By Dr Joe
Yes, it’s about time I talked about high fat cocoa vs low fat cocoa powder.
Why…because I have had some of my readers ask this question a couple of times.
I know you like your cocoa powder for your home baking. Your cookies. Your cakes. Your desserts. I know you like the cocoa in your dairy. I also know you like to use cocoa to make some of your sauces and even use it to marinate some of your recipe ingredients.
I agree with you folks that this whole business of whether to consume high fat cocoa or the cocoa powder with lesser fat content can be confusing.
Taking that into consideration it becomes imperative that I share what the facts are regarding the two versions of cocoa powder i.e the high fat cocoa and the low fat cocoa.
I will also discuss which of them should represent the best cocoa powder for health ultimately.
Before going into the nitty gritty of which is better, it makes sense to get into the basics of the birth of the cocoa powder. Cocoa powder is made from the cocoa beans.
The cocoa bean is harvested from cocoa pods. The beans are fermented for variable length of time.
The cocoa beans are then dried following the fermentation process.
This is done to maximize the smooth but complex flavours the cocoa beans exude.
The next step is roasting the cocoa to form cocoa nibs.
Crushing the cocoa nibs through a milling process produces a cocoa liquor or cocoa paste.
It is important to realise that cocoa bean is actually 50% fat.
What’s next is important:
Separation techniques are employed to extract the cocoa butter fat from the rest of the cocoa liquor. Extracting the cocoa fat from the cocoa thick paste is achieved through a process of squeezing the cocoa paste or cocoa liquor between hydraulic plates.
What is left after extracting the cocoa butter are hard-cocoa cakes called cocoa presscakes.
These cocoa cakes are then blitzed industrially into the cocoa powder that you know and love.
That step of extracting the cocoa butter is very important to us here.
Why…because not all of the cocoa butter is extracted.
The degree to which the fat is extracted is what makes the difference between what constitutes high fat cocoa powder or low fat cocoa powder.
Aggressive fat extraction will result in a low fat cocoa powder.
A less aggressive fat extraction leaves us with a high fat cocoa powder.
Food manufacturers are a crafty lot. They can alter the taste, the texture, the colour, the flavour of the cocoa powder to fit with the kind of product they have in mind.
They know what you like and they will go out of their way to give you what you want taste-wise and texture-wise.
What is low fat cocoa powder?
A low fat cocoa powder is one where a lot of the butter fat has been taken out of the chocolate liquor at the early stage of the cocoa processing.
I would like to think that it would be practically difficult to extract every ounce of fat from the cocoa paste. So, something like a fat-free cocoa powder claim may be a little stretch of the truth. I could be wrong.
However, a low fat cocoa powder will have a fat content of an average of 11%. Usually most low fat cocoa powder will have a fat load of between 10 – 12%.
What is high fat cocoa powder?
If you imagine that a cocoa bean has 50% fat, then it is easy to see why cocoa powder could be a high fat product even without trying.
Cocoa is a naturally fatty product. How measured the hydraulic process of cocoa fat extraction is, is what distinguishes high fat cocoa from a low fat cocoa product.
For the most part, some fat is always removed from the cocoa paste. If what is left is about 24% fat, then you have a high fat cocoa powder.
Generally speaking, high fat cocoa powder will have about 22 – 24% fat content left in it.
What’s the difference between Dutch Cocoa powder and Natural Cocoa powder?
The difference between Dutch cocoa powder and Natural cocoa powder lies with pH reference point in the product.
And the pH does influence the colour of the cocoa powder as you can see from the picture above. The one on the right of the photo is Dutch cocoa and the one one on the left is Natural cocoa.
Cocoa powder products have varying pHs. These products either belong to the acidic side of the pH scale or the alkaline side of it.
Natural cocoa powder belongs to the acidic spectrum on the pH scale. Cocoa in its natural state is acidic. When minimally processed to the point of the butter fat being separated from the cocoa liquor, it is still acidic.
Upon separation of the fat from the rest of the cocoa, what is left is cocoa cakes which of course gets pulverized to become the cocoa powder.
This cocoa powder at this stage still has all the natural acidity with a pH of between 5.2 and 5.9 on the pH scale.
Dutch cocoa powder on the other hand undergoes further processing which turns the product to a more alkaline one because alkaline is added to the natural cocoa powder. Dutch cocoa pH runs at 7.0 – 8.4.
When it comes to Dutch cocoa vs Natural cocoa powder, the choice is whether you want your cocoa powder to be acidic or whether you prefer it to be alkaline.
Indeed, that preference will have something to do what you intend to use the cocoa powder for.
For instance, have you ever had an incident where you added your Natural cocoa powder to your milk and you noticed some curdling in the cup or bowl? Well, that’s because of the acidity of the Natural cocoa.
Therefore, in that instance, a better bet will be the Dutch cocoa powder.
The distinguishing feature to bear in mind is; Natural cocoa powder is acidic whilst Dutch cocoa powder is alkaline.
The supermarket brands in America tend to be Natural cocoa. I’m talking about Nestle and the Hershey’s brands of cocoa powder that you find on your supermarket shelves.
Penzeys cocoa brand is also Natural, although they understand the market very well and have the Dutch cocoa variety as well to increase their bottom line.
What is Dutch cocoa powder and how is Dutch cocoa powder made?
Dutch cocoa is cocoa that has been processed further than the Natural variant. Minimal processing produces the Natural cocoa which at this point is acidic in pH.
Dutch processing takes things further by adding alkaline to reduce the pH of the cocoa thus making it more alkaline. Hence the pH of Dutch cocoa is between 7.0 – 8.4.
What is the effect of alkalinisation:
Adding alkaline to the cocoa powder changes the colour and the flavour. Dutch cocoa therefore is darker and the chocolate flavour is more mellow.
