Raw Chocolate

We passionately believe that small batch, single estate craft chocolate tastes better, is better for you and is better for cocoa farmers and indeed the planet. It’s made with high quality, simple ingredients (often just cocoa beans and some sugar) and it’s a treat where a few squares are brilliantly satisfying.  Artisan makers work directly with farmers to secure the best beans, and as part of this help the farmers achieve higher yields and higher income.  And that’s why we set up CocoaRunners – to find, import and retail the world’s best craft chocolate bars from all over the world.

We love receiving new bars from new makers from new origins.  And we are fortunate to receive many of these every week.  At the same time we shudder when we hear the words “raw chocolate”. Barely a week goes by without some new chocolate “remoulder” writing in asking us to list their remoulded raw chocolate that is “super healthy”, “wonderfully tasty”, “so much better”, even “more scrumptious” (for those of you who haven’t seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in English you may miss how quaint this claim is), etc.  And you can’t walk into a health food store or trendy gym without being accosted by a bunch of chocolate bars, energy balls and other concoctions claiming to be made out of “raw cocoa” or “raw chocolate”.  Many consumers are lapping up these labels and claims as a justification for their purchase – not unlike the way they thought that drinking or eating “sugar free” means that these sugar free products are somehow better. But “raw” chocolate as a term is arguably misleading and, at worst, raw (or unroasted) chocolate is potentially even dangerous.  Bottom line, customers – and our planet – would be far better off if customers bought craft chocolate rather than “raw” chocolate.

“Raw” food isn’t straightforward.  Some foods are clearly great eaten raw (carrots).  Some are better not eaten raw (chicken or cassava).  Some are great both raw and cooked (salmon is great as sushi or when cooked).  Some are surprisingly better for you after cooking (tomatoes).   It’s complicated.  It’s also surprisingly hard to pin down an exact definitions of what comprises “raw”. Generally it means that the food that hasn’t been processed, is “live” and/ or heated above human body temperature (or various other arbitrary temperatures such as 40, 42 or 45 degrees).  For example:
1)    http://www.purelyraw.com/definitions.htm Food that has never been subjected to heat over 38 degrees Celsius. Enzymes, vitamins and minerals begin to deform and die at this temperature [above our body temperature]. Cooked food is treated by our system as a toxin
2)    www.rawfoodlife.com/Raw food (aka live or living food) is food that has not been cooked or exposed to temperatures over 118° F.  At that temperature, the natural enzymes in food are completely destroyed

Trends like Paleo diets rapidly grew in popularity in the early 2000s and often were accompanied by smoothies, spiralisers and a general move away from “processed” foods.  In chocolate Santiago Peralta from Pacari saw this opportunity and launched his “raw” chocolate bar in 2009 whilst also selling “couverture” (i.e. blocks of chocolate that can be remoulded by others).  However from the get go, he was really careful never to claim that his beans, and bars, never went above 50 degrees celsius.  Indeed on his original English language packaging he explicitly stated that his bars and beans frequently go above this temperature as when they are fermented and dried, they “almost always go above this temperature”.  Many other “raw” chocolate makers “Flash Roast” their beans for 90 – 180 seconds – avoiding a full roast, but the beans are still heated to well over 50 degrees celsius.  They just aren’t roasted for the “normal” 15-25 minutes.  Examples of craft chocolate makers who follow this route are Conexions, Georgia Ramon and Diogo Vaz.  But they carefully use terms like “Virgin” rather than “raw” (or if they use RAW it is in a deeply different sense – George uses RAW to mean Real Authentic and Wild).

There are a few craft makers who by-pass any roasting – for example Raaka, Forever Cacao and Aztec Gold.  We know that Nate, Emma and Pablo from these craft makers are extraordinarily careful about checking their beans for any pathogens and pests, some of them use plant based pesticides, and they all are continually inspecting their beans and bars. They are really, really aware that roasting not only imparts flavour to the beans but that it also can plays a crucial role in killing off diseases, bacteria and other “nasties” that can be in cocoa beans.  And they avoid using the term “raw” as they accept that their beans (and bars) will have exceeded 40 degrees celsius during fermentation and drying.  They also use beans that are fermented.

And fermentation of cocoa beans poses another set of problems for “raw” afficianados.  Fans of raw food argue that “raw” food is healthier as it’s “live” and preserves natural nutrients.   Whilst there are certain forms of fermentation which preserve live cultures such as kimchi, kefir amd kombucha (to list just those starting with “), cocoa fermentation is very different.  As Greg D’Alessandre, sourcer and co-founder of Dandelion Chocolate, and an expert in cocoa sourcing and harvesting notes “One of the goals of fermentation is to kill the seed. Once you’ve fermented them, these are not viable seeds. You can’t sprout them. There is nothing raw about a fermented cacao bean.”

