The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term “raw” as “not cooked,” “being in or nearly in the natural state,” “unprepared or imperfectly prepared for use,” “not protected,” and “marked by absence of refinements.”
But its meaning becomes unclear when you look at it through the lens of the chocolate industry.
Chocolate has long been considered a popular, indulgent treat within the American diet. The chocolate industry brought in $98 billion in sales in 2015, according to Packaged Facts. But it’s not just Hershey’s anymore: Reacting to consumers’ overall desire for products that are cleaner, healthier and more natural, some companies within the industry have begun to emphasize their use of raw cacao, once known as the “food of the Gods” by the Aztecs for its perceived “superfood” powers.
But there’s a problem: both in preparation and definition, when it comes to chocolate, there’s an ongoing debate of what’s really raw — and that’s due to both a lack of regulation and ongoing arguments over low-temperature preparation methods that could potentially, even, expose consumers to danger.
It’s an issue that’s affecting several companies working in the small but growing segment of products claiming the mantle of raw chocolate. That segment increased sixfold in launches over the past five years, according to one retail information provider. So while “organic” and “fair-trade” require filing often-expensive paperwork to use the certification on packaging, the term “raw” has no legal or regulatory definition. The results in a variety of interpretations and heated debates regarding what’s really raw.
That’s important because, for chocolate-crazed functional foodists, “raw” is both a storytelling indicator as a branding aspect and a checkoff point for this increasingly orthodox consumer set. If chocolate is deemed “raw,” it’s even more important, because many of the functional components in the nutrient rich cacao bean are believed to break down when heated — meaning if brands marketing themselves as raw aren’t really raw, the whole category could end up in hot water.
How hot is too hot?
A raw diet embraces the idea that food is alive and draws from the belief that heating food destroys the nutrients and natural enzymes your body needs. Chocolate production requires many steps to go from bean to treat, however, leading some to question whether that process can ever keep the product truly raw.
Chocolate brands Project NOSH spoke with during the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco all agreed that “raw” products should stay below 118 F. To put this in perspective, standard chocolate is typically roasted at 130-150 F. The disagreement in the industry stems from whether it’s possible to monitor and stay below this temperature during fermentation, a necessary process in all chocolate production that naturally generates a rise in temperature.
Nate Hodge, head chocolate maker for artisanal chocolate brand Raaka — which calls itself ‘unroasted’ rather than raw — doesn’t think it’s possible. Hot climates are a concern given chocolate’s agricultural roots. Two of the top geographic areas for cacao production are Africa and Ecuador.
“In a lot of places, the raw material is going to get above 118 F,” Hodge told NOSH. “When it is sitting out in the sun along the equator in a concrete pad, those beans are going to heat up to 120-125 F so the likelihood that there is truly raw chocolate on the market is kind of slim.”
Raaka instead refers to itself as “virgin” chocolate. The brand doesn’t roast at all, but instead works with farmers to ferment, dry, winnow (the process of removing the beans shell), grind and temper its beans to make chocolate. Hodge said that even that modified process can create temperatures as high as 145-150 F.
One brand that does refer to itself as a “raw” product is Goodio, a Finnish bean-to-bar chocolate company that entered the U.S. market in the past year. But Goodio’s Founder Jukka Peltola said the fermentation process is hard to regulate, and even though the company markets itself as raw, that the actual definition of raw chocolate “is not a good one, since it’s not really specified properly anywhere.”
“Perhaps cold processed would be better as a term,” Peltola told NOSH. “Essentially for us the raw chocolate is not only about the processing cacao in low temperature, it’s a set of values and choices we make to optimize the health benefits and also social and environmental impact too. It’s much more than just business for us and I think same applies with many other raw chocolate makers too.”
Sometimes brands themselves get duped. In 2009, Essential Living Foods discovered the “raw” cacao and cocoa butter they were using from Ecuador were actually processed at temperatures exceeding 200 F without their knowledge. Now the company claims to use verified ingredients from Indonesia.
Is Raw Safe To Eat?
