Chocolate?!? Sure, we’ll happily eat it, but does it belong in our “real food” series? The good news: Yes – if it’s made the real way. To get the scoop on real, pure, honest-to-goodness chocolate, we visited the Theo Chocolate factory in Seattle.
Theo is the first organic and Fair Trade chocolate company in the United States. It’s also one of 20 factories in the country that makes it “from scratch” from the whole bean. Theo’s motto is “Because Chocolate Grows on Trees” – because, well, it does, or at least the beans do.
First, some background: People have enjoyed chocolate for centuries. Although we tend to think of it as a solid, for 90% of its history people consumed it in liquid form. The ancient Mayan people of Mexico and Central America, for example, consumed it as a spicy drink. The Spanish, who found cacao while searching for gold in the New World, first added sugar to make it a sweet food in the 16th century.
Cacao seeds contain the chemicals caffeine and theobromine (the source of Theo’s name). They also contain significant amounts of naturally occurring flavonoids (substances also found in red wine, green tea, and fruits and vegetables). These substances may provide a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. However, most commercially produced chocolate carries a heavy load of saturated fats and calories. Dark chocolate has fewer calories, less saturated fat, and twice as many antioxidants as milk chocolate.
Fun fact: Chocolate must have at least 10 percent cacao to be called “chocolate” (Theo’s milk chocolate has 45 percent, and some dark chocolate has 85 percent or higher). The chips at the store called “baking morsels” don’t have enough cacao in them to earn the “chocolate chips” moniker.
The road to this delicious treat begins at the equator, where cacao trees grow. On these trees grow large pods, about the size of a football, that contain about 20 to 40 seeds (cacao beans) inside. Workers ferment and dry the beans before shipping them off to Theo. To put things in perspective, it takes two to four pods’ worth of beans to make a single chocolate bar.
When the beans arrive at the Theo factory, they go through several machines. A “destoner” cleans the exterior of the bean. The roasters removes humidity from the beans. A “winnower” separates the bean husks from the nibs, and then a second roaster develops the flavor of the nibs.
If you tried the cacao nibs at this point, they would taste sort of like nuts or coffee beans. (In fact, you can buy cacao nibs from Theo.) But most of the nibs keep moving through the process. A stone mill (also known as a “peanut butter machine”) crushes them into paste, and a “ball mill” reduces the size of the cacao solids in the paste. The paste that comes out of this process is what most chocolate factories in the country start with when they make chocolate products.
The Magic Begins
From there, the real Willy-Wonka-style magic begins: A mixer combines the paste with sugar and/or milk powder, and a “finish refiner” reduces the particle size of the sugar. Next, a special machine called a “conche” reduces the acid through circulation and oxidation.
The mixture is then pumped into a holding tank, and after that into a “tempering” machine that forms a bond between the cocoa butter and the cocoa solids. (Correctly tempered chocolate will have a glossy sheen and it will break with a sharp crack. That’s why, if you have a bar that melts and then re-hardens, you’ve lost the tempering and it will be dull and soft-ish.) Last, a depositor puts it into molds and it travels through a cooling tunnel before workers package it up.
How do different specialty confections get made? As our tour guide put it, “There’s no machine for that. There’s a person who stands there with the ingredients and stirs them in.” And sure enough, once we got into the kitchen, we saw a staffer hand-stirring a mixture with the flavor of the day.
Environmentally speaking, the company tries to keep everything “green.” They use sustainable energy to power the factory, as well as environmentally sensitive packaging and printing.
If you’re a gardener, you can use their cast-off cacao shells for a nice chocolate-scented mulch. And those burlap bags from the cacao seeds? Theo makes them into some very cool handbags and shopping bags that you can buy at the gift store.
If you’re hungry for Theo chocolates, you can find them at a store near you or at Whole Foods markets. If you just want to eat some “good” chocolate, look for bars that have a high percentage of cacao. When you open the bar, it should have a pleasant smell, a glossy appearance, and a sharp, clean “snap” when you break it. “Baking morsels”? Don’t waste your time – life is too short not to eat real chocolate.