I’ve never cared to receive flowers. So when my husband presented me with luscious chocolates from both his hands ( so no room for any petals) on our first Valentines Day together, I knew I had a keeper. He’s a very curious chap and through the years he has studied all about the world of chocolate. So twenty seven years later, I’m still enjoying all his thoughtful chocolate gifts which get more and more flavorful.

Most importantly, he learned how to bypass the pretty pink ribbons and fancy packaging that envelops chocolate. Understanding how chocolate is sourced and manufactured and how to choose a really excellent piece became his quest. Since I’ve been the lucky recipient of his intense study, I thought why not share this knowledge with my readers. Some of the most prominent chocolate experts in the world were willing to impart their mastery on the subject to me, so all you chocolate buyers out there, listen up.

SOURCING

“People are often (rightly) concerned about where their food comes from, and chocolate is one item where that’s incredibly important”, says Eagranie Yuh, author of The Chocolate Tasting Kit( Chronicle Books) and an international judge for worldwide chocolate competitions. “Chocolate comes from cacao, and cacao is grown only in areas 20 degrees above and below the equator — which makes it difficult for the average consumer to know how the cacao is sourced. It’s not like going to the farmer’s market and talking to the person who grew it. And in chocolate, some of the main issues surround working conditions and fair wages.”

Yuh says that labels like fair trade aim to help consumers make better choices, but she would argue that in some ways, they hinder more than help. She explains, “Yes, fair trade is a good option if you’re buying from the big guys–in the UK, Cadbury went completely fair trade and that made a big difference because Cadbury buys tons of cacao each year. But there are better options available, especially from the growing number of small chocolate makers (often called craft chocolate or bean-to-bar chocolate makers) that are popping up all over the United States. Many of them are working directly with farmers and in many cases, paying anywhere from 2-5x the commodity rate for cacao. (By comparison, farmers with fair trade certification only get about 10 percent above the commodity rate–and that doesn’t account for the actual cost of certification, which can often exceed whatever added income they might get.)”

She says small chocolate makers are also finding flavorful, unusual cacao that has the potential to make unique chocolate — not unlike the wine world. “These bars will cost you more than the average grocery store bar, but you can rest assured that you’re buying something that didn’t cause harm to people.”

Yuh believes the best way to find chocolate that’s flavorful is to shop in a specialty store. In a specialty store there is likely a sampling program and someone can talk you through the options. “The best places will be able to help you take baby steps, both in terms of quality, price and adventurousness.”

If you’re looking to get started, some of Yuh’s favorites include: Dick Taylor, Rogue, Patric, Fruition, Dandelion and Potomac. She is fond of the Grenada Chocolate Company, which grows the cacao on Grenada and processes it all on the island. She explained that the company has brought a lot of work to the area, and the chocolate’s delicious, to boot. (The salted nib bar is one of her favorites). Another favorite company is Askinosie. She notes they do great work, including direct profit-sharing with their farmer partners.

Eagranie Yuh

jalapeno_dusted_corn_nuts_straight_large

Handcrafted chocolates like ‘Dark Chocolate Coated Jalapeno Dusted Corn Nuts’ from Fruition is a sample of how sophisticated the chocolate market has become

Manufacturing

I was curious to know if a consumer can make wise chocolate-buying decisions based on the manufacturing process. Clay Gordon, the moderator and creator of The ChocolateLife.com, the worlds largest online community for cocoa and chocolate and author of the 2008 IACP  (International Association of Culinary Professionals )award finalist for his book, Discover Chocolate, gave me the lowdown on how manufacturing can play a role in choosing the sweet treat.

“There are no consistently reliable indicators on labels. Large manufacturers tend not to reveal manufacturing methods at all, and smaller makers may reveal them on their web sites, not always on the labels,” says Gordon.

He explains,”There is no connection between cocoa content and anything qualitative in the bar. The percentage of cocoa is not a reliable clue to bitterness or the quality of the ingredients or manufacturing methods or anything. Cocoa percentage is not a reliable indicator of fat content (have to work from the nutrition label fat percentage to figure that out). The only reliable indicator is sugar content. A 70% cocoa content is likely to have 29-30% sugar (depends on if vanilla and lecithin are ingredients). An 80% cocoa content chocolate will have 19-20% sugar.”

And all those percentage numbers on the label? Gordon says, “Cocoa content is a quantity, like proof in a vodka. And 86 proof vodka is not automatically “better” than an 80 proof vodka just because it has 3% more alcohol. The number does not tell you anything about the quality of the ingredients used or the care the maker took making the vodka. Or a chocolate.”

clay gordon

But Gordon does point out that you still look for a phrase like “minimally processed”. He says that means that care has been taken not to over-roast and otherwise over-process the beans, the source for all of the micro-nutrients in the chocolate. He advises avoiding alkalized (or Dutch processed) cocoa because alkalizing reduces the nutritional value of the chocolate.

