Is there really such a thing as delicious, healthy, guilt-free chocolate? With National Chocolate Week upon us in Britain, Jackie Hunter considers the raw stuff ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
The good news about this being National Chocolate Week in Britain, from October 11th to the 17th, is that there's no shortage of evidence about the inherent health benefits of our most popular sweet treat. As any nutritionist will tell you, flavanols in 70% dark chocolate actively reduce high blood pressure, while its tryptophan content triggers the body's feel-good response and phenylethylamine boosts our powers of concentration. It's as good as a licence to indulge.
Yet if, like me, you're something of a chocolate tart who'll take your pleasures wherever you find them—a sleek shard of Amadei, a chavvy chunk of Cadbury's, I don't mind—then you'll know that this is a craving best kept under control. Because whatever the positive properties of your chocolate bar, they don't magically cancel out the sugar and fat content.
Imagine my fascination, then, to learn of a chocolate product that promises to satisfy those of us who happen to lack self-control. Raw chocolate—the unrefined fruit of the cacao tree, without added sugar, milk or vegetable fat—is nutritionally superior to even the highest quality dark chocolate. This is because it isn't roasted, but minimally processed at temperatures below 42 degrees Celsius (above which the nutrients of any foodstuff start to diminish). It also boasts a significantly higher antioxidant rating than almost any other food, including blueberries, and is possibly the richest dietary source of magnesium available to us. It is typically sweetened not with sugar but agave nectar, so its impact on one's blood sugar level is gradual, unlike the intense spike and fall that comes from candy.
Raw chocolate is a true superfood—but can it ever be truly scrumptious? On unwrapping a bar of raw chocolate, the first thing that hits me is the powerful aroma, which is far more intense than a regular bar. Texturally, it is rather fudgy and mildly grainy, without the "snap" of typical chocolate. The absence of sugar, milk and vegetable fat is immediately evident, but not in a bad way. What I encounter as it gradually melts against the roof of my mouth is a slow release of pure, intense cacao. It also gives me quite a buzz, thanks to the theobromine (a natural stimulant) and caffeine content of the raw cacao. It’s no substitute for the real, roasted thing, but as a health food it makes me very happy indeed.
The past five years have seen a revolution in our attitude towards the health benefits, provenance and quality of the food we buy. We are switched on to the benefits of superfoods—as delicious as they are healthy—and quality chocolate is now something that many of us choose with the same consideration we might give to wine or freshly ground coffee. The 2005 publication of "Naked Chocolate", co-written by David Wolfe, an American nutritionist, and Shazzie, a British raw-food evangelist, was significant for its extensive exploration of the science, nutrition, history and culinary potential of cacao. It is Shazzie—also the founder of a Britain-based health food outlet called Detox Your World—who is thought to have pioneered Britain's small but expanding raw-chocolate industry. I found a dozen different brands of raw chocolate available in various delis, health food and gourmet stores. With the average price of a 40g bar hovering around £3, the product is clearly nibbling at the corners of the luxury confectionery sector.
Last year Richard O'Connor, the British founder of Chocolate & Love, an online chocolate boutique selling elite brands from all over the world, embarked on a six-month global tasting trip with Birgitte Hovmand, his Danish girlfriend and business partner. The pair—both lifelong chocolate lovers who sought out the best examples wherever they went—returned to London with more than 350 different chocolate products (bars, truffles, pralines, spreads, nougat) in their luggage. The cache also included a wide range of raw-chocolate bars from a tiny Kent-based company called Conscious Chocolate. How did this unusual product come to earn a place in this rarefied collection?
"We had read about raw chocolate and sampled a few bars, some of which tasted quite odd. But Conscious stood out from the rest," O'Connor says. "Theirs actually tasted like good chocolate. It's a very concentrated flavour. The first one I ate beat any coffee I'd ever had for an energy rush—move over, Red Bull!"
But other chocolate connoisseurs are more sceptical. Sara Jayne Stanes, the head of the Academy of Culinary Arts, a chocolatier and author of "Chocolate: the definitive guide", says she doesn't see the point of this nascent raw-chocolate fad.
"I'm really fussy about my food and think I eat more healthily than anyone I know, with lots of organic ingredients. But to my mind good food is something that can be enjoyed by all the senses," she says. "Raw chocolate is something completely unpalatable, which gives chocolate a bad name. This is not a specialist chocolate product—it's all in the realm of brown rice and open-toed sandals. It's probably healthier than chocolate processed by the usual methods," she concedes, but "it depends entirely on what has happened to the bean on the long journey from pod to palette—how it's been grown in the soil, harvested, fermented and so on.
"If you really want to enjoy chocolate unprocessed then just eat the nibs, which are delicious. I would love to like raw chocolate," she adds, "because it ticks lots of boxes for nutritional health, but to me it just tastes vile."
O'Connor agrees that raw chocolate is not quite poised for world domination yet. "Many chocolate fans we spoke to at food festivals last summer were sceptical, but a lot of those who did try it said they liked it. It's still talked about more as a health food than as confectionery, though. True chocolate aficionados are always going to want their cacao beans roasted."
Our greater problem, says Stanes, is that we continue to define chocolate in its traditional form as a guilty pleasure, when in fact 'there's absolutely no reason to feel guilty about eating good chocolate'.