The Truth about "Raw" Chocolate


Let the angry e-mails commence! 

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There isn’t any.Let the angry e-mails commence! I don’t mean that there isn’t any chocolate that’s truly raw (although that may be the case, too); I mean that hard and fast truths about such a product are very difficult to come by. There’s almost as much misinformation about this subject as there has been about JFK’s assassination, and considering the brief length of time that “raw” chocolate has been around by comparison, that’s really saying something.First things first: at this writing, there are no legal standards for “raw” products, period. There is no independent, third party certification for “raw” products, period. There is no agreement, even within the raw food community, about the maximum permissible temperature for a food. 118 degrees F is a popular number, but I’ve also seen 116 degrees F, 104 degrees F, and at least three other candidates between 104 and 118 degrees F. With the lack of a legal definition or even consensus among raw fooders themselves on exactly what constitutes a “raw” food, anyone can tell you that their chocolate is “raw”, but that may or may not be true. In 2009, for instance, Essential Living Foods (www.essentiallivingfoods.com) issued a statement announcing that they (and, by extension, their customers) had been duped. The supposedly “raw” cocoa and cocoa butter they’d been obtaining from Ecuador was nothing of the kind; it had been processed at temperatures exceeding 200 degrees F. (The company now sources their raw cocoa products from Indonesia and proclaims that they are the world’s first “verified” raw products of this type (meaning that company representatives traveled to Indonesia, videotaped the manufacturing process, and satisfied themselves regarding temperature limitations). But “verified” is not the same as independent, third party certification; that still doesn’t exist.)The temperatures are important, because cacao seeds/beans on the way to becoming chocolate are typically put through several processes that involve heat. There’s fermentation, which rids the beans of some of their bitter and astringent flavors, and subsequent drying of the beans to remove excess moisture prior to storing, sorting, and shipping. Fermentation is carried out when the beans are still surrounded by the fruit pulp of the cocoa pod, and the process lasts for at least 48 hours (sometimes much longer, depending upon many factors). While the temperature of the fermenting mass can rise above 118 degrees F, this is not a given. Much depends on how the fermentation is done; the temperature of the drying beans, too, will vary considerably. Clay Gordon, of www.thechocolatelife.com, notes this, “…It is actually easy to fully and completely ferment cacao (italics and bold type are Mr. Gordon’s) and keep the pile under 118F…  The "trick" is to control the size of the pile. There are a number of fermentation boxes I have personally seen that make it possible to do this…It is somewhat harder to dry the beans and keep the temp under 118F ---if the beans are dried in direct sun, and especially if they are dried on a concrete pad. Temperatures can easily reach 140F ---at least at the surface of the pad. It is possible to dry beans at low temp, it just takes a lot more care, takes longer - and therefore costs more.”Anyone familiar with the chocolate-making process knows that a critical part of the manufacture of conventional chocolate is roasting. The maker of Amano Chocolate, Art Pollard, states that roasting “is one of the most important steps in the process of developing chocolate flavor”. He adds that roasting temperatures begin at 210 degrees F. Tom Pedersen, of www.cocoapuro.com, tells me that roasting temperatures should be above 212 degrees F, in order to steam off moisture content; higher temperatures also enable caramelization and a process called the Maillard reaction that add flavor to the beans. So a “cold roast” process, that is to say, one under 118 degrees F, can’t exist. Not only that, but the lack of roasting doesn’t allow crucial flavor changes within the cocoa bean, so any “raw” chocolate won’t have the flavor profile associated with conventional chocolate.

Since any genuinely raw chocolate must be made from beans that are not roasted (though they might be dried further at low temperatures), some people are concerned about pathogens in the unroasted beans, including Salmonella. Www.gardenislandchocolate.com quotes Dr. Keith Warriner, a food microbiologist at Canada’s University of Guelph: "Because chocolate is high in fat it protects Salmonella from environmental stress and stomach acid…if chocolate does become contaminated, Salmonella survives longer and only needs to be present in low numbers to survive passage through the stomach."

