Check your pulse. If you’ve got one, then you probably don’t need to be convinced as to why chocolate is one of the most beloved foods on earth.
Chocolate is the good stuff: It’s rich, earthy, fruity, dark, comforting and complex all at once. Even its scientific name, Cacao Theobroma, derives from the Greek for “food of the gods.”
However, many people who adopt the keto lifestyle tend to overlook the importance and general goodness of cacao due to its frequent collaboration with the sworn enemy of ketosis: sugar.
But, that association between chocolate and sugar is a new fling in cacao’s long history. After all, the chocolate bar is a newer invention than the typewriter or microphone!
Long before chocolate was associated with decadence and indulgence, cacao was a revered source of health and fuel for Aztec warriors going into battle. Humans have long known that cacao can do wonders for strength and health.
A Brief History of the Cacao Bean
The cacao tree likes to stay in the dark––it’s native to the Amazon rainforest in a region now shared by Colombia, Peru and Brazil and though it can grow up to 65 feet in height, it prefers to live under the shaded canopy of taller trees.
Unfortunately, this plant does such a magnificent job of staying in the dark there is no recorded history of how it became so widely cultivated and traded that it made its way from the heart of the Amazon thousands of miles north to Mexico. Most people credit the Mayans for bringing cacao northward.
Genetic dating efforts suggest that It’s been in central America and Mexico for some time, around 4000 years!
The recorded history of chocolate begins with the Olmec people. Archeological evidence shows that they were drinking a cacao-bean brew as early as 1900 BCE. The Mayans are evidenced to have mostly consumed the fermented cacao beans as a brew as well.
But, no culture is more associated with chocolate than the Aztec people who literally used it as a form of currency! Yes, that’s right, to pay at the market people used cacao beans whose intrinsic value cannot be disputed. The emperor Moctezuma even limited chocolate consumption to the military only, believing only warriors should have chocolate’s power!
Cacao much like the Aztec who enjoyed it, was consumed as a tea-like concoction including those ingredients native to the Americas like maize, vanilla, white cinnamon and chili peppers.
Cacao and sugar only began their relationship when colonizers brought it back to Europe in 1528 and introduced it to King Charles of Spain as “brown gold”––perhaps the worst descriptor of chocolate ever coined!
Soon, sugar was added to appease the sugar-crazed palettes of the plundering aristocracy. Sweetened sipping chocolates became the true mark of luxury and wealth. Hence the birth of chocolate’s association with decadence.
The revolution that introduced cacao to the widespread masses in the form of the chocolate bar came in the 1840’s and was popularized by John Cadbury, the famous egg-layer. That’s when people realized how to extract cocoa butter from the nibs and thus turning chocolate into the velvety, rich goodness that melts in your mouth we all know and love today.
Top 7 Health Benefits of Cacao
Not that a chocoholic needs any real reason to justify their beloved indulgence, but study after study keeps showing that without all the sugar, there is some serious cause to believe that chocolate is the food of the gods––and may lead to a longer life.
1.) Cacao is full of healthy fats
You may have seen our blog post about why cacao butter helps melt fat: Cocoa butter’s is one of the most useful vegetable-based fats. Its mass is largely made of stearic acid, one of the most healthy fat sources available.
Stearic acid is not only cholesterol-neutral but it’s also been shown to enhance your cell’s energy producing capabilities and keep you feeling fuller longer. These factors make cocoa butter an extraordinary fat source for keto practitioners.
2.) Dark chocolate helps prevent cardiovascular disease
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the developed world, so it’s a pretty big deal that chocolate can decrease the risk of developing it. One study in Italy even supported evidence saying that the risk for myocardial infarction decreased as much as 77% for people who consume chocolate!
3.) Don’t forget the flavanols!
Dark chocolate is loaded with flavanols, a chemical compound known to relieve oxidative stress on the human body. More good heart news: Flavanols have been evidenced to lower blood pressure and improve overall vascular health.
4.) Increased insulin sensitivity
Recent studies have supported the argument that dark chocolate can decrease the risk of diabetes by contributing to an increase in insulin secretion. Of course, the fact that it causes better balance in your blood only enhances your body’s ability to enter ketosis.
