Health and The Dutch Cocoa Process: Van Houten’s Legacy and Modern Analyses
Throughout history, chocolate and cacao has been purported to have medicinal properties, and especially in the modern age, there is increased emphasis on the health benefits associated with these ingredients. In the processing of cacao, there are numerous points where the chemical composition is changed in some manner, which in part contributes to the unique flavor profile of chocolate. Generally, the process encompasses the same set of operations such as fermentation, drying, and winnowing, but a significant point of distinction occurs during the creation of cocoa powder. With the two conventional forms of cocoa powder, natural and Dutch process, there is a significant variation in terms of the product. The Van Houten family is generally attributed with the process necessary for creating cocoa powder as well as the techniques for making cocoa more palatable through the Dutch process. As the Dutch process is noted to affect flavonoid and antioxidant levels, there are limitations in terms of health benefits as a result of this processing that are removed from natural cocoa powder, despite historical arguments for similar benefits. To contextualize the distinctions between the two types of cocoa powder, it is important to understand their historical development as well as modern examinations.
The Van Houten Hydraulic Press Process
In the early 19th century, chocolate had become relatively ubiquitous, but there were many issues with the ease of consumption and the quality of the taste. Coenraad van Houten and his father, Casparus van Houten, are attributed with the development of a technique that utilizes a hydraulic press to remove over half of the cocoa butter from the beans (Robbins and Coe 2006). The additional byproduct of this process was a brick of cocoa solids, which could be turned into natural cocoa powder. As this cocoa powder retained the chemical compounds naturally found in cacao, many of the potential health benefits arguably are retained after this process (Minifie 1970).
“Dutching” the Cocoa
Perhaps the more significant contribution of Coenraad van Houten is the process known as “Dutching,” which involved treating the natural cocoa powder with alkaline salts with the goal of making the powder more dissolvable (Robbins and Coe 2006). This process proved transcendental as it not only improved the creation of chocolate drinks, but it also alleviated some of the bitterness associated with cacao and created a more intense color for the cocoa powder. However, this “Dutching” process indeed alters the chemical composition of the cocoa powder, and thus potentially affects the medicinal benefits of chocolate (Minifie 1970). Alongside the significantly improved solubility of cocoa powder, this new product also opened the door to produce chocolate bars and other varieties of chocolate products.
Marketing Overcomes Reality
Regardless of the changes caused by the alkalization of cocoa powder, the Van Houten company that initially manufactured Dutch process cocoa, as it become commonly known as, had aggressive campaigns that emphasized the health benefits associated with cocoa powder consumption. To overcome the stronghold on drinks that tea and coffee seemed to have, this variety of cocoa was seminal in the rise of chocolate as a consumed good throughout the world (Van Houten’s Cocoa). Additionally, given the new-found ability to create chocolate bars, the Dutch process cocoa occupied a substantive sector of the market without a proper grasp of what was truly healthy about it. With little to no actual understanding of why chocolate and cocoa were healthy, companies were able to leverage these supposed health benefits for immense capital gain.
Alongside these marketing ventures, it is also essential to consider the official classification for what constitutes chocolate. With the introduction of these new processing techniques, chocolate was essentially bastardized to a point beyond traditional recognition. Therefore, as large manufacturer’s like Cadbury and Nestle introduction new products like milk chocolate, these products began to deviate immensely from the chocolate drinks that Van Houten aimed to modernized (Leissle 2018). Furthermore, as other additives became increasingly prominent within cocoa powder and subsequently chocolate, it became difficult to classify what truly could be considered authentic chocolate.
The Fall of Chocolate’s Medicinal Value
With the creation of the first chocolate bar by Joseph Fry in 1847, sugar and cocoa butter were added to the Dutch process cocoa to make it more palatable (Leissle 2018). In the mid-20th century, the health benefits associated with chocolate had largely subsided as the sugar and fat levels continued to increase dramatically. As sugar and fat became villainized in terms of their detrimental health effects, chocolate suffered a similar fate, so the purported medical benefits were put on the back burner (Rasmussen 2012). Given the shifted emphasis of what constitutes health, chocolate at some point during this span transitioned from being a food with purported health benefits into an unhealthy product.
In the modern era, chocolate had been essentially demonized for its hedonistic and unhealthy nature, but there are trends that also aim to counteract these movements. Through historical and scientific approaches, chocolate is essentially at the intersection of healthy and unhealthy foods. Given the high amounts of sugar and fat found within common varieties of chocolate, chocolate is partly responsible for the obesity crisis within the United States (Rasmussen 2012). On the other hand, modern longitudinal studies have suggested potential long-term health benefits associated with moderate chocolate consumption. However, it is important to contextualize these results given the amount of money within the modern chocolate lobby. To counteract the negative publicity surrounding chocolate, many positive studies are funded by chocolate and cocoa interest groups, which skew the results to favor the health benefits of chocolate (Fleming 2018).
Dutch Process Chemical Modifications
While it is difficult to truly assess the health benefits of chocolate, there are methods of measuring absolute levels of certain chemical compounds that are known to have beneficial health effects. The composition of cacao itself is noted to have caffeine, flavonoids, antioxidants, and a variety of minerals (Li 2012). However, the process of “Dutching” has been shown to decrease the relative levels of these healthy compounds through the reaction with alkaline salts (Miller 2008). Furthermore, the stereochemistry of common flavins was shown to be altered, which means that “healthier” flavins are lost through the “Dutching” process (Hurst 2011). Therefore, despite the struggle to understand the exact health benefits associated with cocoa and chocolate, the ubiquitous usage of the Dutch process does lower the health value of cocoa and chocolate.
Overall, the perception of chocolate as a health food has varied throughout history and remains enigmatic. Chocolate used to have an elite status of providing exceptional nourishment, so the Dutch process was pivotal as it increased accessibility to such a sought-after food. However, the repercussions of the Dutch process were also immensely influential as the production of chocolate bars and variations of chocolate began to arise. As this processing became ubiquitous, the purity of chocolate was diluted with significant increases in the proportion of sugar and fat that comprised the food. With the strength of the modern chocolate lobby, the reputation of chocolate has been widely restored, but the purported health benefits are up for further discussion. The single innovation of the Dutch process snowballed into the modern chocolate industry and is responsible for shifting the paradigm of whether cacao was healthy to if the bastardized version of chocolate has nutritional value.
Even after all this analysis, it brings us back to the question that plagues us all. Is chocolate healthy?
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