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Colin Gasko (www.roguechocolatier.com) tells me that people wouldn’t want to eat raw chocolate if they saw the way cacao beans were treated in countries where they’re grown. He has seen beans stored outdoors, by the side of the road, or under other decidedly non-hygienic conditions, such as sharing an area with chickens, who walk over and/or defecate on them.

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Kristen Hard (www.cacaoatlanta.com) agrees. She’s visited Venezuela to source beans, and there are no sanitary regulations on farms where beans are initially processed and dried. Animals, she explains, are “out and about among the beans”. Ms. Hard points out that there are some lower-heat, or non-heat-dependent, methods that might help this situation, such as ultraviolet lights. Farmers that grow cacao are generally poor, though, so any technology of this type would likely have to be supplied by an outside source. I have not heard of any cacao farmers being supplied with non-heat-dependent means to reduce pathogens. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening, but if I were a supplier or client doing this, I’d use it as a selling point. Surely germ-phobe Americans (and we are germ-phobes) would want to know that their raw cacao beans had less risk of possible pathogen contamination than untreated beans?If cacao beans do become contaminated, even a thorough cleaning and winnowing of beans might not be sufficient to remove pathogens from them, something else that higher-heat roasting can accomplish. Not everyone shares these apprehensions; Samantha Madell (www.tava.com.au) is a chocolate maker in Australia who has done considerable research into this issue, and she has found no occurrences of raw chocolate causing salmonella poisoning. Her belief is that “chocolate products typically become dangerous when non-cocoa ingredients, such as egg and dairy products, are added to them”. And in fairness, it should be noted that cases of Salmonella poisoning have occurred in conventional chocolate. Post-processing testing for pathogens is important for all chocolate products, raw or conventional.

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There’s another process after roasting that can heat cacao beans to higher temperatures. Once the beans are freed of their outer shells, the bean pieces, or nibs, are crushed in mills that operate at high speed. The resulting paste-like mixture is cacao liquor or chocolate liquor (unsweetened chocolate, in layman’s terms, and, despite the name, it contains no alcohol). The friction in any high speed process will usually generate a good amount of heat; Tom Pedersen informs me that the grinding process generally raises cacao liquor temperatures upwards of 130 degrees F, and even higher temperatures have been mentioned by others who work with conventional chocolate. Samantha Madell believes that grinding nibs under 118 degrees F is entirely possible, but she says, “It’s easy to coarsely grind nibs at a low temperature…it’s also easy to grind small quantities of nibs, or to grind nibs for a short time, or to stone grind nibs slowly, or with expensive water-cooled equipment, at low temps.” (The italics are hers.)

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Jordan Schuster, of The Fearless Chocolate Company (www.fearlesschocolate.com), writes that Fearless uses “water jacketed ball mills” for nib grinding. Daniel Sklaar (www.fineandraw.com) employs a small (65 pound) stone grinder for his admittedly small-scale business, but adds that there are several different machines capable of grinding at low temperature. John Nanci (www.chocolatealchemy.com) agrees, saying that standard (read: industrially-produced) chocolate is ground in a high speed mill. Nanci has been making his own non-raw chocolate on a small scale for years. For grinding, he employs a peanut grinder, and the end product emerges “at around 110 F”. After the chocolate liquor is produced, most manufacturers will conche it. While there’s some debate about whether conching improves the flavor of the chocolate, the process unquestionably provides a smoother chocolate. Originally, chocolate was conched in long stone receptacles; the process was accomplished with stone balls and often took days. Modern manufacturing uses heavy rollers or rotary mixing blades, and chocolate may be conched for only a few hours or for up to several days. Bear in mind that the chocolate undergoing conching needs to be in liquid form. The question now becomes, is it possible to conch at temperatures under 118 degrees F? John Nanci sells devices called “melangers”, for conching small quantities of chocolate. His take on the situation? “I’ve heard of people using the melangers I sell to make raw chocolate by somehow keeping the temperature under 118 F, but personally I’ve never been able to do it.” His e-mail added that his current batch of chocolate, in the melanger as he typed, was 127 F, “and many batches I run are above 135 F.” By contrast, Daren Hayes (www.stirsthesoul.com) declares that keeping chocolate under 118F while conching is “all about climate control”. He has an airflow going over the motors of his conching machines, as well as an exhaust fan that can either heat or cool the room in which the machines are located.

