Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Chocolate

Caption Jasmine Waheed via


We'll start this on a bittersweet note. A few years ago, in a post about chocolate, we wrote that Valentine's Day (the holiday responsible for a huge chunk - a 58 million pound chunk - of the world's chocolate sold) is "mostly a lamentable shakedown perpetuated to promote superfluous consumption." Many of us at GRACE share Chris's cynicism, but we also love chocolate and know that you probably do too. So here's the low-down on one of the world's favorite foods.

Sadly, the chocolate world is in an upheaval right now, and we're not talking about British and American trade deals. The demand for chocolate is growing by leaps and bounds in China, Brazil and other emerging markets, but analysts are predicting that within the next ten years, chocolate may see serious "supply chain volatility." A majority of the land that grows cacao is getting more and more degraded and the small farms, which make up 85 percent of production, aren't getting enough money and support from their buyers to make improvements to their farms. In laymen's terms, this means your chocolate might wind up super expensive and hard to find.

Before we dive in, a word about vocabulary: "chocolate," "cocoa" and "cacao" are technically not interchangeable in English, though often times it seems companies think so. Each term corresponds to a phase of the chocolate making process.

  • "Cacao" refers to the rawest forms chocolate can take, like the cacao tree or the cacao bean. "Cacao is in the tree's Latin name, Theobroma cacao ("theobroma" aptly meaning "food of the gods").
  • "Cocoa" is used to refer to the byproducts of cacao processing: cocoa butter and cocoa powder.
  • "Chocolate" primarily refers to the final product made out of a mixture of cocoa butter and cocoa powder. As for how chocolate got its name, there is room for debate, though it's generally thought that the word comes from a Spanish adaptation of the Nahuatl language native to Central America.

A Brief History

People have been drinking chocolate for much longer than we've been eating it. In fact, the 4,000th anniversary of our love affair with chocolate is probably coming up! 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 1,900 BCE. Considering the look of the cacao pod, it's kind of amazing that people discovered chocolate in the first place. It's thought that people may have first began fermenting the sugary, milky pulp that surrounds the beans into an alcoholic drink.

While it's still not clear which culture first began making chocolate, it definitely played a big part in the lives of the later Mayan and Aztec empires. The Mayans of the classic period (250-900 CE) prepared their chocolate in basically the same way we do: they cultivated, harvested, fermented, roasted and then ground their beans. Mayans typically mixed this with water, spices and sometimes with chilies and cornmeal. They served their chocolate hot and associated it with health and divinity (which you might, too).

Later (around 1400 CE), as the Aztecs - whose empire lay outside of prime growing territory - took over much of Mesoamerica, they became more restrictive with who could drink the good stuff. Aztecs imported chocolate, often as tax from conquered lands, and as it difficult to procure, it was treated as valuable currency. You could get a tamale for one bean and a whole turkey hen for 100. The Aztec rulers and priests were the biggest consumers of chocolate and they prepared it in many ways and at different temperatures. 

Europeans (As Usual) "Conquered" Chocolate

Columbus was the first European to encounter cacao when - in typical Columbus style - he "conquered" a big dug-out canoe filled with supplies. His son, Ferdinand, writes about how highly their prisoners prized cacao, when he "observed that when any of these [cacao beans] fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen." 

After the Spanish overthrew the Aztecs, they brought the bitter drink back to Europe and sweetened it. It became wildly popular and that's when its production became big colonial business. Tragically similar to today's production of cacao, a lot of slave labor was involved (more on this later). 

Progress! Industry! Chocolate?

Along with the industrial revolution came the birth of chocolate as we know it today (in solid form). In 1828, a Dutchman named Conrad J. van Houten invented a press to separate cocoa butter from cocoa powder. Improving upon van Houten's successes, Joseph Fry created the first eating chocolate around 1850. Then, in 1879, two big things happened in Switzerland making Swiss chocolate the big player it still is today. First, Daniel Peter combined cocoa with Herni Nestle's powdered milk to make a new chocolate: milk chocolate. Second, Rudolphe Lindt created the process of "conching" chocolate, which made it more malleable and vastly improved its quality. From this period, many of the big corporate names in candy got their start: Cadbury, Nestle, Hershey, Lindt and others. From there it's all recent history.

