Unprocessed FAQ: Chocolate

Unprocessed FAQ: Chocolate

Hundreds of people have now taken the October Unprocessed challenge! If you haven’t taken the pledge yet, please do it today. (If you already eat this way all the time, take the pledge and show your support! And if you think it’s too daunting, how about just for two weeks? Or even a day? Do what you can, and take charge of your health!) … We’ve got a lot of momentum, and this is turning into something really powerful. Keep it up–and bring your friends!

Another of the most commonly asked questions about October Unprocessed and the Kitchen Test is, you guessed it: Chocolate.

There are a ton of different types of chocolate products, of course, and it can be tough (or at least tedious) to figure out which store-bought versions actually pass the kitchen test.

In theory, at least, chocolate is one of those unprocessed foods that easily passes the test. If you knew what you were doing, you could grow cacao, harvest and ferment the beans, dry them, roast them, crack them into nibs, grind them into liquor, conch the liquor (mixing it for several hours), temper it, and then add some sugar and form it into a fabulous home-made chocolate bar.

Here’s a great, thorough walk-through of how chocolate gets from farm to you.  It would probably take you two or three weeks to get through all of those steps, but again, you could do it if you really wanted to. If you are a brave soul who has actually done any of this, please tell us about it in the comments!

If you’d like a shortcut to fantastic homemade chocolate (starting from cocoa powder), don’t miss Desiree’s guest post on how to make chocolate.

Cocoa Powder

Cocoa Powder is the non-fat component of chocolate (the fatty component is called cocoa butter). Sometimes listed as cocoa solids, it may also be called cacao or just cocoa.  On its own it passes the kitchen test easily. This is also the part of the cocoa that has the most minerals and flavonoids. In other words, it may very well be the healthiest part of the chocolate.

However, if you come across “Cocoa processed with Alkali” or “Dutch-Processed Cocoa” (same thing), that means that they’ve added an alkali (a base) to the chocolate to counteract some of the acidity.  From a health standpoint, you’re better off finding cocoa powder that has not been processed with alkali — because that processing destroys most of the beneficial flavonoids.

It’s tricky to actually find exactly which alkali has been used to process the cocoa, since it’s not usually listed in the ingredients. Potassium bicarbonate seems to be the most common. Personally, I’m going to avoid any cocoa powder that has been alkalized.

Hershey's Milk Chocolate Ingredients List
Not a lot of actual chocolate in this “milk chocolate” bar.

Chocolate Bars

Most store-bought chocolate bars contain emulsifiers, flavorings, or other additives that you wouldn’t or couldn’t use if you were to make it at home.

Lecithin (usually soy lecithin) seems to be the most common commercial additive. It’s an emulsifier that helps keep the cocoa and the cocoa butter from separating, which helps keep it looking good, even after it’s been sitting on the store shelf for a while. While lecithin may or may not be “good” for you (I don’t think it’s been studied enough, and it’s certainly not necessary in our diets), you certainly wouldn’t make it at home: To make soy lecithin, it’s extracted from soybeans using hexane.

Almost all chocolate bars contain sugar in some form or another — otherwise it would be too bitter to enjoy. (You can find 99% chocolate bars which are used for baking, not snacking). We’ll need to apply the kitchen test on the specific type of sugar they use (some just list “sugar,” others will be more specific).

Other chocolate candies may, of course, add flavorings or preservatives other things that probably don’t pass the kitchen test.  For those, you’ll need to read the ingredients list and apply the test to each one.

As a general guide, the larger the company, the less likely the chocolate bars will pass muster (he said, staring towards Pennsylvania). However, there are some commercially available chocolate bars that pass the test, and in my experience, the darker the bar (82% or 85%!), the more likely it is to pass.

In the years since we started October Unprocessed, more and more companies that focus on fair trade and social/environmental justice have appeared, and they’re more likely to skip the additives — and thankfully we can find them much more easily than before (Careful, though: the major brands have caught on. For example, The Hershey Company bought Dagoba in 2006.) Some brands I like: TheoAlter Eco, Equal Exchange, TazaGnosis.

Here’s also a thorough blog post that lists bars they’ve found without soy products (those may still use other taboo ingredients, but it’s a good place to start looking), and you might also want to check out the Food Empowerment Project’s slavery-free chocolate list.

If you know of more chocolate bars that pass the kitchen test, please share in the comments.

White Chocolate

White chocolate is a candy that’s made with sugar, milk, and cocoa butter. There are no cocoa solids (cocoa powder) at all. This may pass the kitchen test, depending on the specific ingredients and where you draw the line for yourself. But just remember that the beneficial parts of chocolate are found in the cocoa solids, so don’t think that you’re getting any health benefit from white chocolate.

Milk Chocolate

Milk Chocolate is a solid chocolate that’s been made with “milk.” I put that in quotes, because it may be milk powder, liquid milk, or condensed milk. These types of chocolates usually have a lot of sugar — in the United States, they’re only required to have a minimum of 10% of chocolate liquor (European states are a bit higher, in the 20-25% range). My read on most store-bought milk chocolate is that it’s probably not going to pass the kitchen test.

Cacao Nibs after De-Chaffing

Raw Chocolate & Cacao Nibs

“Raw” Chocolate is one that hasn’t been processed or heated to the same degree as “typical” chocolate (details on “raw” tend to be a bit sketchy, and vary with each company). Cacao Nibs (Cocoa Nibs) are the dried beans, usually broken into little pieces, and are sold either before or after roasting (much like any other seed or nut).

Both of these are probably your best bet for October. I love cacao nibs sprinkled on top of my oatmeal — they give a nice crunch, and have a mild chocolate flavor. They’re chocolate chips in the truest sense! (I like Navitas Naturals.)

