Does Fermentation of Cocoa Beans Improve Chocolate?

A bowl of fermented cacao with cacao beans beside it

Fermented vs. Unfermented Cacao

Confused by the sheer multitude of marketing terms used to describe cacao products? We’ll try and clear it up for you here.

First things first — there's a difference between cocoa and cacao (hint: the highly processed version is the former). Next, you need to decide if you want raw, organic, fair trade, non-GMO, sustainably harvested or blessed by fairies (okay, not really). 

Finally, there's the difference between cacao beans subjected to fermentation and raw ones that haven’t. At this point, you’re probably thinking to yourself — all I want is a high-quality cacao product that's healthy for my family! The fact is, all these different products don’t deliver the same benefits. However, this doesn’t mean it’s difficult to find the right product for your family. To help you understand some of this terminology and the processes behind it, we’ll dig a little deeper into the fermentation process. 

Fermented Raw Cacao

Traditional cultures employ fermentation of cacao beans to increase the chocolate flavor. Chocolate fermentation also helps break down the phytic acid present in cacao, while improving the cacao flavor and aroma.

Phytic acid is a protective substance present in all nuts, grains, beans and seeds. It binds to the natural minerals in these foods, preventing the body from absorbing those nutrients. Reducing phytic acid is important for easier digestion and better mineral absorption. Fermentation of cacao beans is the traditional method to cut down the phytic acid content.

The thing is, though, if these beans aren’t properly fermented and dried, mold and undesirable pathogens may develop. Many store-bought cocoa products are often treated with high temperatures, Dutch (alkali) processed, or irradiated. While this helps kill off the bacteria, it also negates many of the potential health benefits of consuming raw cacao. A study discovered that the best temperatures for drying and fermentation of cacao beans were between 112°F - 122°F (source). The closer to 122°F the temperature, the better the quality of the dried cacao.  Exposure to higher temperatures isn’t necessary to kill off pathogens, if the fermentation is done correctly. 

To make our Fermented Cacao Powder organic, non-alkalized cacao pods are naturally fermented in banana leaves for three to five days. It is Fairtrade-certified and sustainably farmed. Many people looking to boost their intake of antioxidants, particularly flavonoids and polyphenols, choose this product as it’s minimally processed, contains no added sugar, and is the most concentrated source of cacao available.

Unfermented Raw Cacao

Not all chocolate and cacao products are subjected to fermentation. In fact, some people prefer non-fermented cacao for its distinct, mild flavor. One of the greatest benefits of consuming non-fermented cacao is the significantly higher antioxidant flavonoids it provides. Flavonoids are measured using an ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) score. Non-fermented cacao has an ORAC score of 1549 μmol TE/g. This is over three times the ORAC score of another familiar superfood: goji berries.

So, Which One Should You Use?

To be honest, there’s nothing stopping you from using both. If a recipe benefits from a stronger cacao flavor, fermented is the way to go. On the other hand, if you’re making a smoothie with other naturally sweet ingredients, non-fermented cacao is probably a better choice. It's also worth experimenting as to which of the two you prefer in terms of taste. Wildly Organic stocks both fermented raw cacao and non-fermented raw cacao. Both fermented and non-fermented cacao powder contain high amounts of flavonoids, polyphenols, and antioxidants. Our cacao is from beans that are USDA-certified organic and raw. They’re sourced from small family farms in the Dominican Republic that have been practicing sustainable farming methods for generations.

Cacao and chocolate are popular cooking ingredients and healthy too when consumed in the right amounts. Keep up with our natural eating blog for more tips and lip-smacking recipes. Don’t hesitate to contact us with more questions about the impact of fermentation on cacao beans.

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