Being a nutritionist, I’m attuned to reading food labels. And so Gordon suggests we need to do the same when it comes to chocolate. “You want to look at the ingredients label for the following: cocoa mass (or chocolate liquor), sugar, cocoa butter, and optionally vanilla, lecithin, and salt. You want to avoid chocolates where sugar (in any form) is the first ingredient listed. Alternative sugars (maltitol, stevia, erythritol) are to be avoided unless there is a specific medical reason to avoid conventional sugars.”

Tasting Chocolate

Turns out chocolate has a lot in common with another favorite indulgence, wine! Like wine, there’s a way to taste chocolate to maximize all of its exquisite properties. And Nicole Patel should know; she’s the owner of Delysia Chocolates located in Austin, Texas. As a premier chocolatier, she has serviced a who’s who including the likes of Jessica Fellowes, author of several books about the hit PBS show Downton Abbey, and niece of the show’s creator Julian Fellowes. Nicole outlined for me the very important steps to take to properly taste chocolate:

Cleanse
Begin the process by cleansing your palate. A drink of warm water will do the trick. This will enable your taste buds to really appreciate the chocolate.

Look
The chocolate should have a glossy shine unless you’re eating a truffle that’s dusted with cocoa powder or other flavoring. A satiny appearance indicates that the chocolate has a good temper meaning that there is a strong bond between the cocoa butter and the cacao.

Smell

The chocolate aroma should be inhaled through the nose to allow your senses to process the complex fragrances, which will increase your appreciation of the flavors when you taste the chocolate.

Listen
As you bite into the chocolate, you should hear a crisp “snap”. This is another indication of an excellently tempered chocolate.

nicol patel

Taste
Because of the solid nature of chocolate, if it is chewed and quickly swallowed the flavors will be missed. As a result, chocolate is best enjoyed when allowed to linger in the mouth and melt before swallowing. This enables the maximum amount of flavor to be consumed by the palate.

 

Patel advises to take multiple bites to enjoy the chocolate. She says in the first bite, you are just getting a hint of the flavors. Press the chocolate to the roof of your mouth and allow it to melt and roll across your tongue before swallowing. Repeat with the second bite, noting the various complexities as you dive deeper into the creation and discover the many amazingly rich tastes. And in the third bite, again letting the chocolate melt and roll across your tongue, you are enjoying the lingering flavors in your mouth.

Patel explains,”Take out time to discern the notes in chocolate for yourself and try to develop a tasting repertoire that suits you. Chocolate differs in taste and quality in the same way as wine and whiskey.”

HEALTH BENEFITS  . . . WITH LIMITATIONS

Before you get carried away thinking chocolate is the perfect health panacea, as often touted by catchy headlines, think again. While we should enjoy our chocolate, there are some limitations to its health claims.

“To consider every type of chocolate to be a health food is a gross misinterpretation of the science supporting the claim,” says Christy Wilson, RD, health and wellness coach at the University of Arizona. Wilson does note that chocolate’s main ingredient, cocoa, contains flavanols that have antioxidant effects. She says, “Widespread health benefits of flavonoids in cocoa range from improving blood pressure and vascular function to increased insulin sensitivity. A 2014 study published in Endocrine Abstracts indicates improvements in insulin sensitivity even in people who did not have diabetes. More recent studies, though small, have shown that bacteria found toward the end of our digestive tract ferment the antioxidants and fiber in cocoa and this can stimulate production of healthier microbes in the colon. Cocoa’s potential benefits on gut health, which may explain its benefits on heart health, is a new and exciting topic of research that has both scientists and the public are keeping a watchful eye on.”

2016 Christy Wilson

But while chocolate, in particular dark chocolate has shown several potential medicinal effects, it is by no means a substitute for prescription medication says Wilson. People with severely compromised vascular function or uncontrolled diabetes would not gain significant, if any, health benefits from consuming small amounts of dark chocolate, and over-consumption of any type of chocolate will certainly lead to weight gain. “The best intention for incorporating it into a healthy diet would be for its potentially preventive effects from developing high blood pressure, pre-diabetes and heart disease,” Wilson explains.

 

So on this twenty seventh Valentines Day, I expect two hands full of chocolate coming through the door–ethically sourced, minimally processed, savored slowly and eaten with some common sense restraint, of course.

Head image credit:  Sharon Grimshaw

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