What's the most popular fermented food you didn't know about? For many, the question may lead to several seconds, if not minutes, of pondering, ending with the usual names associated with the natural process of food preservation: sauerkraut, kimchee, tempeh, kombucha and, of course, yogurt. The answer may surprise them – and you – as it is not an obscurely named product found at the back of specialty food stores. Instead, the offering is one that many think about this time of year to show their love to another.
It's chocolate (or more specifically the source, cacao).
Historical records reveal cacao has been pleasing humans for over 1,500 years, although biological analysis suggests the cacao plant, named Theobroma cacao, Latin for "food of the gods," has been part of human cultivation for some 35,000 years. There are a number of usable parts of the tree in agriculture, however the human palate has focused on a very small part of the plant: the beans that lay deep inside the oval-shaped fruit.
When first used by the Mayans, the beans were crushed into a powder and mixed with hot water. The result was a bitter drink called xocolatl that offered a myriad of flavours and invigorated and stimulated the consumer. Over the years, human innovation – or perhaps the human sweet tooth – advanced the manufacturing process of cacao into the more common derivations seen today, cocoa and chocolate.
But the cacao bean has an unlikely partner in the development of its flavour and beneficial qualities. A raw cacao bean has little to no taste and offers little to anyone eating it. But when it is allowed to ferment in the company of dozens of strains of bacteria, yeast, and fungi, magic happens. The bean acquires a taste with a complexity that can rival other fermented favorites, like wine, cheese and coffee. What's more is the fact that the variety of geographical tastes can be linked to the microbes found in the fermentation process. The dark and looming cacao from Ghana has a significantly different microbial makeup than the lighter and fruitier flavours of its Ecuadorian counterpart. Even more closely linked regions, such as China, Indonesia and New Guinea, produce cacao with significantly different tastes and accordingly, different microbes.
Despite the diversity, there is one common thread that links the world's cacao together: They all must have a significant amount of Lactobacillus, the same bacterium known by most of us as a probiotic. Though this may seem innocuous at best, researchers have sought to answer why this one type of bacterium is the linchpin of good-tasting cacao, regardless of source.
What they found should make everyone – and their microbes – dance for joy. It turns out the lactobacilli are responsible for the production of a wide assortment of chemicals that add to the fruity, semi-bitter flavour. They also ensure that acidity, astringency and off-flavours are kept low. But even more impressive is the fact that the chemicals produced by these good bugs are also known to have a prebiotic effect. Ingesting Lactobacillus-fermented cacao means fostering and enhancing the health and happiness of our good bacteria. But the love doesn't end there. By showering them with this affection, they reciprocate by aiding us in better digestion, balanced immune system and improved mood.
As with anything that seems too good to be true, there are limitations. All of the goodness stated above comes from cacao, which is not what we consider today as chocolate. Most options found on grocery and convenience store shelves are far removed from the goodness of cacao. The effects of processing can be detrimental to the beneficial chemicals; any that are left are hidden behind the massive amount of sugars, fats and preservatives. Instead of being a food for the gods, this offering is sadly closer to junk food.
In reality, there are only a few products that offer truly raw cacao with all of its fermented properties. As expected, they are usually found in specialty stores (although at the front) and are fairly expensive. However, when it comes to health and that relationship with germs, as research has shown, it's best to turn to cacao and leave the more commercial chocolate options behind. With Valentine's Day just around the corner, making the choice to splurge a little to love your germs might be the best way to keep the relationship strong and leave you both happy for ages to come.
Jason Tetro is a Toronto-based microbiologist with over 25 years experience in research. He is a self-described germs relationship therapist and strives to improve humanity's bond with the unseen world. He writes for national and international media outlets and is often found on social media where he shares his unique views on microbial health. His science bestseller, The Germ Code (Random House/Doubleday Canada) is now available on shelves all across the nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @JATetro