Again, after the chocolate liquor is produced, it’s sometimes separated into its components (cacao butter and cacao powder) via hydraulic press. These presses are serious business; according to Maricel E. Presilla’s The New Taste of Chocolate, they can exert a force of over six thousand pounds per square inch. As a rule, that amount of pressure results in a build-up of heat. How much heat? Samantha Madell comments that she and her partner have pressed cocoa liquor in hydraulic presses at temperatures under 118 degrees F, but that “the same limitations apply as with grinding: if it’s inefficient, or slow, or small scale, or on water-cooled equipment, it’s not too difficult.” Others I’ve talked to, all of whom work with conventional chocolate, don’t think that even slightly larger-scale hydraulic liquor pressing is possible under raw temperature restrictions.     There are other ways to separate the components, including a screw expeller (Ms. Madell has had “quite a bit of experience” with screw expellers; she’s never checked the temperature on any she was working with, “but the output was definitely hot—I would guess considerably hotter than 118 F”). There’s also something called the Broma process. In this, ground cacao beans are bagged and hung in a warm room. In theory, the heat in the room causes the cocoa butter to melt and separate from the mass of ground beans. Cocoa butter melts at around normal human body temperature, so the Broma process wouldn’t violate any raw food restrictions. However, the Broma process is notoriously slow and inefficient, and some chocolatiers to whom I’ve spoken don’t think it works at all. While I haven’t checked in with everyone making bean-to-bar raw chocolate, I know of no one using this method.

Even supposing that you can find cacao beans fermented and dried at a low temperature, kept constantly below the 118 degree F threshold, can you manufacture a truly raw chocolate product? That depends. You’ll want to sweeten whatever you’re creating, as unsweetened cocoa powder isn’t especially palatable. Now, as you might expect, chocolates labeled “raw” should not use refined sugar as a sweetener. Agave nectar is a popular choice these days, but is it raw? Well, maybe. Again, because there is no independent raw certification, because there are no legal standards, it’s difficult to be sure. I’ve seen claims that all agave nectar is processed at temperatures under 118 degrees F, and I’ve seen statements insisting that 140 degrees F is a much more common temperature for making nectar. Another chocolatier, who did not want to be mentioned here, raised another potential problem with agave nectar; it’s water-based. Chocolate, even raw chocolate, is fat-based. This means that chocolate sweetened with agave nectar would be extremely difficult to temper, although at least two bean-to-bar companies offer such a chocolate. If you don’t know about tempering, it’s a complex process, but one vital to most chocolate. Skillful tempering is what gives chocolate its shine, a good smooth texture, and that satisfying “snap” you get when you break a piece from a chocolate bar.

