From cocoa to chocolate

It is pretty difficult to imagine a world without the tasty treat that is chocolate. Most of us are pretty big fans of this delicacy in one form or another. As many of you know, the main ingredient in chocolate is cocoa. But we are going to go a bit deeper than this today! Did you know that cocoa beans are from South America, and that they were once so prized by the Aztecs and Mayans that they were made into beverages and also used as a form of currency?

Hernan Cortes of Spain was the first European to come into contact with cocoa during his invasion of the Americas. He described the cocoa beverages of the local people as being divine and being able to strengthen to body and help overcome fatigue. The word:”cocoa” comes from the Mayan word “kakawa.” Even the scientific name for these plants references their divinity, quite literally referring to them as food of the gods! The name for this genus is Theobroma, with “theos” meaning “god” and “bromine” meaning “food.” It is thus unsurprising that the Aztecs held large stocks of cocoa in warehouses and that it rapidly expanded in popularity around the globe.


Different types of cocoa, different types of chocolate?

Genetically, there are three distinct varieties of cocoa that also differ in morphological characteristics. The Criollo variety is characterised by a shorter lifespan, high susceptibility to pests and diseases, and low yields, with a cocoa that tastes slightly bitter and is very aromatic as well as containing fewer polyphenols thus giving it a cinnamon colour and its bitter taste. Chocolate from this cocoa is considered the queen of chocolates as it is characterised by extreme softness, almost no bitterness, and a great intensity of taste.

Forastero is the most widely grown variety in the world as it is more productive and less susceptible to pests and diseases. Grains from this variety are less expensive than from the Criollo plants as they are of lower quality and intended for mass production. This cocoa has a strong bitter and sour taste, and about 80% of chocolate globally is made using this type.

The Trinitario variety is a hybrid made from crossing the Criollo and Forastero varieties. Made on the island of Trinidad near Venezuela, today this variety is grown in many parts of South and Central America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. This variety is characterised by high productivity and disease resistance while maintaining a wonderfully rounded odour that makes it a preferred source to the Forastero variety.

There is also a sub-variety of the Forastero cocoa that is of a high quality, but it thrives only in Ecuador.


The Cocoa plant

Cocoa is an evergreen shrub that can grow up to 15 metres in height. As mentioned, it is originally from Central and South America, and thus requires a nutrient-rich soil and temperatures above 16°C and lots of water in order to grow. These conditions thus limit its cultivation to the tropics.

The flowers of this plant are white or red in colour, and the fruits (pods the size of a medium cucumber) develop from them. The plants will begin to produce fruit after about 3-5 years, with the average bush having about 40 fruits. Unlike most other plants, the fruits are borne not on thin terminal branches, but on thicker branches or even directly on the trunk. Ripe fruits remain green, though may sometimes turn a yellow-orange or red colour, though these are considered to be of lesser quality as they contain less aroma and flavour.

The fruit consists of a coarse, leathery shell beneath which the sweet and slimy flesh exists that surrounds each seed individually. 35-50 almond-sized seeds can be found in a single fruit. Both the flesh of the fruit and the seeds may be used as food, though the seeds are the source of cocoa as we know it. These seeds contain high levels of fats and the specific alkaloid, theobromine, named after the plant.


From fruits to chocolate

Using bent knives on long sticks, the fruits are cut away from the trunks of the plants. The fruits are then cut open and the skin discarded, leaving the flesh and seeds exposed to heat for several days, as the raw seeds are useless for processing. The real cocoa flavour develops only after the seeds have been fermented, dried, and roasted. When the flesh and seeds are left in the heat, “sweating” takes place and the dense flesh liquefies due to fermentation leaving behind the seeds. In some countries, this liquefied flesh is actually used in the distillation of alcohol.

This fermentation process is incredibly important to the quality of the final product. Fermented cocoa beans have a nice brown colour, but the flavours are not yet developed. These flavours are obtained by drying and roasting the beans under the sun or in artificial heat. The seeds need to be constantly turned and rubbed and crushed, with this being done by foot in smaller plantations.

