October 5, 2018

Raw Cacao: Health Food or Dangerous Habit?


You may have seen raw cacao nibs on the shelves of your local health food store. Perhaps you’ve read about the benefits of this so-called superfood.

But is raw chocolate really healthy, or could it be a dangerous addition to your diet? Does it have a place in fine chocolate? And is it even raw? Take a look at the expert opinions on raw cacao and chocolate.

You may also like our article on exploring the nutraceutical properties of coffee.

Cacao beans split in half.

Cacao beans cut in half.

How Raw Cacao Is & Isn’t Raw

The term “raw cacao” suggests cacao as it appears in nature. But the reality is a little more complicated. All cacao sold to consumers is processed.

Gustavo Cerna, a Nicaraguan producer, says that the name is confusing. “Raw cacao [the term] has been overutilized. There is much confusion.” So, what is it?

To make cacao into what we recognize as an ingredient in chocolate, the beans are fermented. Secondly, they’re traditionally placed in a wooden box and wrapped in banana leaves to trap heat. Yeast, bacteria, and other microorganisms break down sugars in the beans.

Fermentation happens naturally whether we want it to or not. Controlling the process adds body and changes its final taste profile.

Cacao beans under banana leaves during fermentation.

Checking cacao beans as they ferment under banana leaves at a farm in El Salvador. Credit: Miguel Regalado

Although the word “raw” just means uncooked, the contemporary raw food movement considers raw foods to be whole, unprocessed foods that haven’t been heated above 118°F/48°C.

Robbie Stout, one of the founders of Ritual Chocolate, is clear that during processing, cacao regularly surpasses the raw temperature limit. “Basically, it’s impossible to make cacao taste like chocolate without going over 118°F during fermenting, drying, roasting, or even grinding.”

Greg D’Alessandre, sourcer and co-founder of Dandelion Chocolate, highlights that in actions like grinding and pressing, high temperatures are a natural result of the friction in the procedure.

If cacao were kept below this 118°F/48°C limit, chances are it would be unpalatable. However, fermentation breaks down the cacao’s high tannin levels. Fail to do this and creates a bitter product that you wouldn’t want to eat or use in chocolate.

De-shelled, unroasted cacao beans.

De-shelled, unroasted cacao.

Unroasted, But Not Unprocessed

Put simply, what most people call raw cacao is not unprocessed, but is unroasted.

Greg says, “I’m going to differentiate between raw and unroasted beans. We ferment unroasted beans and process dried cacao beans without roasting. Unfermented beans are totally raw cacao beans.”

What is being sold as “raw cacao” is fermented and either not roasted at all or roasted below 118°F/48°C. Some manufacturers also use adapted methods of grinding, pressing, and milling to keep temperatures as low as possible at each step.

Unroasted cacao is used to make raw chocolate. Additionally, we add minimally processed and unheated ingredients.

The intention of unroasted cacao is to preserve natural nutrients, which raw food advocates feel have health benefits.

Yet Greg is skeptical about how unroasted cacao relates to the raw food movement. “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.”

Crushed cacao nibs.

Roasted cacao crushed into nibs.

The Dangers of Unroasted Cacao

During fermentation, heat encourages bacterial growth. This is necessary, as their microorganisms change the flavor of the beans to what we recognize as a chocolate.

In traditional processing, most bacteria and pathogens are killed in roasting. But without the high roasting temperatures, are we risking our health?

The manufacturing plant steam-cleans and roasts the beans. In other words, this means there’s been no effort minimize pathogen exposure on cacao farms. A chocolate manufacturer should assume that the beans they receive could contain Salmonella, Listeria, E. Coli, Staphylococcus, and other potentially harmful bacteria.

Cacao nibs and a split cacao pod.

Cacao nibs and an open cacao pod.

Emily Stone, one of the founders of Uncommon Cacao, talks me through daily life on a cacao farm.

“We’re cracking open fruits and eating that raw… getting to know and understand flavors and the fruit itself. During fermentation and drying we’re not really tasting beans off the deck, but we’re handling them a lot.

