April thoughts: the power of (good) chocolate

In downtown Portland, there is a wonderful shop called Cacao, from which I learned just about everything important that I know about chocolate. I once attended a chocolate tasting there lasting several hours, which left my hands shaking from the stimulant effect but was so worth it. Now I'd like to pass on to you random bits that changed the way I view and eat chocolate.

Chocolate has some proven health benefits. Several studies have suggested that eating chocolate can help lower blood pressure in both overweight and normal weight adults, as well as increase people's sensitivity to insulin, which is an anti-diabetic effect. One study showed that eating flavonoid (antioxidant) rich dark chocolate increased the performance of both elderly men and women on a cognitive test. Other studies have suggested that dark chocolate as part of a low-fat diet can lower cholesterol levels in adults because the polyphenols (more antioxidants) in dark chocolate prevent oxidation of "bad" cholesterol. Finally, a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2011 correlated more frequent chocolate consumption with a lower body mass index.

Chocolate is produced from the seeds of the cacao tree. (Theobroma cacao, for you botanists), which grows in the tropics in South and Central America and in Africa. The seeds (beans) are fermented by yeast and bacteria, then dried, roasted, and shelled to obtain the cocoa "nib" (like the "meat" of a nut). The nibs are ground and liquefied to produce chocolate "liquor," which is composed of cocoa "solids" and cocoa "butter." The cocoa solids are what you think of when you think of baking chocolate. The cocoa butter is white and has little of the taste or smell of chocolate. Chocolate makers recombine the cocoa solids and the cocoa butter, along with sugar and maybe milk, to create what we call chocolate. Large mass manufacturers sometimes use artificial vanilla flavor or vegetable oils other than cocoa butter to decrease the cost of producing their products. Really good chocolate often only has 4 ingredients: cocoa solids, cocoa butter, vanilla, and sugar.

Chocolate has varieties, just like wine does. The three main varieties of cacao beans used to make chocolate are criollo, forastero, and trinitario. Criollo is grown in Central America, South America (especially in Chuao, Venezuela), and the Caribbean. Only 5% of cacao beans are the criollo variety, making this the rarest and most expensive cocoa. These trees are difficult to grow and produce low yields of cacao beans, so most commercially available chocolate today is made with the other two varieties. However, criollo has a wonderful, rich, and complex taste, and bars of criollo chocolate are worth seeking out! The most commonly grown cacao bean is forastero. In fact, this is the only type grown in Africa. The forastero trees are much easier to grow and produce higher yields. Finally, trinitario is a hybrid of criollo and forastero. This variety originated in Trinidad by accident when the other two varieties were accidentally crossed.

Like coffee, bananas, tea, and some spices, the production of chocolate involves remnants of colonial relationships, so issues of social equity and fair arise. Although no official definition of "fair trade" exists, the term usually refers to a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency, and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized workers – especially in the Central and South America and in African countries. Forty-three percent of the world's chocolate comes from beans produced on the Ivory Coast, where child labor is common practice, so seeking out Fair Trade Certified chocolate is worth the trouble.

Fair Trade Certification often goes hand in hand with organic production processes. Cacao trees are subject to a host of parasites, pests, and diseases. Therefore, conventionally-grown cacao plants are subject to extensive treatment with synthetic pesticides and fungicides, not to mention fertilizers, including some that have been banned for years in the U.S. These show up in trace amounts in finished chocolate. Although it’s unlikely that you would consume enough chocolate to make you ill, the farmers and plantation workers are the ones who become ill from the use of these synthetics, often chronically. Run-off from these chemicals goes into the water and soil of cacao-producing regions, too, potentially contaminating both. Cacao was once grown exclusively in indigenous varieties, under shade conditions. Other, taller trees, called “mother” trees (often banana, plantain, coconut, or rubber trees), provided protection from the fierce sun of the tropical regions in which cacao is grown. These “mother” trees allowed enough light for the cacao plants to flourish and provided habitat for birds, reptiles, rodents, and small mammals. However, partially due to increased demand for chocolate, hybrid cacao varieties have been introduced in recent years. While they provide a superior yield, the cacao they supply is often of lower quality. In addition, these cacao hybrids require either less shade or none at all. With the help of a host of chemicals, some of these cacao plants can be grown in full sun. This means that the “mother” trees, once so necessary to successful cacao growing, can be, and are being, felled for timber. The reduction in these trees means a loss of habitat for species, as well as increased soil erosion, thus threatening biodiversity and long-term suitability of the soil to produce any crops at all.

So what is a chocolate-loving person to do? You can try opting for organic, free trade chocolate products. They are better for you and better for the planet and they taste amazing. Some of my favorite bean to bar (smaller, artisanal producers who tend to care about the issues discussed above) are Dagoba, Theo, Vivani, Taza, Green & Black's, and Scharffen Berger (which was co-founded by family practice doctor). Amedei is an Italian chocolate maker that uses criollo beans, as does the local chocolate making company, Chuao. There are many, many more. Find a chocolate shop this month and have fun exploring your options!