This roasting serves several functions: it sterilises the grains and removes microorganisms, mould, and bacteria after fermentation. It also removes the outer shell of the grain and allows it to become crispy. Furthermore, various chemical reactions occur during roasting, the end product of which bears the true chocolate taste.

Roasted cocoa beans can be used as a crunchy and healthy addition to many dishes, drinks, and desserts, though in order to obtain other products they must pass through a mill where they are broken into fine particles. The process then continues, with the substance being pressed to eliminate cocoa butter, about 54% of the mass. What remains is then ground even finer to produce cocoa powder, which may contain up to 26% residual cocoa butter. Further processing is then needed to turn this powder into chocolate, with sugar, milk powder, lecithin, and other substances being added. Chocolate is polymorphic, which means that its crystalline solid structure may occur in different ways. In order for the chocolate to be perfect, it must be well poured into moulds and allowed to crystallise properly.


Composition

Cocoa has an incredibly complex composition, with 300-500 different chemical components. Cocoa butter is the main constituent of the grain, which consists of saturated stearic and palmitic fatty acids and once unsaturated oleic fatty acids. The coca powder obtained from the remainder of the ground grains after butter extraction is extremely rich in minerals such as manganese, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc. 100 g of cocoa powder also contains about 230 mg of caffeine and 2057 mg of theobromine, two alkaloids that have stimulating effects on the central nervous system. Perhaps even more important are the flavanols found in cocoa beans. These substances are antioxidants of the polyphenol family.


Caffeine and theobromine

Together with theophylline, caffeine and theobromine form a group of related alkaloids that are often found in the plant world in plants that have been important to humans, such as tea tree, guarana, cola, paraguayan, bodice or mate, coffee, and cocoa. People have long known that these plants have a stimulating effect when consumed, thus reducing fatigue and improving mood as well as working ability. In the early 20th century, classical pharmacological research confirmed what indigenous people have long known, as well as finding methylxanthines, which have many other important pharmacological effects.


Cocoa and health

Research has shown that cocoa and dark chocolate have a positive effect on our blood vessels as they lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol while improving insulin resistance. The flavours of coca and dark chocolate act on the vascular wall and help maintain the elasticity of the blood vessels, thus contributing to the natural flow of blood. It is important to note that the amount of flavanols in cocoa depends on the variety and the growing area, as well as the preparation as flavanols can be destroyed in processing.

We also need to remember that chocolate contains many other products, such as milk, unhealthy fats, and sugars that are high in calories. The cocoa is the portion that contains the flavanols and other healthy substances, so logically the higher the proportion of coca in the chocolate the healthier it is. White chocolate does not contain cocoa as all and thus we see none of the useful substances from cocoa in it (sorry, white chocolate lovers…).

To conclude, it is good to have some chocolate on your menu, and even better to use cocoa powder. When going for the chocolate, aim for dark chocolate rather than milk. Sadly the bitterness of dark chocolate often makes us go for the sweet milk chocolate instead!

The table below shows what cocoa powder contains with no added sugar. The data is from the US database, but variation occurs as many factors such as growth region, roasting method, and further processing effect the nutritional.

Energy

228

kcal

Proteins

19,6

g

Total fats

13,7

g

Carbohydrates

57,9

g

Sugar

1,75

g

Fibers

37

g

Calcium (Ca)

128

mg

Iron (Fe)

13,86

mg

Magnesium (Mg)

499

mg

Phosphorus (P)

734

mg

Potassium (K)

1524

mg

Sodium (Na)

21

mg

Zinc (Zn)

6,81

mg

Copper (Cu)

4

mg

Manganese (Mn)

4

mg

Selenium (Se)

14,3

µg

Vitamin A

0

µg

Vitamin E

0,1

mg

Vitamin D

0

µg

Vitamin C

0

mg

Thiamin (B1)

0

mg

Riboflavin (B2)

0

mg

Niacin (B3)

2

mg

Pantothenic acid (B5)

0

mg

Vitamin B6

0

mg

Folic acid (B9)

32

µg

Vitamin B12

0

µg

Vitamin K

2,5

µg

 

Have a nice day and enjoy your chocolate!

The Hungry Pumpkin team

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