Dear Doctor: How should chocolate be processed to preserve its healthful properties? I've read that a non-alkalizing process is better than an alkalizing process, but I don't understand the difference.
Dear Reader: Ever since studies revealed that chocolate can convey health benefits, a certain segment of the population (hello, fellow chocolate lovers) has been doing a happy dance. Researchers have found that biologically active compounds in chocolate, known as flavonoids, can lower cholesterol, prevent memory decline and reduce the risk of developing heart disease. (Cocoa is also a good source of potassium, magnesium and phosphorus.) But while the headlines simplified the findings to just plain "chocolate," the facts of the matter are a bit more complex.
Chocolate is the end product of a multistep process that begins with the colorful, podlike fruit of the cacao tree. Farmers harvest the cacao pods and separate the seeds from the fleshy (one reference we read used the word "mucilaginous") white pulp via a multiweek process of fermentation and drying. The seeds are then roasted and ground into chocolate liquor, a thick liquid comprised of cocoa butter and cocoa solids. From there, it's up to each manufacturer how this liquid will be manipulated, and how much sugar and other ingredients will be added to create the final product that we call chocolate.
Which brings us back to those flavonoids. They are a class of plant nutrient contained in most fruit and vegetables. Not only do they give our fresh food those bright colors, they're also powerful antioxidants that help boost the immune system and act as anti-inflammatories. One of the subgroups of flavonoids are flavanols, which are found in grapes, apples, berries, tea, red wine and -- here's why they're important to this discussion -- cocoa. And like many micronutrients, they can be damaged during cooking or processing.
Cocoa is naturally acidic, which can give the natural products a rough edge. Natural cocoa powder is basically a cocoa bean concentrate. It's light brown, slightly fruity and has a penetrating and bitter flavor. To take the edge off that bitterness, some manufacturers treat the cocoa with an alkalizing agent. Cocoa that has been alkalized is also known as Dutch-process.
This type of processing makes the cocoa powder darker, decreases the bitterness, and makes it smell and taste more "chocolatey." However, it does have a negative effect on flavanol levels. In some analyses, cocoa that had been alkalized had half of the amount of flavanols as did natural cocoa. So, if your chocolate intake is specifically for its health effects, then natural cocoas are the way to go.
Whether alkalized or not, pure cocoa is extremely bitter. To make it palatable, chocolate products are highly processed. In addition to fermenting, roasting and alkalization, all of which can reduce flavanol levels, cocoa is combined with sugar, fat and various milk products. The result are foods whose fat and sugar levels may outweigh whatever advantages the flavanols would confer.
Bottom line? Despite its purported health benefits, chocolate is not a food group. (Sorry, chocoholics.) Instead, think of it as a condiment. Go for the darker, less processed varieties, and just enjoy a square or two at a time.