I think that about covers it for chocolate — did I miss anything?  Do you have any recommendations of store-bought chocolate that pass the kitchen test?

If you haven't taken the October Unprocessed pledge yet, please do!  And then encourage your friends to join in -- it's a lot more fun that way!

October Unprocessed

Unwrapped Taza Chocolate © 2009 Emilie Hardman, used under creative commons license.
Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Wrapper © 2014 Andrew Wilder, shared under creative commons license.
Cacao Nibs After De-Chaffing © 2012 Daniel Brock, used under creative commons license.
A photo of Andrew Wilder leaning into the frame and smiling, hovering over mixing bowls in the kitchen.

Welcome to Eating Rules!

Hi! My name is Andrew Wilder, and I think healthy eating doesn’t have to suck. With just three simple eating rules, we'll kickstart your journey into the delicious and vibrant world of unprocessed food.

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September 19, 2012 9:01 am

At this point I make my own concoction when I’m craving chocolate. Ghiradelli cocoa powder passes the kitchen test and then I just mix it up in one of a few ways:
*chocolate yogurt – cocoa, greek yogurt, maple syrup, vanilla extract in a bowl and stir. Sometimes I add cinnamon, nutmeg or chili powder
*chocolate avocado pudding – same as above, sub avocado for the greek yogurt and blend in food processor or blender until smooth
*chocolate sauce – same as above but sub greek yogurt or avocado with coconut oil. If you put this over ice cream, it hardens like magic shell.
*chocolate “ice cream” – frozen bananas and cocoa powder blended in food processor until smooth. Sometimes I add peanut butter or frozen berries/cherries.

Hope these ideas help!

September 19, 2012 6:20 am

I have been eating Xocai Healthy Chocolate. This chocolate is cold pressed so the potential health benefits are not destroyed by heat and chemicals. Search it on the web and get your self a box. By eating a few pieces a day my cholesterol dropped by 30 points, I was amazed, so was my doctor.

September 19, 2012 5:40 am

Substitution charts for Dutch proc cocoa just say to add some baking soda – so I’ve “made that at home” with cocoa powder and baking soda with no problem. (Made my own chocolate syrup with it too)

And I agree with someone above – the simple chocolate “bar”with coconut oil, honey, and cocoa powder is easy and a great sub for processed chocolate, too. 🙂 Katie

September 18, 2012 10:01 pm

Lecitin as a food supplement is used to treat plugged milk ducts in breastfeeding women. I have always considered it a not-harmful (not to say beneficial) ingredient in food although I never gave a thought to how it is extracted – Hexane is a known carcinogenic and I read (on Wikipedia) that traces of it remain in the food.

Beloved Kang
September 18, 2012 6:30 pm

I melt 100% cacao bars (Ghirardelli) with raw honey in a double boiler and then let it reharden. I eat it as is or chop it up to use as chocolate chips in recipes. I’m still sort of confused as to what is in the Ghirardelli unsweetened bars, though. It says 100% cacao, so is it just pure cocoa beans??

Reply to  Beloved Kang
September 15, 2016 1:18 am

Ghirardelli Chocolate Premium Baking Cocoa – 100% Unsweetened Cocoa (pouch) lists no ingredients listed, meaning that there should not be anything else in there but the cacao powder (by law) and it says it is non-alkalized. Also, the 100% Cacao Unsweetened Chocolate Premium Baking Bar which says no sugar and no dairy. Check it out on Ghirardelli.com which lists every variety of cocoa and chocolate you can think of, from non-alkalized non-sugar non-dairy raw liquor and nibs to fully alkalized, cane sugared, milk chocolates — take your pick!

Reply to  Mrs_MG
September 15, 2016 1:19 am

Oops! That was supposed to say “has no ingredients listed” l-)

Angela S
September 18, 2012 2:00 pm

I love Rogue Chocolate (even more than Theo). Rogue is another bean to bar, and he sources the beans himself. Ingredients are only cocoa beans and cane sugar. (I trust cane sugar – and Collin – more than agave.)


September 18, 2012 1:53 pm

In a moment of “I need junk food” I grabbed a bar at Trader Joe’s of their own brand Organic Stone Ground Extra Dark Chocolate. Only ingredients are cocoa nibs, organic cane sugar and organic dark cocoa solids. The cane sugar is questionable, but I let it pass.

Like Sara, I’m planning on making my own bar chocolate in the near future. The recipe I’m planning on using is from Chocolate Covered Katie: http://chocolatecoveredkatie.com/2012/01/15/three-ingredient-chocolate-bars-1/. The ingredients are coconut oil, cocoa powder and agave (which I finally bought just for this recipe!). I’m hoping they will turn out yummy!

September 18, 2012 1:40 pm

I’ve been experimenting with making my own “bar” chocolate. It’s still too soft to bake into cookies but we made our own chocolate covered marshmallow treats that are awesome. The great thing with the homemade chocolate is that we can use whatever sweetener we like. Our next experiment will be with honey.

September 18, 2012 1:30 pm

Nice post, Andrew – I second the motion on Theo Chocolate – They are one of the few “bean to bar” factories in the country, plus they are organic and fair trade.

A fun fact I learned while researching chocolate: Chocolate has to have at least 10 percent cacao to be labeled “chocolate.” So if you see (chocolate) chips at the store that are labeled “baking morsels” it means that there’s less than 10 percent cacao in them and they couldn’t quite muster the “chocolate” label.

I wrote more about the bean-to-bar process here: http://www.jollytomato.com/2012/08/09/real-food-chocolate/

September 18, 2012 1:01 pm

Check out Askinosie Chocolate – they make a single-source “bean to bar” chocolate bar, they do everything in-house, even make their own cocoa butter, which I understand is very rare. Ingredient lists are usually something like “cocoa, sugar”.

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