidity. Tempering is the process whereby chocolate is slowly bought to a specific temperature, then poured into a mould to cool and become its stable, solid, edible chocolate form.
Research has shown dark chocolate (70% cocoa and above) to have numerous health benefits including its impact on cholesterol and cardiovascular health, mood, cognitive function, gut health, and protection of skin from sun damage. However, moderation is the key.
While fruit, vegetables and tea are known sources of antioxidants, research shows that the cocoa bean is more potent, with one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants and beneficial nutrients in the world.
So next time you pick a chocolate bar, make a healthy choice.
(Sheetal Saxena is a chocolatier and founder 'Colocal'. The views expressed in this article are personal and may not reflect the views of Outlook Magazine.)