Recently I blogged about the excellent Slow Chocolate workshop that I attended in January 2013.
This workshop, run by Seventy Percent in London, shows you how to properly taste fine chocolate so that you can distinguish the good from the not-so-good. According to Martin Christy, founder of Seventy Percent: ‘fine chocolate is a new world of tasting and appreciation similar in complexity and nuance to the world of fine wine’.
You don’t need to spend long on the Sweet Sensations site to realise that healthy eating is pretty important to me. However, I didn’t have the space in the last blog post about the workshop to cover some of the health aspects of fine chocolate, so I’m going to do so here.
Fine chocolate is a hugely growing field, and deservedly so – the quality of the chocolate is excellent, and it also lends itself to small-scale ethical, sustainable production, which the chocolate industry badly needs. But how healthy is it?
Most fine chocolate is not organic. Some exceptions are Grenada, IQ and Pacari. The latter not only produce organic bars, some of them are even biodynamic, which is the crème de la crème of organic (think planting by the phases of the moon and mixing natural fertiliser in bull’s horns – sounds far out, but it works).
Willie Harcourt-Cooze, whom you may remember from his TV series a few years ago, ‘Willie’s Wonky Chocolate Factory’, says on his website: ‘No pesticides, fertilizer or chemical of any description have ever been used on our cacao trees’
Martin Christy of Seventy Percent says that organic cacao used to be of very poor quality, so it was considered very second class in in the fine chocolate world. However, things are changing, and the top two bars from the 2012 awards – Pacari Raw and Michel Cluizel’s Los Ancones – were both organic.
Martin said that whilst some farmers are too poor to afford pesticides and chemical fertilisers, meaning that their cacao is in effect organic, even though it can’t be called that, many of the ‘higher end’ plantations do use them. However, as the quality and therefore the reputation of organic cacao continues to improve, it is likely that more and more bars will be produced organically.
In fine chocolate, the ingredients ARE without doubt subjected to a lot more heat and processing than ‘raw’ chocolate, which will of course kill off a significant proportion of the antioxidants and other nutrients. However, they are processed with great care, and even chocolate that has been heavily heat-treated still contains significant quantities of nutrients, since chocolate is such an antioxidant-rich food.
A notable exception is again Pacari, which offers a range of very carefully crafted and highly regarded raw chocolate bars within their larger range (their 100% Raw Chocolate Bar is stocked in the Sweet Sensations shop). Scotland-based IQ are a recent addition to the origin raw chocolate bar scene.
Fine chocolate typically contains very few ingredients: cocoa mass, cocoa butter, sugar and maybe soya lecithin and/or vanilla. This already gives it a HUGE head start on mass-produced chocolate in terms of healthfulness.
Soya lecithin is not regarded as the healthiest form of lecithin, but unless you are sensitive to soya, I don’t personally think that this is a major issue (I actually take soya lecithin as a health supplement). And some fine chocolate manufacturers like Pacari and Duffy Sheardown use sunflower lecithin instead.
So to my mind (though you may disagree), this only really leaves the sugar, which can be a problem if you are trying to eat a healthy diet.
Eating chocolate slowly, which is what Martin Christy advocates in order to really taste it properly, is a good way of cutting down the amount of sugar you eat – I find that the more slowly I eat chocolate, the less I eat of it overall. I guess this is something to do with the fact that when you eat it slowly, really paying attention to what it tastes like, it is much more satisfying. So if a little bit of the white stuff isn’t an issue for you, this is certainly one way to go.
Eating a bar with a higher percentage of cocoa solids to sugar is another option – obviously you will be eating much less sugar with a 90% bar than with a 60%.
You could also purchase a 100% chocolate bar, ie one with no sugar in it at all – the raw Pacari bar stocked on this site for instance, and eat it as is, if you can take it so hard core. Another option is to melt down a 100% bar and add your sweetener of choice. Check out how to do this at the bottom of this page.
Duffy Sheardown of Redstar uses organic cane sugar and Pacari sometimes use evaporated cane juice. These are at least steps in the right direction, but I’m not really convinced that raw cane sugar and evaporated cane juice are much, if at all, better for you than common or garden sugar.
It would be great if more fine chocolate producers were to start to work with healthier natural sweeteners. A couple of years ago I visited a French chocolatier in Lyons who made chocolate bars with organic chocolate and maple syrup, so it would seem that it’s certainly possible. And IQ make their raw chocolate IQ Superfood Bar with coconut sugar – more evidence that it is surely entirely possible not to use cane sugar.