The word “chocolate” is derived from the Aztec cacahuatl, meaning “bitter water,” and refers to the extremely bitter unsweetened drink the Aztecs made from ground cocoa beans and spices. Chocolate made its way from its origins in Mexico to Europe, and by the mid-1600s, numerous chocolate shops existed where patrons could sip the exotic drink. The first chocolate processing factory was built in London in 1728. By the mid-1800s, chocolate’s popularity had skyrocketed thanks to technological innovations that produced the first chocolate bars. Today chocolate is one of the world’s most beloved foods, with more than one billion people worldwide consuming some form of it every day.
Chocolate is made from the beans of the cacao tree theobroma, which aptly means “food for the gods.” It takes approximately 400 cocoa beans to make 1 pound of chocolate. These beans are processed to a sticky, bitter paste called chocolate liquor, which consists of about 53 percent cocoa butter and 47 percent cocoa solids. The chocolate liquor is then used to create a variety of chocolate products, all varying in ratios of cocoa butter to solids, and with varying degrees of additives such as milk and sugar.
Chocolate contains very small amounts of copper, iron, zinc, and protein, but not enough to be considered a good source of these nutrients. The fat in chocolate is from cocoa butter, and is comprised of about 2/3 saturated fats and 1/3 monounsaturated fat.
Though some people may assume that chocolate contains a lot of caffeine, it has only trace amounts. One ounce of milk chocolate contains about 5 milligrams of caffeine, 1 ounce of semisweet chocolate usually has 5 to 10 milligrams of caffeine, and a 6-ounce cup of cocoa usually has 10 milligrams. For comparison, a 6-ounce cup of coffee contains 100 to 150 milligrams of caffeine.
Dark chocolate has large quantities of flavonoids called catechins, which may benefit heart health. However, processing cocoa into candy greatly reduces the flavonoid levels unless the manufacturers take steps to preserve those phytochemicals. And, of course, chocolate bars are loaded with sugar and calories. So enjoy chocolate in small amounts as the treat it is, not as a health food.
For a full listing of nutrients, check the National Nutrient Database:
- Baking Chocolate
- Dark Chocolate with 45-59 percent cacao solids
- Dark Chocolate with 70-85 percent cacao solids
- Milk Chocolate
- White Chocolate
A word on carob
Also known as St. John’s bread or locust bean, carob powder comes from the roasted and ground “beans”—technically pods—of the Ceratonia siliqua Carob tree. Because it has a flavor reminiscent of chocolate, carob is sometimes used as a chocolate substitute. It is most often sold as a powder (toasted or untoasted) and in various chocolate-like products, such as chips for baking. Carob is mostly available in health-food stores. Though it is touted as being healthier than chocolate, it offers no nutritional advantage. In fact, 1 tablespoon of carob chips is higher in calories and saturated fat than the same amount of chocolate chips.
How to choose the best chocolate
Always look at the ingredient list of any bar chocolate or cocoa to make sure that you are buying real chocolate. Though there’s no way to judge the quality of bar chocolate in its wrapper, you should still know what characteristics to look for in the chocolate you’ve bought.
Bar chocolate that breaks cleanly and is shiny, dark, and fresh smelling is of good or superior quality. The chocolate should smell rich and melt evenly on your tongue. Chocolate that appears grayish, dull, or crystallized may be old, contain a fat that is something other than cocoa butter, or have been improperly stored.
Don’t worry about slight traces of white on the surface of chocolate. These slight white areas on the surface (called “bloom”) indicate that the chocolate has undergone temperature variation that will not influence taste or quality.
How to store chocolate
As any kid with a chocolate bar in the sun knows, chocolate will melt. Keep chocolate at room temperature, though you can also store it in the refrigerator.
Chocolate will keep for several months at room temperature if it is well wrapped and kept away from heat or moisture. Do not freeze chocolate. Freezing chocolate interferes with the characteristics of the cocoa butter and causes the chocolate to crumble.
Chocolate Cooking Tips and Recipe Ideas
Get tips on how to cook with creamy chocolate.
Published February 11, 2016