Factual Tidbits

  • Montezuma, the last emperor of the Aztecs, was known to drink 50 "pitchers" of chocolate a day and had 2,000 prepared for his household daily!
  • Chocolate is made of crystals. Yep, crystals. Actually there are six types of chocolate crystals but only the fifth type of crystal is the best!
  • For Spanish-speakers, "cacao" is the only way to refer to raw chocolate, and many people believe the term "cocoa" came from a spelling mistake.
  • Warning: super gross alert. Heard of people allergic to chocolate? Scientists found that many of these folks are actually allergic to cockroaches. Why? Because there is an average of eight insect parts per chocolate bar. Yeah. The FDA sets the limit for bug parts in chocolate to 60 pieces per 100 grams. But don't freak out too hard - lots of other foods contain ground up insects.
  • Sorry, white chocolate ain't chocolate (as judged by snobby chocolatiers...and the FDA).
  • There exists a fourth "type" of chocolate that was recently made available: blonde chocolate.
  • American chocolate tastes different from other countries' because it includes butyric acid, which is a byproduct of Milton Hershey's secret "Hershey Process." So many Americans associate its tangy taste with chocolate that other manufactures will add it in.
  • Many chocolate farmers have never tasted chocolate in its final form. Watching farmers try it for the first time makes for a pretty intense video.

Cultivation and Processing

Growing Chocolate

There are many different kinds of cocoa trees, but all of them grow best within 20 degrees of latitude from the equator and need a lot of rain - about four inches a month. Cultivated cacao trees only grow between 15 to 25 feet tall, but can grow much larger in the wild. The trees prefer to live in the shade under the protection of bigger trees, especially while young, and 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 sometimes called the "prince" of chocolate because these varieties produce the most interesting and intense cocoa. Like most truly amazing things, Criollo isn't very easy to come by because its varieties are both susceptible to pests and disease and have been adulterated with other varieties' genes. Criollo was the main type of cacao up until the mid-1800s when the hardier Forestero rose to prominence. While the quality of Forastero chocolate is thought inferior to Criollo, it accounts for 80 percent of the cacao produced today. The third kind, Trinitario, is a cross between the other two varieties and accounts for 15 percent cacao produced today.

How Chocolate Is Made

Taking cacao from bean to bar is a pretty intricate process that combines ancient practices with modern technology. We have begun the process of making chocolate the same way for thousands of years: take ripe cacao pods, crack them open and pour out the beans and their covering of white, gooey pulp into a pile to ferment. The sugary pulp ferments, liquefies and runs off the cacao beans in a process called "sweating," which - if done right - removes the majority of the bitter taste in the beans. Then the beans are dried to prevent rotting, preferably by the sun, and are constantly raked and crunched - often by human feet. Finally they're ready to be shipped to processors.

Here's where modern technology comes in. There are variations to this process, but basically, the cacao bean is roasted and then the shell is removed to reveal the nib. The nibs are ground up in a process that leaves a paste called cocoa liquor, which is then pressed to separate it into cocoa powder and cocoa butter.

At this point preparations really diverge. Because cocoa powder is where a lot of the magic is, additional cocoa butter is mixed into the cocoa liquor to reduce the ratio of cocoa powder and thus the price of the resulting bar. This is where that percentage of cocoa listed on fancy chocolate bars enters the equations (remember though, 70 percent inferior cocoa - as chocolate snobs will tell you - is still just inferior cocoa). Milk can get put into the mix to create milk chocolate. To get Dutch chocolate, you add in alkaline chemicals to raise the chocolate's PH level, which affects taste and mouth feel. Other things can get added in like vanilla for flavor or soy lecithin for smoothness. Leave out all the cocoa powder and you get white chocolate (and here is why white chocolate isn't technically chocolate: the FDA dictates that anything billed as "chocolate" must contains at least 10 percent cocoa liquor, which includes cocoa powder).

Regardless of what gets mixed in, the next step is conching and tempering. Conching is an advanced grinding technique to make chocolate smooth. Tempering also makes the chocolate feel better on the tongue. Remember those six types of chocolate crystals mentioned above? Chocolate crystals become prevalent at different heat levels. The optimal crystals are formed at a temperature above where the first four types of crystals hang out but below the sixth, so tempering gets the chocolate crystals into the fifth category. After all this, it's poured up and solidified. Boom: chocolate heaven.


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.

Environmental Impact

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, which is the terrible result of a global market that's projected to be worth $98.3 billion in 2016. It also takes a lot of water to produce - we're talking 2,065 gallons per pound. That translates to 207 gallons to make a single 1.55 ounce Hershey bar. 

There is also quite a bit of pesticide and fertilizer use involved in keeping cacao trees at high production, so if you freaked out at the above mention of cockroaches in chocolate, maybe you'll feel better knowing that fewer insects would require even more pesticides. 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.  (*And check out our Real Food rule of thumb, below, for more information.)

Labor Issues

Another 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 is 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. Chocolate can also be certified USDA Organic.


Just like wine or coffee, descriptions of chocolate can get a little steamy. Or gross and weird. Yes, prepare yourself for the pomp and purple language of connoisseurs and marketers. There is so much involved in pulling apart the complex flavors and pairings of chocolate you can take classes on it and for good reason. From the darkest, most intense bars to a super sweet cup of hot cocoa, there's a lot of variation out there. According to critics, there's apparently also a lot of bad chocolate.

