Chocolate evokes thoughts of bliss with its rich flavor. No wonder Americans eat so much of it–around 11 pounds per person each year. Nine out of ten Americans eat chocolate and over half eat it once or more daily.
A growing awareness of the healthier side of chocolate has increased its popularity. Research shows that chocolate may inhibit cell oxidation and enhance mood, so Americans are reaching for chocolate more than ever. Annually, we spend over $14 billion on chocolate, up 11 percent from 1998.
- The beans, or seeds, that eventually become a chocolate bar or piece of Devil’s Food cake, nestle inside the fruit of the cacao tree. The cacao is a small tropical tree that grows natively under the canopy of the rainforests of Mexico, Central and South America. There is so much demand for chocolate, it is now cultivated around the world, with the largest producer being Africa.
- The humble beans are bitter and inedible out of the pod. The first step after the harvest is to ferment the beans to mellow the flavor and start them down the path to becoming chocolate. The beans are then dried, roasted, processed and shipped around the world.
- One pod yields approximately enough cacao to produce two chocolate bars.
- It can take up to a week to process cacao beans to the point where they are ready to be transformed into a chocolate bar.
- Chocolate (in bar form) melts around 93 degrees F. That’s the reason it puddles as you hold it and tastes so smooth on your tongue.
The process of making dark chocolate, while complicated, is straightforward. Dark chocolate basically consists of cocoa butter, cocoa solids, sugar and vanilla. Dark chocolate that contains higher amounts of cacao is more bitter, and the flavor is more intense.
Chocolate must contain at least 12 percent milk for it be labeled milk chocolate. However, milk chocolate doesn’t contain milk fresh from the cow. What turns chocolate to milk chocolate is actually milk powder.
Dark vs. Milk Chocolate: Which Is Better for You?
According to the California Academy of Sciences, “a single bar of dark chocolate contains more than twice as many antioxidants as a bar of milk chocolate.” Dark chocolate is lower in calories and adding milk to chocolate adds saturated fat. Most importantly, milk chocolate contains less cacao, the part of chocolate that has the valuable antioxidants and trace nutrients. The one advantage of milk over dark chocolate is the calcium obtained from adding milk.
Beware, however, that the kind of chocolate you eat can make a difference. A study by Pennsylvania State University claims that chocolate processed using the Dutch method may destroy its antioxidant properties. The Dutch process uses an alkalizing agent to make the taste mellower and less bitter.
In a study reported in the science journal Nature, scientists claim that the biggest health benefit of chocolate is the flavonoids, the phenolic compound that acts as an antioxidant. Dark chocolate contains high levels of flavanol. Studies suggest that milk could actually inhibit the antioxidant benefits of cacao and decrease absorption.