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Mathieu McFadden pours agave nectar into the mix at ChocoSol, an artisanal chocolate company in Toronto. DELLA ROLLINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Mathieu McFadden pours agave nectar into the mix at ChocoSol, an artisanal chocolate company in Toronto. DELLA ROLLINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Can chocolate be a health food? Almost Add to ...

The aromas wafting through the ChocoSol kitchen are a heady mix redolent of coffee, nuts, coconut, almond oil and forest floor. But the smell of cloying confectionery chocolate as we know it? Not even a hint.

Raw chocolate, apparently, doesn't even have scent in common with its processed cousin.

No surprise, considering how it's "made." At ChocoSol, which rents space in a community centre in downtown Toronto, more than 20 varieties of beans are ground into nibs using a stone grinder. The friction generates heat, but only enough to activate the oils contained within: In order to qualify as raw, a food must not be heated above 46C (115F) - believed to be the maximum temperature for preserving nutritional benefits and digestive enzymes.

And that's why, for a growing group of artisans, raw chocolate is more than the latest gourmet trend; it's an ideology that upholds chocolate's centuries-old reputation as "the food of the gods." It is chocolate as a pure, whole food.

Containing no milk, refined sugar or emulsifiers such as soy lecithin, a piece of raw chocolate can taste earthy and unusual to some, fruity and full of nutty notes to others. Leave it on the tongue for just a few seconds and the natural fats melt into a velvety slick of sinful pleasure. You think Lindt's 70 per cent cherry and chili bar is a big deal? Honey, you ain't nibbled nothing yet.

Daniel Sklaar, a long-time chef whose Fine & Raw chocolates are sold at Dean & DeLuca in New York, thinks that raw chocolate could be the poster child for the whole-foods trend because it bridges healthy living and "culinary triumph."

"It points to the notion of authentic food, and that's one of the coolest aspects," says Mr. Sklaar, who offers bars and bonbons in raw permutations of cacao paste, cacao butter and nibs.

ChocoSol makes 85 per cent raw chocolate, sweetened with either blue agave nectar or coconut sugar. But ChocoSol also defines raw chocolate as any product that is true to pre-Hispanic traditions. So drinking chocolate such as tejate, an iced Oaxacan beverage made from minimally roasted beans blended with mamey seeds, rosita de cacao (a flower) and amaranth flour, also applies. Think Starbucks Frappuccino, but dairy-free and exploding with natural sweetness.

"We do the Mexican style inspired by the European aesthetic," explains ChocoSol founder Michael Sacco.

Among the company's most different offerings is the Jaguar bar, made from exotic albino beans that, according to Mr. Sacco, are the true definition of white chocolate: It's the colour of caramel, with a mellow butterscotch-peanut-butter taste.

Another bean variety is mixed with sea salt and hemp seeds, creating a product that is high in amino acids and essential fatty acids. "This way, it's not just a candy but a whole food because you're also getting the protein," says Matthew McFadden, who works alongside Mr. Sacco. "It's almost like a meal in a puck."

Some go further. Nutrition expert and author David Wolfe began experimenting with raw chocolate eight years ago. Since co-founding the Sacred Chocolate company, which makes organic, vegan, kosher, raw chocolate, he has become an evangelist for its nutritional properties. "Raw cacao is the No. 1 antioxidant food in the world, 15 times higher than blueberries when it's not degraded by heat," he says.

Mr. McFadden acknowledges that raw chocolate may not be satisfying to people who expect that "chocolaty" taste, but he believes this can be chalked up to expectations. People who sample pieces at farmers' markets are "really open to it."

The key to expanding its audience is to avoid getting preachy, Mr. Sacco says. "We don't want to beat people over the head with our ideologies. We're not hippies about it either. We want to make a quality product that's good for you and tastes great."

David Castellan, owner of Soma Chocolate in Toronto, who works with small batches of fair-trade, organic beans, is not convinced. He stays true to the European tradition of chocolate making, he says, because great flavour intensity only comes through after roasting and conching (when chocolate is evenly blended with cocoa butter) - two stages that require high heat.

As for health benefits, raw foods have their enzymes intact, which aids digestion, says Toronto holistic nutritionist Joy McCarthy. Furthermore, the sugars tend to be less refined.

But raw chocolate as health food? Wishful thinking, she says. "You want to be getting your antioxidants from blueberries and strawberries."

Regardless, Mr. Sacco's grand plan doesn't stop at chocolate bars. He envisions a ChocoSol Café alongside a "science-centre eco kitchen" to educate young people. He also intends to continue building infrastructure within the Mexican communities he visits often, and is working on a political manifesto devoted to - what else? - chocolate.

"We want to be about more than raw chocolate; we want to be an invitation to something more," he says. "Be careful, because when you taste ChocoSol you're actually getting involved in something a whole lot bigger than you think."

 

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