Five myths about chocolate

Fruit of the Cacao Tree

There is so much misinformation out there about chocolate. This post tackles some of the most common misconceptions.

1) Myth: chocolate contains caffeine

There is absolutely no caffeine in chocolate. What chocolate does contain is theobromine, a mild nervous system stimulant that is chemically distinct from caffeine and affects the human nervous system in subtly different ways. Weird ways, too (anyone need a cough suppressant?)

It’s also thought to be less addictive than caffeine (although from personal experience I’m not so sure I believe that).

2) Myth: cocoa comes from a bean

How many times in my life have I wondered what exactly is chocolate. A nut? A bean? A fruit? Even when I’ve looked it up online, it was far from easy to figure this out.

So, here’s the answer: chocolate is a seed. Or more precisely, chocolate is made from the kernels of seeds found inside the fruit of the cacao tree.

Fresh Cacao Seeds and Pulp
A fresh cacao fruit contains 30-50 seeds surrounded by white pulp

3) Myth: cacao and cocoa are the same thing

Not exactly. The seeds of the cacao tree’s fruit are referred to as cacao (ka·cow) until they’re fermented, after which point they are called cocoa. The product we buy and eat in its solid, powder and nib form is ALWAYS cocoa. We don’t eat unfermented cacao beans. Ever.

Which brings me to….

4) Myth: it’s possible to make raw chocolate

Almost all cocoa products that market themselves as raw are actually not. That includes those products that call themselves “raw cacao.”

How do I know this? Cocoa seeds are fermented, and fermentation temperatures can run as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit — well above the 104-118 degree maximum temperature of a raw food product. With very few exceptions*, manufacturers claiming to sell raw cocoa products are selling you a product made from beans that were heated above 118 degrees before ever leaving the farm. I would be VERY skeptical of any cocoa product marketed as raw.

Cocoa beans drying in the sun
Cocoa beans drying in the sun

That said, it’s possible to make chocolate from fermented, unroasted cocoa beans or beans roasted at extremely low temperatures. Raaka Chocolate has been successfully doing it for years. In fact, it’s likely that most raw chocolate companies are actually selling bars made from unroasted beans, not raw beans.

If you buy cocoa products made from unroasted beans, be aware that cacao is fermented in very unsanitary conditions, and cocoa shells are often contaminated with salmonella or worse. Roasting the beans before removing the nibs (kernels) is the most effective way to ensure the final product is safe for consumers. While Raaka may have found other ways to sterilize nibs, I wouldn’t trust an unknown or online manufacturer to be as careful.

5) Myth: roasting cocoa beans reduces their antioxidant properties

Cocoa powder, chocolate and roasted cocoa beans
Clockwise from the left: cocoa powder, chocolate and roasted cocoa beans

Also untrue. While roasting cocoa beans may change their antioxidant profile — increasing some antioxidants and reducing others — it does not necessarily reduce their total antioxidant load, especially when care is taken to roast the beans at relatively low temperatures, as most small-batch chocolate makers do.

Regardless of the health benefits, roasting cocoa beans vastly improves their taste, giving them that distinct chocolatey flavor we’ve come to expect. Think about how different raw walnuts taste from toasted walnuts, for example, and you’ll have some sense of how roasting cocoa beans might alter and enhance their flavor.

*Big Tree Farms in Bali makes cold-pressed cocoa butter from cocoa beans that are fermented and roasted at temperatures no higher than 115 degrees Fahrenheit, according to its website.