Chocolution

Changing chocolate for good

Flavanols: chocolate's health secret

Nick Johns-WickbergComment

Over the past 15 years, the cacao flavanols in chocolate have been extensively researched and shown to have a number of health benefits. Of these, the most widely understood effect is an improvement in cardiovascular health, including a lowering of blood pressure, reduced ‘bad’ cholesterol and increased ‘good’ cholesterol, and a reduced risk of cardiac-related illness and death.

Research suggests, however, that it’s not just the heart that benefits from cacao flavanols. There’s mounting evidence to show that they can have beneficial and protective effects on brain health, too. Several studies have showed that regular consumption of cacao flavanols improves cognitive function in elderly people, including people living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. We expect further research to shine more light on this area in the coming years.

The key to these benefits appears to be flavanols’ ability to improve circulation. Increased bloodflow helps the cardiovascular system in many ways, but it also makes sense that better circulation to the brain also improves cognitive performance and long-term brain health.

A chart published in the European Heart Journal (2010) showing the functions of flavanols.

A chart published in the European Heart Journal (2010) showing the functions of flavanols.

Flavan-3-ols, generally recognised as the most beneficial flavanols, can be found in foods and drinks such as red wine, tea, fish oil and, perhaps most abundantly, in cacao. However, the treatment of cacao in the mass production of chocolate means the majority of those flavanols are lost in the big brands.

The question now facing chocolate-makers is how to maximise the flavanol content in their chocolate. To understand how that can be done, let’s look at several stages of the industrial chocolate-making process that damage cacao flavanols.

Poor-quality and over-fermented beans

Most mass-produced chocolate is made with lower-quality Forastero cacao beans from West Africa. These beans come from any number of plantations, usually unknown to the chocolate-maker, which means that there is no regulation over the fermenting and drying of the beans. For example, sometimes to save time and money, beans are left to ferment in extremely hot trains en route to markets, often for too long and at too high a temperature, which can damage flavanols.

On the other hand, sourcing single-origin, fine-flavoured cacao allows artisan chocolatiers to ensure the cacao they use is properly treated and therefore richer in flavanols.

Roasting cacao (especially at high temperatures)

The vast majority of chocolate contains roasted cacao, which has traditionally been important in sterilising the beans, changing their flavour profile and making them easier to crack and winnow. However, as with any heating process, roasting also changes the nutritional make-up of the cacao. The higher the temperature and the longer the roast, the more flavanols are damaged.

With new cold-processing techniques now able to prepare cacao safely without roasting it, raw chocolate has become a viable option for health-conscious customers. Raw chocolate is made for its health benefits, but also has a rich and smooth taste without the bitterness imparted by roasting and often associated with dark chocolate.

Dutch processing (treating the chocolate with alkali to balance pH)

This is the stage of the process thought to cause the most damage to flavanols. The naturally acidic cacao is mixed with an alkaline substance, which balances the pH level and creates a smoother, less tangy taste. However, the downside to this process is that it can reduce cacao flavanols by up to 90% in heavy dutching and 60% in light dutching.

Big-name chocolate producers know this, and they want to take steps to make their products healthier. However, they face a dilemma; because the taste of their chocolate is so well known, any change could anger loyal customers and drive them away. We expect most big brands to continue using dutched cacao, at least until public awareness improves.

As far as we’re concerned, dutching is a redundant process that damages important nutritional content for the purpose of simplifying the taste of chocolate, which is why we don’t do it.

Dutched cacao has a darker colour and simpler flavour than natural cacao.

Dutched cacao has a darker colour and simpler flavour than natural cacao.

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Chocolution chocolate contains only high-quality, raw, undutched cacao to preserve as much flavanol content as possible. We aim to provide a product that differs from mass-produced chocolate not only in its taste and ethical production, but most importantly in its nutritional value.

Many other artisan chocolatiers follow the same approach – they offer a healthy, more natural option that mass-produced chocolate will probably never be able to match. It’s another reason to try artisan chocolate, feel the difference and upgrade your own relationship with this delicious food.

Viva la Chocolution!