Chocolate can be enjoyed in many ways—as a treat, as part of a snack, or as a flavoring for beverages— and has been for many years. In fact, cocoa foods and beverages made from beans from the Theobroma cacao tree were consumed by humans as early as 460 CE, and for years cocoa consumption has been associated with positive health benefits, such as anti-inflammatory properties.
Cocoa is a functional food, an antioxidant, and naturally rich in healthy flavonoids. However, before we assume all chocolate is good for us, we should remember a big caveat: To successfully consume chocolate for its health benefits, we need to ensure that the cocoa content we’re eating contains an effective dose of active health-benefitting components and a reduced amount of sugar.
If you’re a chocolate enthusiast who wants to know more about how cocoa is harvested, processed, and manufactured to produce chocolate products that can boost your health, read on.
From Cacao To Cocoa and Bean to Bar
Cocoa production begins when harvested fruit seeds from the tree Theobroma cacao are dried and fermented. Once the fermentation process is complete, the beans (called cocoa nibs) can be made into cocoa liquor. The liquor, which contains both nonfat cocoa solids and cocoa butter, can then be pressed to extract just the cocoa butter, leaving a solid mass called cocoa presscake. The amount of butter extracted from the liquor can be manipulated to produce a presscake with varied proportions of fat. The cocoa presscake is broken into pieces to form smaller chunks of presscake, which is then processed into cocoa powder.
Cocoa powder processing can also be taken one step further with a process called “Dutching.” Here, the powder is treated with alkali to neutralize the natural acetic acid in cocoa. This gives the cocoa a milder taste, but also reduces the flavonoid content (flavonoids are natural compounds found in some foods that have anti-inflammatory benefits that research shows may help manage and prevent some chronic diseases). Studies have found that commercially available cocoa powders can have a significantly reduced flavonoid content if they are heavily alkalized.
Chocolate is a solid food made by combining cocoa liquor with cocoa butter, emulsifying agents, milk, and sugar or other sweeteners. The proportions of the different ingredients depend on the type of chocolate being made. The proportion of cocoa liquor in the final product determines how dark the chocolate is. Milk chocolate is made with the addition of condensed or powdered milk to the chocolate mixture. Compared with other types of chocolate, milk chocolate is consumed in high volumes in the United States (although dark chocolate is growing in popularity here), and it typically contains 10%–12% cocoa liquor. Semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, often referred to as dark chocolate, must contain no less than 35% by weight of cocoa liquor. And white chocolate contains only cocoa butter (at least 20% by weight) combined with sweeteners and dairy ingredients.
Cocoa Farmers at Work
Cocoa largely originates from three global regions—Southeast Asia, Latin America, and West Africa. There are over 5 million cocoa farmers who rely on the cocoa bean for their livelihoods, and 70% of the world’s cocoa beans (about 2.6 million tons of cocoa produced annually) come from four West African countries: the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Over 3.5 million tons of cocoa beans are used annually around the globe to manufacture many food and beverage products. Cocoa farmers use sustainable farming practices that not only help conserve natural resources, but also help ensure the livelihoods of the people that work in the farming supply chains and the related surrounding communities where cocoa is grown.
While today’s cocoa industry undoubtedly supports millions of laborers and their families, it’s important to know that cocoa farming development and management has been linked with the enslaved labor of African people for much of its history. As historians and anti-slavery activists have noted, the “development of cocoa in West Africa has been linked to slavery and forced labor since the first commercial production in the late 19th century.” Slave transportation from Angola to various newly developed cocoa estates was prevalent during this time as well. While large chocolate companies stopped buying cocoa from these estates in 1909, reports of forced labor continued into the 1950s.
More recently, in 2000 and 2001, international news exposed forced child labor supporting cocoa farms in West Africa. The U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) reported that an estimated 1.56 million children engaged in hazardous work on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. In response, the USDOL formed the Child Labor Cocoa Coordinating Group (CLCCG) to combat this severe humanitarian issue. The CLCCG has since brought together the governments of the Ivory Coast and Ghana as well as representatives of the international chocolate and cocoa industries to successfully develop country regulations to prohibit child labor and promote childhood education rights. In addition, in late 2022, Fairtrade unveiled a new Cocoa Standard. The standard was developed for cocoa supply chains to reinforce their focus on “human rights, the fight against deforestation, traceability, and living incomes.”
Farming cocoa still often meets many challenges, including issues for farmers such as low pesticide availability (pests can contribute to farmers losing anywhere from 30 percent to nearly their entire cocoa crop annually) and strained natural resources (including draught and other soil and climate fluctuations—cocoa trees are significantly sensitive to changing weather patterns). Many researchers are working on disease-resistance amplification in cocoa trees to help farmers prevent pests and other environmental detriments. These genetic-selection exercises could save farmers from great losses.
Chocolate abounds—and we appreciate it!
Chocolate’s popularity is undeniable—on average, Americans (per capita) consume nearly 12 pounds of chocolate each year. And, as is the case for many global crops, scientists, famers, and government officials are working diligently to secure cocoa harvests, meet demands, and help ensure humane work environments for farm workers. We hope these insights on chocolate, its benefits, and its production will help inform your next cocoa consumption choices—and make your next bite (or sip) that much sweeter!