So how can a chocolate bar be described as “raw”?  There are two main answers.  The first is that there is no standard definition of “raw”.  Unlike e.g., the minimum amount of cocoa in a bar that you need to be able to be claim confectionery is a chocolate bar (20% for EU, and 10% for the US), there are no voluntary or legal definitions (the same also applies to terms like “fine”, “premium”, “luxury” or bizarrely even “Belgian” chocolate which doesn’t have to even be made in Belgium). The second is around the definition of “processing”.  The process by which a cocoa pod turns into a chocolate bar involves a series of steps firstly on the farm and secondly in a factory (or factories). On the farm these include planting, harvesting, fermenting and drying.  And then these fermented and dried beans (which are definitely dead) are either put into a cocoa press and the cocoa butter and mass then recombined, ground, conched and tempered or they are roasted (in almost all cases), winnowed (and sometimes the other way round – ie winnowed then roasted), ground, conched and then tempered.  “Raw” makers often conveniently ignore the earlier stages on the farm – and then claim their bars are “raw” as they control the temperature of their tempering concheing, etc. to below 40/45 degrees celsius. Indeed sometimes all they do is take another makers “courverture” and remould this, adding in some other ingredients such as bits of superfruits and esoteric sugars (which will be dealt with in another post). In fairness, one positive aspect of most “raw” bars (even those that are remoulded) is that they don’t have palm oil, vegetable fats and other synthetic ingredients. However this approach to chocolate making is a bit like saying that microwaving a ready meal with a celebrity chef’s name on it is gourmet cooking, or reheating a vacuum packed, part baked bread roll is the same as crafting a sourdough loaf from scratch.

But the bigger question is why “raw” has such resonance.  There clearly are some customers who like the taste of “flash roasted” chocolate (and I’d be one of them, I think those green, nutty and vegetal notes are intriguing).  But I fear that the terminology might be a bit like “low fat”; i.e. customers inferring some benefits that frankly aren’t there.  For example, various claims are somehow made that not roasting (or “flash roasting”) means that “cacao retains its high levels of antioxidants, magnesium and iron; maximising its nutritional benefits.” (Raw Halo).  Another is around ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) Scores where unroasted cocoa supposedly scores very highly. The problem is that even the USDA sees ORAC scores as being discredited.  And despite asking every raw chocolate maker at every opportunity, nobody has ever supplied us with a study that shows any health benefits from “raw” chocolate. Nonetheless as marketing term “raw” clearly has resonance and if you don’t look under the hood it can convey an impression of  “natural”, “unprocessed”, etc.

So why does this matter?  In addition to confusing consumers, “raw” also distracts from small batch, craft chocolate.  There are a number of huge differences between “craft” and “mainstream” chocolate. Craft makers work directly with farmers to pay premium prices to secure the best beans where they try to coax unique, distinctive flavours in small batches that they make themselves with minimal ingredients.  They want to create chocolate bars where a few squares are a treat that will intrigue and be brilliantly satisfying.  They want to preserve the rainforest (and indeed replant it – cf Original Beans “buy a bar, plant a tree”).  By contrast, mainstream chocolate is made to have consistent flavours, often achieved with multiple ingredients and where very often the bar maker is “remoulding” some mass produced chocolate into bars, truffles etc. And it’s hard to know where the beans are coming from, how the farmers are compensated, whether the rainforest has been destroyed, etc.

“Raw chocolate” is not by any normal definition “raw”.   And all too often it’s not “made” by the company selling the bar (they are very often just remoulding mass produced chocolate couverture and adding in a few other flavourings).  There are no health benefits that have been scientifically established.  On a positive note, they don’t (normally) add in palm oil, vegetable fats and other highly processed additives.

So if you want to make sure that you are paying a fair price to the farmers, if you want to delight in a few squares of chocolate crafted from minimally processed ingredients, please focus on small batch, single estate craft chocolate.  It tastes great, it has simple and high quality ingredients and it’s helping preserve the rainforest.  All you need do is look at the label.  Check the ingredients.    And above all check the name of the estate or co-operative where the bean comes from (just saying “Ecuador” or “Ghana” doesn’t cut it). Check where the bar has been crafted.  If it doesn’t specify this, stop and look beyond confused terms like “raw”.  Instead reach for proper, craft chocolate.