Unprocessed chocolate is called cacao and are actually seeds produced from the fruit of cacao trees, native to Mexico and both Central and South America. Each Theobroma Cacao (literally meaning “food of the gods”) tree produces approximately 2,500 “beans” and it takes about 400 beans to make one pound of chocolate through a long and delicate journey of extraction, fermenting, sun-drying, roasting, and processing (more on that later, below). The word chocolate comes from the Aztec word xocoatl, referring to a ceremonial drink made from the beans. Mental Floss tells us “most modern chocolate comes from forester beans, which are considered easy to grow — though the crillo bean is believed to make much tastier chocolate."
Like any plant, cacao is susceptible to pests and disease. Not surprisingly, the earth’s changing climate brings challenges to its continued cultivation and the global supply chain. Earlier this year, social media users went into hysterics over exaggerated reports that chocolate was going the way of the dinosaurs by 2050. But the truth is, as Newsweek reported: “In a lot of cases, climate change is shrinking the regions where our favorite foods are able to grow. Which means that rising temperatures will render certain foods inaccessible not because they'll go extinct right away, but because they're potentially about to become insanely expensive.”
Carlos Espinoza, cooperative farmer with cacao seedlings nursery, Ecuador. Photos by Equal Exchange.
Fair Trade America notes: “Around 90% of the world’s cocoa is grown on small-scale family farms. West Africa supplies nearly two thirds of the world’s supply.” And while multi-national corporations managing a $110 billion industry don’t want you to think much about it while you’re savoring your bar, many of those suppliers have been implicated in child trafficking to harvest the cacao. In contrast, fair trade certification from the same region helps source chocolate from 134 cooperatives across 20 countries, according to Fair Trade America, allowing you to feel good about your chocolate once again, provided you check the label carefully.
Milk chocolate — dark’s sweeter version — has less cacao, diluted with milk, sugar, and cream resulting in a smoother and less bitter taste. In fact, Mintel’s latest research shows there’s no contest when it comes to preference: milk is still the clear winner (but losing some ground lately). The higher percentage of cacao included, the darker the bar — and along with it being linked to better health benefits. These include being a good source of antioxidants (which may lower risk of cardiovascular disease), potentially lowering blood pressure, and improving blood flow and brain functioning. Take that, multivitamins!
Equal Exchange demonstrates the intense multi-step process that goes into making a chocolate bar from start to finish, or “bean to bar.” If it seems like a lot of work, that’s because it is! Most chocolate bars you encounter on the market are from “chocolatiers” which means they cut out all the processing steps of their production and begin with already-made chocolate, mixing in additional ingredients to make more confection-based bars.
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