Yes, chocolate can really be good for you

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Artisanal producers using pure ingredients (and no refined sugar) say that their new generation of chocolate bars are actually healthy

Chocolate has had an image change of late. Since nutritionists began pointing out the antioxidant qualities of the cocoa bean, there has been an explosion on the market of posh high-cocoa-content chocolate bars that are a far cry from Galaxy, Cadbury Dairy Milk and the like. However, can chocolate ever be called a health food? That’s the claim of a new generation of chocolate-bar brands, which extol not only the virtues of their high cocoa content, but their lack of unhealthy sugar and fats, their organic sourcing and use of other beneficial ingredients.

Among this league are Ama Uzowuru and Andy Clarke, a London couple who wanted to create a chocolate bar so pure that they make Lucocoa Chocolate from scratch in their spare room. The trendy term for this is “bean to bar” — meaning the produce is handmade in one place rather than through an industrialised process. This approach is used by a small group of British craft chocolate-makers. Others include Chococo, which makes fresh “fine origin” chocolate in Dorset, and the Chocolate Tree, another bean-to-bar set-up based in Edinburgh.

For Uzowuru, 33, the starting point for her brand was when she realised how much vegetable fat is in a typical chocolate bar. So she decided to make her own. When a quarter of a tonne of imported cocoa beans arrived at their flat in northeast London, there was no going back. Since then, every spare moment between Clarke’s job as a TV and radio sports commentator, and Uzowuru’s as a project manager for Unicef, is spent sorting, roasting, crushing and cooling beans at home. Friends say it looks less Willy Wonka factory, more Walter White meth lab. “I’m told it’s very Breaking Bad,” Uzowuru says.

Lucocoa bars contain five ingredients: cacao beans (the name for raw cocoa beans), cocoa butter, coconut sugar, milk and lucuma (a round orange-fleshed fruit from Peru with a slight maple flavour; a favourite of the Incas, apparently).

“Chocolate is a really great product,” Uzowuru explains. “But everyone keeps adding emulsifiers like soya lecithin to make it last longer, which isn’t necessary.” And certainly isn’t natural. The only fat in Lucocoa chocolate is cocoa butter, what Uzowuru calls a “good source of fat”, which comes exclusively from plants. They add sweetness with coconut sugar, which is not only low on the glycaemic index but full of minerals — potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron. Lucuma, considered a superfood, has an even longer list of nutritional benefits — B vitamins (1, 2, 3 and 5), beta-carotene, iron, potassium, calcium and more.

So how healthy is such a bar? The nutrition expert Ian Marber agrees that this new generation of chocolate bars is a far cry from the old favourites of the corner shop. “The chocolate that most of us grew up with was largely sugars and fat, with the minimal amount of cocoa thrown in.”

In contrast, he adds, there is no reason this new generation of chocolate bars, with their high cocoa percentages, shouldn’t be deemed healthy — although, he says, the less sugar the better.

“Even if the sugar is derived from coconut or agave, the human body treats all sugars more or less the same way. Cocoa — whether as raw cacao, which is the cold-pressed variety, or cocoa as it is known after it has been roasted — is a good source of flavonoids, a type of antioxidant similar to those found in red wine and green tea. It is especially rich in epicatechin, a substance that regulates levels of nitric oxide in the blood to lower blood pressure. High-quality cocoa beans can have a higher concentration of flavanols than cheaper beans.”

Marber agrees that the addition of other nutrient-rich ingredients, such as lucuma in the case of Lucocoa, will enhance a chocolate bar’s health-giving potential. “Any bars with ingredients such as turmeric, chilli, ginger, goji berries and coconut flakes would deliver the known benefits of those plants and spices.”

That said, it is worth remembering that chocolate is always going to have fat in it, says Marber. That’s the bit that makes it melt in your mouth — although the fat in cocoa butter does have its benefits.

“Cocoa butter contains saturated and monounsaturated fats, similar to those found in olive oil and avocados, which have cardiovascular benefits.” But, he says, fat will always be dense in calories.

Uzowuru says the mission behind Lucocoa is twofold. The first is to get people to opt for pure healthy chocolate that doesn’t give you sugar spikes or crashes (because of the low GI of the coconut sugar). The second is to start smelling and savouring our chocolate in the way we enjoy wine.

“Chocolate has become way too complicated,” says Clarke, 39. “People put all sorts of things in it — nuts, salt, fruit — but you don’t need to. The flavour of the bean is enough.” The cocoa bean, Uzowuru and Clarke argue, boasts as much variety and complexity as the wine grape. Most people know if they prefer milk, dark or white, but beans have different flavours depending on the region where they are grown, because cacao beans get their flavour from the soil.

Since Lucocoa started up two years ago, its bars (the milk and “natural blonde” chocolates have an almost creamy, caramel-like flavour; the dark is more fruity) have won two Great Taste awards and another from the Academy of Chocolate. They are stocked in a growing number of London shops, from Whole Foods to the hip bakery Eat 17 and in the minibars of Ace Hotel, the boutique hotel in Shoreditch. Quite an achievement, considering that three years ago they had zero experience of making chocolate.

Chocolate has become way too complicated

They have even managed to invent a genre. The natural blonde — which looks like a posh Caramac, not quite milk, not quite white — is a bestseller. There are six flavours in the Lucocoa range, sourced from four countries. It has been a steep learning curve. “Different harvests from the same soil create different flavours. We can never be sure what each vintage will bring,” Clarke says.

With more orders coming in, they have decided to move to a bigger factory. There’s also a wedding to plan after they got engaged last year. One thing won’t change, though — the purity of the chocolate. “I want to get people interested in how chocolate is made,” Uzowuru says. “To see how it’s done, in its purest form.”

She has noticed how unfamiliar people are with cacao beans. “They’ll often ask me if it’s an almond. We know so little about it. It’s time for a change.”

The ‘healthy’ chocolate test
We rate the best and the worst

Vivani Panama 99% dark chocolate organic
With 99 per cent cacao, this is for connoisseurs. To the average person it tastes just like tobacco.
£2.39 for 80g,

Conscious Coconut Crunch 60%
Sweetened with rice syrup and containing chia seeds, coconut chips and pumpkin seeds, it is more like a fridge cake than a chocolate bar.
£3.30 for 50g,

Mr Popple’s Super Roots organic raw cacao
The dried beetroot and carrot in this raw chocolate bar give it an earthy taste, but the dominant flavour is ginger. With its crumbly texture and slight sweetness, it feels virtuous, yet still a treat.
£3.89 for 50g,

Ombar Coco Dark 60%
Moreish, verging on too sweet from the coconut sugar, but would be a great afternoon treat to replace less healthy chocolate.
£1.99 for 35g,

Lovechock organic raw chocolate cherry/chilli
The texture is crunchy yet chewy, almost like a cookie. The sourness of the cherry and the heat from the chilli are delicious.
£2.59 for 40g,

Lucocoa dark chocolate
Creamy, dark, almost savoury flavours, and just the right side of sweet.
£6 for 75g,

Pana chocolate coconut & goji
Really delicious — rich and full-flavoured, with whole chunks of berry and coconut, and a good level of sweetness.
£3.90 for 45g,