To really develop your chocolate tasting skills, get your adjective game on point and read over tasting guides like this great one from chocolatier Paul A. Young. Or, if you're like the rest of us mortals and you think the word "bouquet" is best used to refer to an arrangement of flowers, try out different dark and milk varieties from sustainable sources. For a real good time, put on a taste test with some friends. We did one a few years back and it was a blast!  

Nutrition and Effects on the Body

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. There are numerous studies linking these antioxidants with promoting cardiovascular health and a decreased chance of stroke. But what about the sugar, fat and other additives in chocolate? We asked Stefanie Sachs, culinary nutritionist and author of What the Fork Are You Eating?, what she thought about the health benefits of chocolate. Here is what she had to say:

"The most ideal way to reap the benefits from cocoa is to go with an unsweetened cocoa powder, hoping it wasn't processed in a way that destroys the good stuff. Your next bet is dark chocolate, with the highest percentage of cacao. But when it comes to the bars, know that health value also depends on its other ingredients and that can vary from brand to brand. I also like to look beyond the ingredients to understand how my cacao was sourced -- was it Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance Approved? So if you are a lover of chocolate, try sprinkling the powder in yogurt or hot cereal for your biggest nutritional bang. Or two squares of dark chocolate per day is perfectly OK by me!"

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.

What to Do with It and Cooking

The best advice is to follow closely your recipe's instructions. However, the most involved part of cooking with chocolate probably occurs before you ever step foot into the kitchen. Depending on what you're doing, there's a multitude of chocolate made explicitly for cooking. You've got everything from various cocoa powders, to the intrigues of baking chocolate and the validity of compound chocolate. On top of that you can try to figure out what fancy words like "couverture" means. So, to help, here's a quick rundown of what's what and the ideal use of each:

Type of Chocolate

Description and Details


Cocoa Powder

Ground up powder made from the cocoa solids pressed out of chocolate liquor. Read the ingredients to make sure you don't have a bunch of additives.

Great for baking and incorporating into liquids. Watch out for clumping.

Baking Chocolate (Unsweetened)

Chocolate blocks made of hardened chocolate liquor. If your recipe calls for unsweetened baking chocolate make sure to look at the ingredients. It shouldn't have many - if any - additives. A lot of producers will insert sugar and/or milk products into baking chocolate. If the product does, it's bittersweet or semi-sweet - regardless of what the front says.

Typically this is melted and incorporated into other wet ingredients in baking recipes.

Bitter-sweet or Semi-sweet Baking Chocolate

Regular ol' baking chocolate with sugar added in. Some producers add in a milk product. If you're concerned about where your sugar comes from, get unsweetened baking chocolate and add more sustainably produced sugar.

Typically this is melted and incorporated into other wet ingredients in baking recipes.

Cocoa Butter

Typically this comes in an ivory-colored block that is just the cocoa butter separated out from the cocoa powder. Some companies make a powder form. Comes unrefined or refined. Refined means all the cocoa solids are stripped out to make it flavorless.

This can be used just like any oil that's solid at room temperature. Yes, you can fry with it. Or rub it on your skin. Have fun.

Chocolate Chips

You know what these are! Regular chocolate made in little bitty form. Like regular chocolate, check over those ingredients.

Great for dropping in baked goods and even better for melting.

Chocolate Bars

The same type of chocolate you buy in the candy section. What makes these different from bars of baking chocolate is that these have sugar added in - and milk if it's milk chocolate. 

You can melt these, but make sure you break them up in little pieces so that they heat and melt evenly.


Super fancy chocolate that chocolatiers use. It has higher cocoa butter content and high cocoa powder content: more than 35 percent of each.

This is the good stuff: use it for melting, coating and baking. Be careful if you're trying to substitute as it won't act the same as other chocolates because of the proportion of ingredients.

Compound Chocolate or Confectioner's Chocolate

It's basically chocolate with vegetable oil mixed in to save on cost. I don't want to use the word "fake," but the FDA won't let producers claim it's chocolate.

If you must use this stuff go for it.

Chocolate Syrup

Look at your chocolate syrup's ingredient list. Is the first ingredient high fructose corn syrup? There is better chocolate syrup out there: you've just got to find it!

Chocolate milk, duh. Also a great topping and is called for in a lot of homemade recipes.

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 about not having 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, do not pass go and do not collect $200 - you'll have to start over. If you really want to be precise, drop in a candy thermometer and keep it between 100 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit (115 for white chocolate).

Storage Tips

One of the coolest things about chocolate is that its melting point is between 86 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  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. Obviously at 98.6 degrees average, the human body will melt chocolate. Queue the reel of cute kids making sad faces with floppy chocolate bars emerging from pockets. 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 whatever you do, 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 and Wine and make your own out of brown sugar and plastic wrap.

This post was originally published in February 2015.