The Chocolate Tree
Native to the deep tropical regions of Central and South America, within 20 degrees of the equator, chocolate is made from the beans of the Theobroma Cocao tree. It has also been introduced as a cash crop into many tropical African and Asian countries.
In Latin, Theobroma means “food of the gods”, and cacao is derived from the Aztec word xocolatl [(xococ (bitter) + atl (water)]. The word cocoa and cocao are used interchangeably, and are just different spellings of the same word. Cacao (pronounced “kuh-KOW” or “kuh-KAY –oh”) is the Spanish word for cocoa (pronounced “ko-ko”). Find out more terms and definitions in our “Chocolate Glossary”.
The cocoa tree grows in the shade, underneath the rain forest canopy, and reaches 5-8m high. Once pollinated, its small flowers produce a large egg-shaped fruit (pod) that is 15-25cm long. Each pod contains 20-50 seeds (cocoa beans), with the entire tree producing approximately 2,500 beans in a single harvest. It takes about 400 beans to produce 1 lb of unsweetened chocolate. From start to finish, farmers must wait four to five years for their first harvest of beans.
Turning Beans Into Chocolate
Once the pods are picked and beans removed, they are fermented from three to nine days. This process is what allows the characteristic flavor of the chocolate to develop – without it, chocolate will not taste like chocolate.
After fermentation, the beans are dried then roasted. Roasting changes their color into a rich dark brown, and where the aroma of the chocolate develops. The shell covering the bean is cracked and removed, leaving the nib.
The nibs are crushed and ground, in a process that creates heat. This heat liquefies the fat (cocoa butter) inside the beans and creates a liquid called chocolate liquor (also known as unsweetened chocolate or cocoa solids). This pure chocolate liquor becomes the base for making other types of chocolate.
To make sweet, dark or milk chocolate, other ingredients like sugar, vanilla, milk solids/fats, lecithin, and more cocoa butter can be added in varying amounts to the liquor.
The Gluten Question
Some manufactures can add gluten as a filler to create lower quality, inexpensive chocolates. Learn about the different kinds of chocolate, what they are made from, and most importantly find out which types of chocolates you need to watch out for, by reading “Types of Chocolate and Those Most Likely to Contain Gluten“.
Properties of Chocolate
Cocoa beans contain potassium, magnesium, calcium and iron, as well as up to 10% antioxidants. It also has 1-3% theobromine and caffeine which act to stimulate the central nervous system. An average serving of milk chocolate contains the same amount of caffeine as in a decaffeinated cup of coffee.
Cocoa butter has been shown to not raise cholesterol levels, and research has indicated that eating between 46g – 105g (dark) chocolate a day can have a moderate effect on lowering blood pressure.
The unfermented cocoa seeds as well as cocoa powder are being used in treatments of medical conditions such as; diabetes, digestive and chest complaints, and in the prevention of heart disease.
What is That White Stuff on My Chocolate?
Have you ever tried making your own chocolates, only to find that they are dull in color or melt in your fingers as soon as you pick them up?
To find out what tempering does, what types of chocolates should be tempered, and most importantly how to do it, check out our article on Tempering Chocolate.
A Chocolate Shortage?
In October 2013, chocolate industry experts met to discuss the upcoming shortage of cocoa beans, and have predicted that in seven years the world’s demand for chocolate will not be able to meet production rates.
Because cocoa trees take at least 4 years to yield a sellable product, farmers have been replacing their crops with the more profitable rubber tree.
Since the cocoa tree only grows within 20 degrees of the equator, areas available to grow these trees are generally located in lower socio-economically areas that are dependent on a quick financial return.
With these plantations disappearing at an alarming rate, you might expect that storing their seeds (in a seed bank) would be a logical step to preserve their future. Unfortunately though, their seeds do not survive long term storage, meaning that the conservation of cocoa trees rely solely in the living trees in the wild and in plantations around the world.
The Future of Your Favorite Chocolates
Due to the shortage, chocolate manufactures are now already starting to change their formulations to try and lessen their consumption on the cocoa bean.
This means will we start seeing smaller sized bars (has already happened), bars that are filled with more nuts, fruits, cookies/biscuits, and unfortunately sugar, since they are cheaper to fill space with than cocoa solids.
Another way manufactures are ‘stretching’ their product is by replacing cocoa butter with vegetable oils. Which seems unthinkable since cocoa butter is what gives chocolate its melt-in-your-mouth quality. However that is exactly what Hershery’s has done in some of its bars like; Whatchamacallit, Milk Duds, Mr. Goodbar and Krackel. On the package, their milk chocolate coatings are now labelled “chocolate candy” instead of “milk chocolate.”
In addition to ingredient changes of your favorite chocolate bar, prices will steadily continue to rise. Potentially making a serving of chocolate equivalent in price to a serving of caviar!
More in The Gluten Free Club Chocolate Series:
Tempering Chocolate | Types of Chocolate & Those Most Likely to Contain Gluten | How To Speak “Chocolate”