Raw chocolate can also be sweetened with dried dates or coconut palm sugar. Are these raw? Coconut palm sugar is not, according to an article at NaturalNews.com (http://www.naturalnews.com/028996_palm_sugar_natural_sweetener.html; incidentally, the author of this article asserts that agave nectar is not raw). Surely dried dates must be raw, then? Not necessarily. Some are, but some are sulphured or even soaked in sugar syrup. I’ve found a “raw” chocolate sweetened with maple syrup, a substance very far from being raw. This particular chocolate maker uses maple syrup for a number of reasons; among them are the syrup’s “superior flavor”, environmental sustainability, vegan-friendly nature, low glycemic index score, and their belief that it’s “nutrient-rich”. At least one “raw” chocolate is sweetened with rapadura, an unbleached and unrefined form of cane sugar. However, rapadura is not a raw product by any stretch of the imagination. Jordan Schuster, the manufacturer of this chocolate, has this to say about his choice of sweetener: “…we don’t consider rapadura to be a raw sugar. Our stated objective is to present raw cacao in the best, most delicious, most conscientious way possible. I use rapadura because it’s the least refined dry sugar on the market with the lowest sucrose content per gram...”  I respect the beliefs of these manufacturers. And what they’re doing is perfectly within the letter of the law, given the lack of legal definitions and certification for raw foods in general. You must decide if it’s acceptable that “raw” chocolate may not contain all-raw ingredients.

Let’s say you’ve done everything necessary. Say you’ve found low-temperature-fermented beans, unroasted, kept under 118 degrees F during all processing. You’ve found a raw sweetener that works for you. You’ve even found raw additional ingredients (Goji berries, coconut, etc.---always popular in chocolate products). You’ve got real raw chocolate, in whatever form you please (bar, truffle, etc.). My next question is this: why are you eating it? I don’t mean that in an accusatory way; I’m asking a question. If you tell me that you’re eating it because you love the way it tastes and it makes you happy, I will tell you to go in peace and enjoy your raw chocolate, and may it bring a smile to your lips and a song to your heart. However, if you inform me that you’re eating raw chocolate because it’s healthy for you, I’m going to have to take you out back to the (virtual) woodshed.

I’ll start my explanation by saying that raw cacao powder, like cocoa powder made from roasted beans, does indeed contain a significant amount of some nutrients, if you consume enough of it. Both have a bit of protein and are a source of iron. You’ll also find other minerals present, such as zinc, copper, manganese, and phosphorus, along with more dietary fiber than you might expect. Www.Sunfood.com has a letter from David Wolfe, a big raw chocolate proponent, announcing that raw cocoa powder is “the richest food source of magnesium of any common food”. And then, of course, there are the antioxidants. A food’s antioxidants, you may know, are measured by its ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) score. Conventionally-produced cocoa powder (made from roasted beans) has an ORAC score in the 80,000 to 82,000 range per 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces), according to the USDA (http://www.ars.usda.gov/sp2userfiles/place/12354500/data/orac/orac07.pdf). Raw cocoa powder is not listed in the USDA table I found (which dates from late 2007). According to Mr. Wolfe, though, raw cocoa powder has an even more impressive ORAC score of 955 units per gram, or 95,500 units per 100 grams. Recognize that there are many different types of antioxidants, and not all are found in any one food. Then ask yourself this: how many antioxidant units do you require for optimum health in one day? Of what variety should they be? If you don’t know the answer to either question, that’s good, because you shouldn’t. Nobody does. Nobody knows anywhere near enough about antioxidants yet to be able to determine daily needs, or whether different antioxidants work on different parts of the body. And, as is the case with vitamins and minerals, more is not always better. Is consuming antioxidants in excess of the amount you need harmful? Once again, no one really knows. Now, according to a tin of cocoa I have, one tablespoon of conventional, unsweetened cocoa powder weighs about 5 grams. (One tablespoon is the amount I use to make a cup of hot cocoa.) You can’t eat twenty tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder (to make up 100 grams) within any reasonable length of time. By contrast, it’s entirely possible to eat 100 grams/3.5 ounces of, say, raw blackberries or raw blueberries at one sitting. Doing so provides more overall nutrition, far fewer calories, much less fat, one serving of your daily produce, and between 5200 and 6500 ORAC units of antioxidants, respectively, or slightly more than you’d get from that one tablespoon of raw cocoa powder. And there’s never a question as to whether those berries are really raw.

