Real Food Encyclopedia | Chocolate

People have been in love with chocolate for at least 3,900 years. The first humans known to consume chocolate were the Mokaya people who lived on the Pacific Coast of Chiapas, Mexico, and drank chocolate as early as 1900 BCE. Then came along the Mayan and Aztec empires that came to value chocolate so much it was eventually used as currency. And then of course came the Europeans to who “conquered” Mesoamerica and took chocolate back where it became all the rage.

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Fun Facts about Chocolate:

What to Look for When Buying Chocolate

As with most every processed food, pay close attention to the ingredients list. Is there a lot of added sugars, additives, gums, carrageenan, etcetera? If so, look for more simple alternatives. Try and buy organic if possible and always try to buy chocolate that has been certified by either the Rainforest Alliance and/or Fair Trade organizations. Read the section below about labor issues for more information.

Depending on what you’re making, there are many different types of chocolate made explicitly for certain types of cooking

Sustainability of Chocolate

Sadly, chocolate — like coffee — has a high environmental impact. Both are grown in the tropics so they incur a lot of miles getting to markets in the rest of the world. The good thing about chocolate is that it’s natively a shade plant, so it cohabitates well with many of the big carbon fixing trees we love. That being said, there has been a lot of rainforest cleared to make way for chocolate production. It also takes a lot of water to produce — we’re talking 2,065 gallons per pound. That translates to about 207 gallons to make a single 1.55 ounce Hershey bar.

Pesticides and Chocolate

There is also quite a bit of pesticide and fertilizer use involved in keeping cacao trees at high production. In a study performed by the University of Ghana — where roughly 1/5 of all global cacao is grown — analysts found that the “clear indications are that the current agricultural practices for cocoa production are not sustainable, from both the environmental and economic perspective.” In fact, the problem is getting worse as each year more and more pesticides are sprayed per pound of cacao produced. If pesticides concern you, look for certified organic chocolate.

Chocolate Seasonality and Geography

Cocoa trees grow best within 20 degrees of latitude from the equator and need a lot of rain — about four inches a month. Chocolate is grown globally with the most grown within Africa and Central and South America.

Chocolate pods grow year round but are harvested typically twice a year, with the timing depending on where they’re grown. Like most processed foods, chocolate has a shelf life that makes it available year round. However, people eat a lot more chocolate — almost 75 percent of all chocolate consumed — during Western holidays, when it’s winter in the northern hemisphere.

Chocolate Cultivation

Cultivated cacao trees only grow between 15 to 25 feet tall, but can grow much larger in the wild. Farmers often plant them under food-bearing trees to maximize profits. Once mature, the trees can be grown in full sun to increase the production of beans, but this isn’t sustainable and can be a risky move.

There are three main types of cacao tree: the Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. The type of tree makes a huge difference in the quality of the resulting chocolate. Criollo is said to produce the most interesting and intense cocoa. While the quality of Forastero chocolate is thought inferior to Criollo, it accounts for a majority of the cacao produced today. The third kind, Trinitario, is a cross between the other two varieties.

Labor Issues and Chocolate

A terrible impact of chocolate production is forced child labor. As documented in “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” a film from the late U. Roberto (Robin) Romano, child slavery is rampant on many cacao plantations. It is especially bad in West Africa, where around 70 percent of the world’s cacao originates — in particular the Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Young kids from the poorer areas of Africa are smuggled into the plantations where they work long days, have little to no access to education and work for years with no pay.

As you’d expect, big corporations blame everyone but themselves, plantations are very remote and governments and their corporate counterparts say they’re doing something — though it’s very questionable as to what they’re actually doing. In fact, many of the biggest chocolate companies signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol back in 2001 as a pledge to combat child labor, and it’s pretty sad what little the industry’s efforts at self-regulation produced. CNN’s Freedom Project has some very interesting investigations into child slavery and the chocolate industry’s response that are definitely worth checking out. All in all, unfortunately out of the huge amount of money made off chocolate, only a small percent of the profit is spent on bettering the lives of farmers and children.

With all of the issues surrounding chocolate’s production, there are a bevy of certifications that help ensure your money does not fund child labor or deforestation. The Rainforest Alliance certifies the farmers who are producing your chocolate’s cacao are taking measures to preserve the environment, animals’ habitat and are receiving fair pay. Fair Trade certifications, like Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International, ensure your chocolate was not produced by slaves or children, and the farmers and laborers receive a fair shake.

How to Cook Chocolate

Storing Chocolate

One of the coolest things about chocolate is that its melting point is between 86 F and 90 F. It gives it that melty mouth feel that make it so easy to love. The downside here is that it’s also pretty unstable. This is why chocolate bloom becomes is a factor when it comes to storage. When chocolate stays close to melting for a while, fats, sugar and other additives will begin to emerge from the surface of the bar in a greyish-white film. That’s chocolate bloom. The good news is that it’s perfectly safe to eat, so don’t pitch it. In case presentation is important, just melt the bloomed chocolate and pour it off into forms. If you don’t have fun forms sitting around, use this awesome tip from Food & Wine and make your own out of brown sugar and plastic wrap.

Cooking With Chocolate

The best advice is to follow closely your recipe’s instructions.

A note on melting chocolate: don’t be nervous. Keep your heat low and the water out and you’ll be fine. Don’t worry if you don’t have a double boiler: just melt the chocolate in a bowl on top of a sauce pan with a low level of boiling water. Sometimes you’ll hear horror stories about chocolate “seizing,” which basically means the cocoa butter and cocoa solids began to separate. It’s not the end of the world: just add in a little tasteless vegetable oil a bit at a time to reconstitute the chocolate. If you get it too hot and burn it, you will have to start over. If you really want to be precise, drop in a candy thermometer and keep it between 100-120 F (115 F for white chocolate).

Chocolate Nutrition

There are a lot of health claims out there about the benefits of eating chocolate. Cacao nibs are a significant source of flavonoids that serve as strong antioxidants. However, reaching for chocolate candy as a health food may not make much sense, given the amount of sugar, fat and other additives in your standard chocolate bar. Stick with unsweetened cocoa powder if you want the health benefits without all the rest.

As far as chocolate being poisonous to animals: chocolate does contain small amounts of Theobromine, which is a toxic chemical. While humans would have to eat a huge amount for this to be a problem, chocolate is in fact dangerous for animals to eat. The higher the cocoa percentage, the more dangerous it is.