The types of chocolate we know are all products of a complicated refining process that begins with the bean pods of the cacao (ka-KOW) tree. The cacao tree is a tropical plant that grows only close to the equator. The main cacao-producing countries are located in Africa, although there are numerous other ones in South America.
Chocolate begins with the harvest of the cacao pods. The cacao beans and pulp are scraped from the pods and left to ferment in baskets for two to eight days. This fermentation process mellows the flavor of the beans. Without this process, the beans would be too bitter to eat.
After fermentation, the beans are dried, cleaned, and roasted, and the shell is removed to produce cacao nibs. The nibs are then ground to a cocoa mass, which is usually liquefied, then molded into what is referred to as chocolate liquor. The liquor may be processed into two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter.
See How is Chocolate Made? for more details.
Here are the common types of chocolate found in most areas, from the least-processed to the most-processed:
Raw chocolate is the least processed and most nutritious type of chocolate. It's a far cry from what most people think of when they think of dark chocolate. You can get it in the form of nibs as well as in powder form. Believe it or not, raw chocolate is one of the most nutritious foods on the planet, and rich in antioxidants!
Unsweetened chocolate (bitter chocolate) contains primarily cocoa solids and cocoa butter in varying proportions. It is the most unadulterated type of "processed" chocolate.
Bittersweet chocolate is chocolate liquor to which some sugar, more cocoa butter, vanilla and sometimes lecithin have been added. It has less sugar and more liquor than semisweet chocolate, but the two are interchangeable for baking purposes.
Sweet chocolates, including dark and milk chocolates, are the most popular types of chocolate consumed today. Sweet chocolates combine cocoa solids, cocoa butter or other fat, and sugar.
Dark chocolate is produced by adding fat and sugar to the cacao mixture. The U.S. Government calls this "sweet chocolate", and requires a 15% concentration of chocolate liquor. European standards require at least 35% cocoa solids.
Semisweet chocolate is a dark chocolate with a low sugar content.
Milk chocolate is sweet chocolate that additionally contains milk powder or condensed milk. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, and milk but no cocoa solids. It figures that milk chocolate, the least healthy variety, is also the most popular type of chocolate in North America — 71% of chocolate eaters prefer milk chocolate.
The levels of cocoa range from more than 50% for dark chocolate, 33-50% for milk chocolate, and under 33% for white chocolate. Inferior-quality chocolate is filled with vegetable oils and artificial flavors to disguise the product’s poor quality.
Unfortunately, most of the chocolate consumed today is highly processed and has been stripped of most of its nutritional value. The least-processed, darkest types of chocolates are the ones that have the highest antioxidant content and offer the most health benefits.
When you're looking for the healthiest types of chocolate bars, look for ones that have a higher percentage of cacao in them. Just keep in mind that the taste gets more bitter as you increase the cacao content. If you're accustomed to the taste of milk chocolate, you may want to start with a dark chocolate bar that's lower in cacao, and gradually switch to chocolate with a higher cacao content. Again, the higher the better.
Discover more of the Benefits of Dark Chocolate
and learn how to choose the healthiest type of chocolate to eat.
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