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What’s more, there is NOTHING magical about 118 degrees Fahrenheit, nor about 104 degrees F, nor about any temperature within that range. If you don’t understand the temperature guidelines in the raw food movement, they exist because of enzymes. Supposedly, raw food is healthier for you because it’s “living” food, containing active enzymes. Enzymes, which are composed of proteins, are essential to the regulation of metabolic activity. Raw fooders believe that heating foods above their chosen temperature denatures the enzymes and that the food is then “dead”. I don’t propose to start a conversation on the logic of such a diet here, but some interesting facts about enzymes are brought up in this article: www.ecologos.org/denature.htm. Incidentally, Ms. Madell has also heard that raw food is “living”, but pronounces this claim “nonsense in relation to chocolate”, adding, “By the time they end up in a chocolate bar, cocoa beans (whether raw or not) are categorically dead.”

It is true that heating enzymes beyond a certain temperature will denature them, stopping their activity. There is an article about temperature and enzymes here: http://www.rawfoods.com/marketplace/excaliburstatement.html. The letter is from the manufacturer of a dehydrator and includes this passage: “…we spoke with Dr. John Whitaker who is a world recognized enzymologist, and former dean of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at U.C. Davis. He said that every enzyme is different and some are more stable at higher temperatures than others but that most enzymes will not become completely inactive until food temperatures exceed 140 to 158 F in a wet state.” Bear in mind that Rawfoods.com is a pro-raw food diet website. The site’s FAQ page proclaims that “In general, the act of heating food over 116 degrees F destroys enzymes in food.” Yet the letter from Excalibur refutes that statement. If you’re confused right about now, that makes two of us. Further, that same website declares, “…cooking a food changes the molecular structure of the food and renders it toxic”. I challenge anyone reading this to present me with even one large-scale, long-term study, scientifically carried out by a reputable research group or organization, conclusively demonstrating the toxicity of food heated above 116 degrees F.

I quoted Clay Gordon earlier in this article talking about lower-temperature bean fermentation. He asserted that, while possible, it would take more time and more care, and therefore would cost more. That will hold true for all aspects of raw chocolate manufacture. It will cost more to ferment the beans, just as lower-temperature drying, conching, etc. will take longer (and hence cost more) than their conventional counterparts. Refined sugar is relatively cheap, but it isn’t used in raw chocolate, and the other sweeteners will likely be more expensive, as will additional ingredients. In a nutshell, raw chocolate is going to be pricey. I believe that some of this is because of the perception surrounding it. Think about organic food for a minute here. Yes, organic food does cost more to produce, but given the belief that it’s better for you, some sellers will charge more for it than costs would justify, and many consumers will continue to buy it because of a belief that it’s more nutritious and/or healthier for you. In my opinion, the same thing is happening with raw chocolate. Who doesn’t want to believe that the chocolate they love to eat is “healthy”, or at least better for you than a supermarket chocolate bar?

One more thing to think about, and that’s the source of “raw” chocolate and cocoa powder. I’ve mentioned Tom Pedersen, head honcho of Cocoa Puro, in this article. His business is heavily dependent upon cacao beans. He’s done his research, and he’s quite knowledgeable. The regions where most cacao bean processing is done are not wealthy, and in-depth technical knowledge of bean processing can be hard to find. Tom points out that “…much of the cacao industry, particularly (in these countries) isn't set up to handle the finicky nature of raw food requirements. You're lucky to get well-fermented beans at all, much less fermented and dried within a specific low temperature range.”

I wrote this article because I’m tired of the hyperbole and the exaggerated claims surrounding “raw” chocolate and “raw” cocoa powder. I’m weary of the insistence that a raw food diet is capable of miracles, like preventing the aging process. Nobody doubts that eating lots of raw or lightly cooked fruits and vegetables is a good idea, but chocolate and cocoa (raw or otherwise) are still dietary luxury items. And the concept that your food will be valueless or even toxic if it’s heated beyond 104 degrees or 116 degrees or 118 degrees is, frankly, fertilizer. I know that people are angry at the way large corporations produce and distribute our food. People are frightened and they feel powerless. With so many food recalls in recent years, and negative reports emerging frequently regarding what’s in the food we’ve eaten for years, it’s hard to blame anyone for that. But if the stereotypical American diet of overprocessed, high-sodium, high-fat, high-protein, high-sugar foods is one extreme, a raw food diet is simply the pendulum swinging to another extreme. Is that an improvement? I don’t think it is.

