What is wholesome when it's naked, yet decadent when it's unadulterated? Raw chocolate. With its high nutritional value and indulgent flavor, it's gaining popularity with raw foodies and crossover customers alike.
Health-conscious shoppers are becoming aware of the benefits of organic, high-cacao-content chocolate bars, but some are looking for something more: dairy-free, vegan and raw products. And though raw cacao beans are often referred to as raw chocolate, a few companies are going a step further, concocting sweetened chocolate treats that are still raw, from truffles to candy bars. But since raw flavors might be an acquired taste for some customers, sampling and education is necessary to help them savor this superfood.Origins of indulgence
Cacao beans are the seeds of the evergreen cacao tree, native to tropical Mexico, but now cultivated in tropical regions around the globe. The trees bear golden- to scarlet-colored pods, each filled with about 25 seeds, which the ancient Mayans referred to as the food of the gods. It takes about 400 cacao beans to make a pound of chocolate, according to the World Cocoa Foundation, based in Vienna, Va.
Conventional chocolate makers let the beans ferment for three to nine days. Fermenting converts the beans' sugars to lactic acid, softening the bitter taste. During this process, the beans reach temperatures as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Raw chocolate producers, on the other hand, either skip fermentation altogether, drying the beans immediately upon harvest, or let the beans ferment only slightly as they are transported to the processing facility, where they are cleaned of the pulp that surrounded them in the pod. Then the beans are either dried as whole beans, de-shelled to be sold as nibs, or processed into cocoa butter and powder via cold pressing.
Aside from its exotic flavor, cacao provides some serious nutrients. It has a higher antioxidant content than green tea or red wine, according to a 2003 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, and it's also a rich source of calcium, zinc, iron, copper, sulfur and potassium.
In his book Naked Chocolate (Sunfood Nutrition, 2005), David Wolfe points out that cacao is also very high in magnesium, which might explain why menstruating women often crave chocolate, since premenstrual syndrome can be exacerbated by magnesium deficiency.
Cacao also contains the neurotransmitters dopamine and anandamide. The latter is dubbed the "bliss chemical" because it's associated with the feeling of being in love. Theobromine content gives cacao an effect similar to caffeine. Plus, studies have shown that though cocoa butter contains saturated fat, chocolate has little effect on blood cholesterol levels because the predominant fat is stearic acid, which does not raise LDL, or bad, cholesterol levels.
Companies such as Sunfood Nutrition in Lakeside, Calif., and Novato, Calif.-based Navitas Naturals package raw cacao beans, which have a slightly bitter taste, but can be a nutritious addition to trail mix. "They're really good dipped in honey or agave nectar, too," says Camille Perrin, executive assistant at Sunfood Nutrition.
But for a more mellow flavor, point customers to cacao nibs, which are simply raw cacao beans minus their more bitter-tasting shell. Navitas founder Zach Adelman recommends adding nibs to smoothies, shakes and yogurt for added nutrition and flavor. He even grinds the nibs in with his coffee for an extra boost of fiber and antioxidants.
Raw cacao powder might be even more versatile, since it mixes easily into many foods for a nutrient-dense, chocolaty flavor. Attesting to its rising popularity, Adelman says raw cacao powder is one of Amazon.com's best-selling baking products. For a homemade chocolate treat, Perrin suggests mixing the powder with cocoa butter and honey.
Unrefined flavor for refined tastes
For those who value raw ingredients but still desire the luxury of a chocolate bar, a growing number of products are filling the gap. By mixing raw cacao powder with cocoa butter, and adding an unrefined sweetener?usually agave syrup?manufacturers are creating confections that please the palate and also provide nutrients.
"By using raw ingredients, you get the maximum potential for health benefits," says Rosita Alvarez, vice president of Riverside Botanicals, the parent company to Marble Falls, Texas-based Innocent Chocolate. Instead of cocoa butter, Innocent Chocolate products are made with organic virgin coconut oil, which is liquid at room temperature, so the chocolates must be frozen. But as far as taste and texture go, Alvarez says her chocolates have received rave reviews. The company sources its cacao from a cooperative in Peru, and Alvarez explains that the fruity notes in her products are similar to what a taster might find in fine wine. Innocent Chocolate is mainly distributed in Texas, but will soon be available in Colorado, California and New York, Alvarez says.
Most raw bars are shelf-stable, and the market seems to be on the cusp of something big. According to the handful of new companies on the scene, the response to raw chocolate products has been an appreciative "yum!"
The Raw Chocolate Co., based in East Sussex, England, has been churning out raw chocolate bars in eye-popping packaging since 2006. Offering several levels of cacao content, The Raw Chocolate Co. also uses mulberries and carob for sweetness and vanilla pods and sea salt for flavor.
For the customer who likes a chocolate bar that snaps like a Hershey's bar and melts in the mouth, Fortina Chocolate, based near San Diego, aims at repro?ducing European-style chocolates, only raw. The company uses organic essential oils for its orange and mint flavors.
While most raw chocolate makers remix the processed cocoa powder with cocoa butter for the final product, Freeland Foods of Mountain View, Calif., makes strongly flavored truffles using only finely ground raw organic cacao mixed with raw organic agave nectar. "It's a very, very dark chocolate flavor, very intense," says owner Robert Freeland.
A few companies, focused more on the energy bar market, are including raw chocolate in their formulations. For example, Charlottesville, Va.-based Everything Raw features raw cacao in its Raw Decadence Bars. Larabar, of Denver, makes a similar 90-percent raw bar, Jocalat, in chocolate, chocolate coffee, chocolate mint and chocolate orange flavors.
Since several other manufacturers?many of them based in England?are ramping up raw chocolate production, look for more flavors and textures to hit the market within the next year, including tastes of citrus, chili and flowers.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 2/p. 26