Dark chocolate is valued for more than just its decadent flavor. Cacao is naturally filled with enzymes, phenols and vitamins, making it a “superfood” in its natural state. Raw foodists believe that, as cacao is heated and made into cocoa, its natural health benefits break down, lowering the amount of nutrients the body can then absorb.
Raw foodist Vanessa Morgenstern-Kenan, CEO and Founder of Hnina Gourmet, believes that the proportion of raw foods in a person’s diet correlates directly with a person’s health.
“The beauty of having a raw cacao is basically it’s alive,” she said. “Chocolate will always have these really amazing compounds in it that are really nourishing your body. It has over 700 compounds inside of it, which makes it a superfood, but when you grind it you lose some of those compounds.”
Hnina Gourmet uses 100 percent raw organic natural and unprocessed ingredients for its chocolate products. Morgenstern-Kenan said that the temperature of their Hispaniola cacao beans and cacao butter stays below 105 F.
While there is some scientific evidence to support these claims, opponents argue the health benefits are not worth the risk of having a product contaminated by potentially harmful microorganisms: hence the mantra “you cook it, you kill it.”.
Functional dark chocolate bar Ku’l roasts its beans at 248 F before grinding in order to kill salmonella and other dangerous bacteria.
“It’s a raw agricultural good. [The beans] are being dried in areas where there are birds, and insects and rodents so we spend a lot of time making sure we are killing any potential e. coli or salmonella as they come in,” Ku’l Founder and President Peter Kelsey, told NOSH. “I am very skeptical when people say raw chocolate because how are they ensuring the food safety of their product? You don’t have a kill step.”
Roasting isn’t the only option for sterilizing chocolate, but regardless all techniques use heat application as the primary defense against these food safety threats.
Many retailers are concerned about the risks, too. Morgenstern-Kenan said she has never had an issue with contamination, but that she has received pushback from retailers because of her use of raw ingredients.
What’s the Appeal?
In a time with when consumers believe clean labels are not optional and transparency is king, more and more chocolate brands are emphasizing their production methods. Innova Market Insights, a retail research company, found that six percent of the new chocolate products they tracked in 2016 were marketed as raw compared to a mere one percent in 2011.
Part of the shift may be due to marketing pressures as more and more consumers want a story for products they are consuming.
“From a branding and marketing standpoint, when you are trying to sell a product that is the [most] or one of the most expensive in its category, people want more than just great taste,” Hodge said. “They want a brand they can relate to, they want stories that can pique their interest.”
The message to consumers is that those companies branding their products as raw are able to have more of a connection with their ingredients and with the people working with them. But this can also put pressure on brands to find ways that their bar is different and unique. In the ever-competitive chocolate category, purity is prestige: In 2015 artisanal chocolate brand Mast Brothers faced backlash when it came to light that they weren’t actually producing their bars from scratch.
Is Third Party Certification the Answer?
So how can the industry highlight brands who are trying to produce cleaner, ethically-produced, raw chocolate while still protecting consumers?
Some say raw should be certified under a settled standard similar to the organic industry, to help the category grow. As of now, the FDA maintains standards of identity for chocolate and cacao based products, but there are currently no federal guidelines for the raw chocolate industry. As result, companies themselves have tried to create a standard.
In 2014, leaders from Brad’s Raw Foods, Alive & Radiant, Rawone and MIT, developed an international standard for defining and certifying raw food products through the International Center for Integrative Systems. Products with the R.A.W. certification must be “alive,” have a high amount of bioavailable enzymes, be whole and minimally processed below 212 F, and have a high ANDI nutrient score. While some producers are interested in those standards, they aren’t part of the regulatory environment.
And not all brands are convinced certification is the answer to how to resolve confusion regarding raw chocolate. Peltola’s feelings toward certifications are mixed.
“Is this current labeling really righteous and [the] best possible solution?” Peltola said. “There’s lot of bureaucracy to prove your product [or] production is natural and you have to pay for it.”
He added that he thinks there needs to be a larger discussion about “what’s the best long term solution and what really serves the public the best.”