Chocolate is one of the world’s most popular and beloved foods. It can be enjoyed in all forms, from drinking it as hot cocoa to eating it straight off the spoon (or mold). But what exactly makes chocolate so special? Is it really just sugar with some added flavoring? Or does it have any real nutritional value at all?
To answer that question, first we need to take a closer look at this magical confectionary treat. What is cacao? How did it become so iconic? And how many people actually know about its hidden vegetable potential? Read on for more information!
What is Cocoa?
Cocoa beans are seeds inside pods belonging to trees grown mainly by farmers in tropical regions throughout Africa and South America. The tree produces flowers which turn into fruits containing white pulp surrounding numerous black seeds known as “cocoa” (“ko-ka”) when ripe. After harvesting, these pods are split open and their contents are carefully separated using wooden wedges. Each pod contains two types of seeds: One type is called raw nibs because they haven’t been roasted yet. They’re used mostly for making flavored drinks like instant coffee substitutes, while the other seed portion is called fully fermented or dry cocoa mass. This latter part is ground and processed further into powdery chocolates and bars.
The processing method varies slightly depending upon where you buy your products. Some manufacturers prefer to roast them over an open flame before grinding down the resulting brownish bits left behind during the initial separation process. Others prefer not to do anything until after separating out the nibs. Whichever way you choose to go, there are still plenty of options available.
Depending on the variety, each cocoa bean yields anywhere between 50 grams to 100 grams of fresh nib size. However, since the amount of usable cocoa solids recovered per harvest is limited, only 1/3rd – ½th of those produce edible results. That means if you want to make good quality dark chocolate, you’ll need lots of beans. For example, 70 percent cocoa content requires approximately 200 pounds of freshly harvested cocoa beans.
But why would anyone bother growing such large plants?
Are they even profitable? Well, unlike regular crops, cacao production isn’t dependent entirely upon rainfall. The average farmer can expect a yield up to three times higher than normal thanks to favorable weather conditions. In addition, the crop has very low maintenance requirements compared to other food sources. Because of these advantages, cocoa farms tend to be located near cities with abundant water resources. As a result, cocoa prices remain relatively stable despite fluctuations in supply caused by natural disasters or political instability. To learn more about economics, read our article detailing the profitability of cocoa farming.
Is Chocolate a Fruit or Vegetable?
As mentioned earlier, the term “chocolate” refers specifically to powdered product made primarily from cacao beans but also includes similar beverages produced through other methods.
Technically speaking, both raw cocoa nibs and fully fermented cocoa masses should be considered vegetables rather than fruit, the terms aren’t interchangeable. A fruit usually describes something eaten directly off the plant without human intervention whereas a vegetable generally refers to foods prepared for consumption. So although the same general characteristics apply, the difference lies in whether the final product was derived from a living source versus a dead one.
In terms of taste, texture and appearance, both varieties share much commonality. Both consist of tiny particles suspended within a sticky fluid which coats everything they touch. When viewed under a microscope, the structure resembles strands of gelatinous spaghetti or slimy noodles.
On a macroscopic scale, however, the consistency appears less clumpy. Instead, dried cocoa mass looks more jelly-like while unroasted nibs appear almost crystallized. Overall flavor profile tends to lean towards sweet, fruity notes ranging from buttery vanilla to caramelized sugars. Darker versions contain additional flavors including burnt toast, smoke, earthiness, smokiness, nuttiness, etc., depending on the varietal. While delicious, pure cocoa doesn’t offer any nutritional benefits whatsoever due to its high fat content.
If you’re looking for a healthier alternative, try adding healthy fats like coconut oil, MCT oil, olive oil and avocado to your dishes. These additions will provide you with energy instead of empty calories. If you’d like to avoid dairy altogether, try substituting milk with unsweetened almond or rice milks. You may find yourself enjoying new tastes and textures once you start exploring different ingredients.
Nutritional Information of Cacao Seeds
Since cocoa isn’t classified as either a fruit or a vegetable, it falls somewhere in between. Although it’s certainly tasty enough to eat plain, it lacks essential nutrients found in other leafy greens. Its primary nutrient is carbohydrates followed closely by dietary fiber and protein. Unfortunately, total caloric intake comes in below the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults. Even though it consists primarily of carbs, cocoa delivers fewer total calories than other sweets like candy. Most importantly, don’t confuse cocoa with actual chocolate. Not surprisingly, the former contains far too few vitamins and minerals to qualify as a healthful snack.
Here’s a quick summary of nutrition facts based on serving sizes provided by NutriSystem:
100 g = 28 servings
50 g = 14 servings
25 g = 7 servings
15 g = 4 servings
10 g = 3 servings
5 g = 2 servings
2.5 g = 1 serving
1g = no serving
Note: There are roughly 16 calories in every gram of cocoa powder.
While research indicates that consuming small amounts of cocoa regularly won’t hurt your overall diet, experts recommend limiting your consumption to around 10 ounces per day. Otherwise, excess could lead to digestive problems, heartburn, weight gain, fatigue, allergies, insomnia, anxiety, depression, headaches, migraines, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, cancer, poor immune function, premature aging, obesity, osteoporosis, infertility, menopausal symptoms, kidney disease, liver damage, stomach ulcers, Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease.
For optimal health, consider combining moderate portions with other wholesome snacks to balance out your meals. Just remember that moderation is always key. Don’t consume excessive quantities unless you enjoy feeling lethargic, bloated, nauseated or thirsty afterward.