I’ve come down pretty hard on raw chocolate producers here. I’ve communicated with a number of people involved in the production of raw chocolate for this article, all of whom were unstinting with their time and had no way of knowing whether I was going to praise or condemn what they make. The great majority of raw chocolate makers and raw chocolatiers are like the rest of us---they’re just trying to find a niche and scratch out a living for themselves. Those I’ve spoken to seem convinced that they’re doing something good for people, and they’re all hard-working folks. But if you take away nothing else from this article, understand that your “raw” chocolate is dependent entirely upon trusting someone else’s word that it’s genuinely raw. In turn, that someone else must depend upon their suppliers’ word that the products the supplier furnishes are really raw. Raw cacao beans, raw cocoa powder, and raw cocoa butter require exacting conditions and techniques. But these products are not grown/processed in the US, where such conditions and techniques can be met or acquired without excessive difficulty; they’re grown/processed in Third World countries. In a time when suppliers will be anxious to bring more and more “raw” cocoa products to market due to increasing demand, will those exacting conditions and techniques still be met and applied constantly and continuously? I don’t know.

Does this mean there’s no real “raw” chocolate? The most interesting opinion I heard about this was from Daren Hayes (www.stirsthesoul.com), a small-scale raw bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturer. Hayes has made some of his own equipment and modified machines he’s bought. Stirs the Soul offers people a choice of three sweeteners. They grind their own beans and are in the process of acquiring equipment to do their own cocoa butter processing. When the 2009 Essential Living Foods story about “raw” cocoa products not really being raw broke, Stirs the Soul refused to sell bars made with that cocoa butter as raw, sustaining a heavy financial loss. So Mr. Hayes speaks about this subject with some authority, as far as I’m concerned. His way of looking at raw chocolate is that all bets are off---when it comes to industrial-scale production. He believes that raw chocolate production lends itself primarily to small business. My own belief is that there may indeed be some small businesses doing raw chocolate right. However, given the lack of legal definition and certification, there are no guarantees; those who eat these products must purchase and consume them on faith. Because of that, because of the health hype, and, last but not least, because I’ve never found any raw chocolate product I really enjoy, I have no recommendations for you. If you like the idea of supporting raw chocolate producers, ask a lot of questions before you buy, and keep trying products new to you. As usual, if you find something you love, e-mail me, and I’ll check it out. If you can intelligently refute anything I’ve written here, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Finally, I call upon the raw chocolate industry to set some standards for themselves. At the very least, this means getting a third-party certification system in place, though a legal definition might be required first. If nothing else, standards might reduce some of the confusion out there. And in this Age of Too Much Information, anything that can be done to lessen bewilderment can only help consumers in the long run.

Special thanks:

Tom Pedersen, Cocoa Puro, www.cocoapuro.com

Samantha Madell, Tava, www.tava.com.au

Colin Gasko, Rogue Chocolatier, www.roguechocolatier.com

Jael and Dan Rattigan, French Broad Chocolates, www.frenchbroadchocolates.com

Jordan Schuster and Trevor Martin, The Fearless Chocolate Company, www.fearlesschocolate.com

Kristen Hard and Caline Jarudi, Cacao Atlanta Chocolate Company, www.cacaoatlanta.com

Daniel Sklaar, Fine & Raw Chocolate, www.fineandraw.com

John Nanci, Chocolate Alchemy, www.chocolatealchemy.com

Daren Hayes and Lisa Rain, Stirs the Soul, www.stirsthesoul.com