“We’re pulling beans during fermentation and cutting them open to evaluate physically, Secondly, during drying, we’re raking the beans and doing cut tests on the drying deck. Thirdly, we hand-sort the beans. Finally, we blend them in their lot and pack them into sacks for export.”

The cacao passes through many hands before it gets to the chocolate manufacturer.

“Is cacao a raw product?” Emily muses. “It is. Until the cacao makes it to the hands of the chocolate maker, there typically hasn’t been any form of sterilization or control of what could potentially be around it in the environment.”

The sanitary conditions during harvest and processing can vary from farm to farm. As a result, it highlights the importance, for the fine cacao industry, of reliable sourcers and frequent visits to farms.

Cacao on a hand during a cut test.

Inspecting a cut test to analyze the cacao quality during the drying process. Credit: Miguel Regalado

How We Evaluate Raw Cacao

Greg tells me that the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI) and the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) are together trying to establish a raw bean evaluation methodology to create consistency in quality. He highlights that this is why the fine chocolate industry needs a new model.

“The specialty cacao industry is very young and immature. In the commercial cacao industry, the cut test is the industry standard for quality. What they’re looking for is fermentation percentage as well as number of defects (insects, mold, under-fermentation). The fermentation percentage is a way of seeing how well the beans have been treated.

“The challenge is this: the fermentation percentage does not tell you what it will taste like… If you’re buying cacao and want to make sure it has been fermented, the cut test is a good way. Bulk buyers aren’t concerned what the cacao tastes like whether it’s 70% or 80% fermented.

“Because specialty cacao is a new industry, people are starting to come around to not thinking about it as a commodity but rather like specialty coffee. Each individual lot of beans will taste different, based on the genetics of the tree, the environment where it’s grown and how it’s fermented and dried.”

The ICCO’s current policy is that there should be at least a standardized amount of cut tests conducted. For example, this can involve a visual inspection of 300 beans per tonne to check for quality. In addition, they record the number of mouldy, germinated, or flat beans

But the focus in a cut test is on evaluating the quality of processing by eye, not on testing for potentially harmful bacteria.

Yogurt parfait with fruit and cacao nibs.

Yogurt parfait with cacao nibs.

Does Raw Cacao Have Health Benefits?

Some brands use unroasted cacao in their chocolate for its flavor profile. However, others highlight its health benefits. Keeping the cacao below 118°F/48°C preserves more nutrients than traditional processing.

Proponents of cacao’s health benefits point out that it contains polyphenols, which have antioxidant properties and delay cell damage. It also has anti-inflammatory properties and can reduce your diabetes risk. In addition, it contains magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium, and manganese.

Some findings suggest that roasting could make beneficial ones more easily absorbed. To illustrate this, Greg D’Alessandre showed me a study from Pennsylvania State University. It revealed that manipulating a cocoa beans roast temperature and time can preserve and boost its compound’s potency.

In conclusion, perhaps the healthiest beans are roasted.

Cacao beans and cacao pods.

Cacao beans and cacao pods. 

Some believe cacao’s benefits are more potent when consumed raw. For example, unroasted cacao contains caffeine and theobromine, which are stimulants. Some studies indicate that theobromine may help with coughs – although this is medicinal theobromine. Theobromine-enriched cocoa also impacts blood pressure.

Eating raw cacao in excess could be dangerous. For instance, theobromine poisoning has reportedly caused heart failure, seizures, kidney damage and dehydration.

Eating 50 to 100g of cacao daily is associated with sweating, trembling, and headaches. Although people like Emily sample raw beans for quality, given its bitterness, it’s unlikely anyone would eat that much.

Emily hasn’t experienced any side effects from raw cacao. “I eat a fair amount on the farm. I feel it can replace my coffee some days but I probably don’t eat enough to experience extreme effects.”

A split cacao pod.

There are many myths and misunderstandings about raw cacao and its health benefits. However, it’s important to understand what the manufacturer really means when they say “raw” – and whether or not that’s something you want to consume.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on exploring the relationship between oils in coffee and cholesterol.

Written by Miguel Regalado.

PDG Cacao

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!