Chocolate 101 

On this romantic holiday, one food item that is part of most people’s Valentine’s Day treats is chocolate. But what is chocolate? How’s it made? And what’s the difference between the three types (white, milk, and dark)? And does it even matter? 

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Happy Valentine’s day! 

On this romantic holiday, one food item that is part of most people’s Valentine’s Day treats is chocolate. But what is chocolate? How’s it made? And what’s the difference between the three types (white, milk, and dark)? And does it even matter? 

What is chocolate? 

Chocolate comes from one of 4 varieties of the Theobroma Cacao species of tree. Forastero is the most common variety and can be found in most cacao products like cacao butter, cacao liquor, cacao powder, and of course chocolate. The other three varieties, Criollo, Trinitario, and Nacional, are rarer with the Nacional variety being the rarest as it was recently rediscovered in Peru in 2011. All cacao products are made from the bean pod that grows from the trunk and main branches of the tree. Once harvested they are cut open and the bean and the sweet pulp around them are fermented for up to six days, then dried, selected, and processed. 

Chocolate lesson set up at the Belize Chocolate Company

How is it made? 

I first learned about how chocolate was made while visiting San Pedro, Belize with a university class, and in some of our free time a group of us went to the Belize Chocolate Company to learn about chocolate, and of course, eat some chocolate. 

The dried fermented beans are about the size of a large lima bean and covered in a flaky shell which was once the sweet pulp that surrounded the bean. This shell can be used to make tea and I enjoy adding it to my coffee for a slightly dark chocolate flavor. Inside the shell are the cacao nibs. 

Cocoa nibs are the starting point for a lot of cocoa products. Crushing the nibs turns them into chocolate liquor, which is like thick chocolate syrup in texture and tastes like really dark chocolate. Adding sugar, and milk powder make this into chocolate which will harden when allowed to set. If however, you press the chocolate liquor with high pressure it will separate the solids from the liquids, i.e. cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Dutch-processed cocoa powder is treated with alkali which gives it a neutral pH as well as a milder less acidic taste and darker color.  

You can also make chocolate by combining the cocoa solid or powder with the fat (cocoa butter commonly), milk, and sugar. 

What’s the difference between the three types (white, milk, and dark)? 

Let’s review what goes into chocolate to make chocolate: cocoa solids or powder with fat (cocoa butter commonly), milk, and sugar. Understanding what goes into making chocolate makes it easier to separate the three main types of chocolate. 

White chocolate is often sneered at as it’s not “real chocolate” and in a sense that is true. White chocolate does not contain any cocoa solids, which is why it is white. All that’s left is the fat, milk, and sugar. The FDA requires that white chocolate must not contain less than 20% cacao fat or cocoa butter. The rest can be made up of dairy, other fats, sweeteners, or other flavorings

Milk chocolate must contain at least 10 percent chocolate liquor. The rest as the name suggests is commonly made up of dairy products and sugar. However recently there have been dairy-free milk chocolates that have been made with oat milk.  If you have been avoiding dairy products and you’re missing white chocolate, I highly suggest seeking them out. 

Lastly, Dark chocolate is made without milk products. You may have noticed that while buying dark chocolate there are many that have a percentage on the label. This is the presence of chocolate liquor or solids that are in the chocolate compared to the fat and sweeteners. My favorite is around 75% as I find that it gets too bitter and chalky the higher the percent is. 

White, Milk, and Dark chocolate squares

Does it even matter? 

From an enjoyment standpoint, no it doesn’t. If you like to treat yourself with the chocolate you enjoy, by all means, enjoy it fully. But there is a difference when it comes to the “healthiness” of the chocolate, which might be of interest if you are going to be having chocolate regularly. As the cocoa content of white and milk chocolate is so low and often paired with lots of additional fat and sugars, they are great treats but I would not recommend having them on a more regular basis. However, dark chocolate (75-80%)  can be a source of minerals like magnesium, potassium, copper, manganese, zinc, and iron. This is one of the reasons why us ladies crave it during our periods and leading up to our periods. 

In conclusion, yes you should pick up some chocolate for Valentine’s Day for your partner or just for yourself to enjoy. If you plan to include chocolate into your regular diet, try to stick to dark chocolate and enjoy it mindfully in moderation. Getting to know the process of how this delicious food gets in front of us, helps us honor and respect that food more. 

So treat yourself to some much-needed self-care and delicious food.