5.) Improved liver health
Chocolate is one of those rare addictions that is actually good for your liver! Studies have shown that chocolate consumption is associated with increased enzyme production in your liver, better enabling it to process toxins entering your body.
6.) It’s an age-old old-age secret
Think about it: Have you ever met an old person who didn’t like chocolate?
The fact that chocolate prevents arterial stiffness could help explain an aging heart’s softness for chocolate.
Chocolate is so effective at preventing cardiovascular disease that it has been pitched as a cost effective-national health strategy in Australia. Literally, calculations show that it would save scores of lives and greatly lower national healthcare costs if everyone just ate $40 worth of dark chocolate each year!
That’s not to its protective cancer fighting properties due to its inherent antioxidant richness.
People of advanced age have plenty of time to count the reasons they can enjoy chocolate!
7.) Good gut health
If you couldn’t feel it in your gut already: Embrace your love of dark chocolate, its positive effect on the biota of your stomach leads to better overall health. Again, it’s that polyphenol-rich nature of chocolate that provides micronutrients that your digestive system craves.
Keto-Friendly Ways to Add More Chocolate in Your Life
Once you weigh out just how beneficial the consumption of dark chocolate is you’ve got to temper it with a few hard facts about how you can incorporate chocolate into your diet if you want to maintain a keto lifestyle.
We’ve already covered a lot of the wonderful health benefits, here are a couple realities to consider:
Chocolate Consumer Keto-Conscious Facts:
- 99.9% of chocolate sold at most stores contains sugar
- Sugar negates a lot of the health benefits you get from cacao
Keto Conscientious Chocolate Consumption:
- Seek out sugar-free chocolate options (at Belichka we offer keto dark chocolate bars with 0g sugar that are lightly sweetened with monk fruit)
- The higher the % of cacao, the more health benefits
- Look for fair trade and organic chocolate whenever possible
- Consider chocolates with keto-friendly nuts like almonds and pecans for added nutrition
- Some brands add stevia or monk fruit to chocolate as healthy, sweet alternatives (we are partial to monk fruit of course, that's what we use in all of our products)
- Avoid chocolate brands with processed sugar alcohols like erythritol or xylitol
- Unsweetened pure cacao chocolate bars contain roughly 5g of carbs per 50g serving
- Introduce yourself to cocoa nibs, a pure natural treat!
If you are excited about all of the wonderful health benefits of chocolate just as much as we are, then you may just want to take a closer look at our new line of Dark Chocolate bars, made with 74% organic cacao (click here to browse our No Sugar Keto Dark Chocolate.
In order to help you better understand ways that you can incorporate cacao into your life, we thought we could take a look at the production method of chocolate so you can best understand what cacao products might help the most with your health goals.
From Bean to Bar: Chocolate Production Explained
Cacao can’t grow outside the tropics––it can only be grown within 15 degrees from the equator. That means every single bite of chocolate you’ve ever had came from a cacao tree in some tropical location.
The Ivory Coast currently leads the world in cacao production, providing a whopping 38% of the world’s current cacao! Nearby countries like Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria all fill-in the top five global cacao producers.
Step one: Tree to Cacao Pod
The process of turning raw cacao into chocolate has many stages. From planting, it takes a cacao tree five years to mature to the point where it produces its first cacao pod, a football-shaped bean that grows from the long branches.
A mature cacao tree usually produces 30-40 of these pods per year.
Inside each pod you’ll usually find 20-40 beans; about 400 beans weigh a pound. That means that a mature cacao tree in its prime produces between 2-3 pounds of cocoa beans per year. What a glorious, giving tree!
Step two: Pod to Bean
Cacao pickers usually pick pods assisted only with machetes, climbing around the trees is a dangerous task. Pickers hack the pod loose and it falls to the breaker on the ground who proceeds to break open the pod using a tool––sometimes just a stone––to remove all the beans and their pulp from the inside of the shell.
The pod shell is discarded and the prized beans and the white mucilage-like material that envelops them are spread out evenly across drying screens or tables to ferment.
Step three: Mucus-Covered Bean to Fermented Bean
The fermentation of the chocolate beans is an essential step, people attest to the fact that this is the step where the aromatic richness of chocolate’s flavor becomes more bold and pronounced.
Much like in coffee bean production, fermentation takes place as industry standard.
Oftentimes in order to increase the energy present in the ferment, banana leaves will be placed over the fermenting beans to bring more microorganisms in contact with the beans and trap the heat they’re producing––which can reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit! This trapped heat causes the beans to sweat and undergo chemical changes.
After 48 hours the fermentation has produced enough alcohol and acetic acid within the cacao bean to kill the bud which then changes the enzymes within the cacao bean.
Step four: Clean the Bean and Dry it Out
Once the beans have been fully fermented, usually somewhere at the 3-5 day mark they are to be dried.
Drying can be done by a variety of methods: sunlight, wooden floor, or electric dryers. Whatever remains of the white mucus-like pulp is rubbed off the beams.
It usually takes 1-2 week and the dried beans have had their reddish hue darken into that rich brown tone we associate with chocolate.
Step five: Bean Roasting
After the beans have bean dried they are sorted and inspected to remove foreign debris and undesirable beans.
The beans are then roasted in large ovens, this achieves several important things:
- Activates the robust roasted notes of chocolate
- Kills any microorganisms living in the bean, remember: this is a jungle ferment
- Makes it easier to separate the tannic outer husk of the bean from rich inner hull
- Causes further chemical reactions that affect the nuance of flavor: fruitiness, nuttiness, etc.
Step six: Winnow the Bean, Grind the Nib
Yes you read that right, and no it wasn’t a Pauly Shore catchphrase from the 90’s.
Once the bean has been roasted the outer shell has become dried and easier to separate from the lighter shells from the pure cocoa pieces inside known as the cocoa nib.
Given that they are pure cocoa’s essence, nibs contain all the nutty richness of chocolate but with the intense flavor of the recent fermentation still lingering in the backdrop. They are bitter and earthy, a darkness devoid of sweet. They add a very nice crunch by themselves. However, they don’t bring to mind chocolate’s softness or meltiness.
Step seven: From Nib to Liquor
When nibs are ground into a paste that is called “chocolate liquor”––unfortunately that name is just a clever marketing ploy: it contains no alcohol.
The chocolate liquor is where the two main components of the nib are separated, the fat: rich cocoa butter with 55-60% fat content and cocoa powder.
Step eight: Blending
In order to refine chocolate even further, cacao butter is added to chocolate liquor to create a creamier, fattier product.
This is typically when a chocolate’s recipe comes into play and every producer has their own proprietor’s blend. But this is when ingredients like vanilla (present in most chocolates), sugar, chili powder, milk (in milk chocolate), etc. come into the fold.
Step nine: Hardening
Depending on the blend, this is the point at which when removed from heat, chocolate can be shaped to fit any desired mold or form.
This is how John Cadbury learned to lay eggs and the chocolate bar became a possibility!
The rich fats of chocolate form together like crystals (because they are crystals) to hold a consistent form unless aggravated by heat, as any aggrieved person who has ever melted a chocolate bar in a backpack, or purse can tell you!
Keto Uses for Cocoa Products
Cocoa Nibs - Can add a fun textural layer to baked goods, desserts, and trail mixes. Sometimes they’re even used in savory dishes for a rich twist. They’re chalked with the pure goodness of chocolate.
Cocoa Butter - Can be used as a fat in most baked good recipes, also works well in coffee, excellent for skin too. It’s also the primary source of fat in all of our Belichka bars!
Cocoa Powder - Very useful to add chocolate flavor to anything, but keep in mind since it’s the dry part of the chocolate liquor it needs a fat to bind to such as milk or butter.
Chocolate Bars - Great for calorie density, portability, rainy days, breakups, birthdays, special occasions, children’s parties, and hoarding as currency.
Chocolate Chips - Also great for calorie density, portability, rainy days, breakups, birthdays, special occasions, children’s parties, and hoarding as currency, but in chip form.