Dutch cocoa taste is less bitter, unlike Natural cocoa that has a bold chocolate in-your-face kind of flavour and taste.
The more alkalinized the cocoa is, the darker it gets.
You could say, the more processed it is the darker it becomes.
Depending on what type of alkalinisation agent that is used (Potassium carbonate seems to be the popular alkalinising agent), the end product of Dutch cocoa could be anywhere between dark brown to red to black. See Picture below.
Oreos is a classic example of a well alkalinized cocoa. Oreos is very Dutch-cocoa, we could say.
Some people like to ask what unsweetened Dutch processed cocoa is. The unsweetened Dutch processed cocoa is one that hasn’t been further processed with more additives like sugar and milk.
Obviously, this automatically excludes the cocoa in cookies and cakes and some of the cocoa powder you may find in your store.
If the cocoa powder is tasting sweeter beyond the natural subtle sweet taste, then sugar or powdered milk has been added. That type of powder will not qualify as unsweetened Dutch cocoa powder.
Alkalinisation is not the same thing as sweetening, but food manufacturers do “magical” stuff. So watch out.
The pH of the cocoa affects its dissolvability as well. Alkaline cocoa (Dutch cocoa) dissolves more readily in liquid medium compared to Natural cocoa.
Any surprise then why pastry chefs tend to use Dutch cocoa? Makes life so much easier for them.
What is Natural Cocoa Powder?
Cocoa that is minimally processed is Natural cocoa. All cocoa powder has had to undergo some form of processing, otherwise you will be presented with original fermented cocoa seeds. Not what you want.
Minimal processing that involves making the cocoa paste or cocoa liquor followed by a process of hydraulic pressing results in cocoa cakes. These cocoa cakes are then grated into a fine powder and voilla, you have your Natural cocoa powder.
Natural cocoa is brown to beige in colour (See picture below) and has intense bitter taste. Seriously, you will be taken aback by the bitterness if it’s your first time of tasting a Natural cocoa powder. Be prepared!
Another thing to point out is:
That Natural cocoa powder is harder to dissolve in liquid medium. It requires a little more brute force to get it to dissolve. It does dissolve eventually.
How to tell if your cocoa powder is Dutch processed or Natural?
In the US, food manufacturers are supposed to put the type of cocoa powder on the food label displayed on the pack.
They should state whether it is Natural or Dutch processed cocoa on the pack by law. Labels like “Processed with alkali” means exactly the same thing as “Dutch-processed”.
In other countries especially in Europe, this is not a requirement by law, so how do you tell a Dutch-processed cocoa from a Natural cocoa powder in situations like that.
Well, you wouldn’t know until you get your cocoa powder home and you open the packet to see the actual cocoa powder.
You could then decide by tasting it, looking at the colour and see how quickly it dissolves in liquid.
I have already stated what Dutch cocoa and Natural cocoa should taste like, look like and dissolving capability above. No need repeating that here. You have to become a cocoa connoisseur overnight.
How to tell if cocoa powder is high fat or low fat cocoa?
In the same vein, the manufacturers are supposed to make clear the fat content on the label. They may not indicate “high fat cocoa” or “low fat cocoa” clearly as they like to be smart.
What you can do is look at the Nutritional information on the pack.
I have already mentioned that high fat cocoa has 22 – 24% fat in it, right? Use that as your guide. Now the percentage fat I am talking about there is how much fat is in the cocoa powder per 100 gm of it.
Sometimes the manufacturers either want to be smart or downright just want you to be confused, so they will give the nutritional information as per 5 gm serving.
If the values on the pack are given as per 5 gm serving, a high fat cocoa powder should be yielding a 1 gm of total fat per 5 gm serving. Use that as your guide as it equates to the same thing.
Low fat cocoa on the other hand will have 11 gm of total fat per 100 gm on the pack. This will equate to 0.5 gm per 5 gm serving of the powder too.
Something I need to add here.
It might seem obvious but it is good for you to know that these cocoa powder products come in mix & matches.
What do I mean by that?
It means you can have high fat Natural cocoa, low fat Natural cocoa; high fat Dutch cocoa powder as well as low fat Dutch cocoa powder.
Best Cocoa powder for health
When it concerns the issue of best cocoa powder for health, the argument is always about high fat cocoa vs low fat cocoa powder. Which should I use?
Another aspect of the argument regarding which cocoa powder is best for health is the issue of whether to use Natural cocoa powder or the Dutched cocoa competitor.
One thing good about cocoa is that it is very good for health. Cocoa is packed full of flavonols. Flavonols have anti-inflammatory effects. The flavonols help fight oxidative stress. Dealing with oxidative stress is good for longevity and heart health.
Check out detailed health benefits of cocoa here.
That flavanols in cocoa can have a positive influence on high blood pressure was proven with the Kuna islanders.
Researchers looked at the consumption of cocoa by the residents of Kuna island compared to similar Kuna residents who migrated to the mainland.
They found that the Kuna islanders who were still living in the island had a very low incidence of hypertension (high blood pressure) compared to Mainland Kunas. The difference was 5 cups of cocoa that the Kuna islanders drank every day.
There is a potentiating effect of the cocoa flavonols on Nitric oxide, which in turn is a good relaxer of blood vessel walls.
What’s even surprising is that the older you were the better your response was to the effects of flavonols in the cocoa. How nice!
Flavonols are a type of polyphenols. Cocoa is packed with flavonols. If you were to eat raw cocoa beans as they are, you couldn’t get a better source of flavonols anywhere else than you would with cocoa beans.
The problem though is the flavonoid content of the fresh cocoa bean is not quite the same as in a cocoa powder.
The difference…processing it is.
The more processed the cocoa beans are the more of the flavonols you lose. More processing equals less polyphenols in the cocoa powder.
Even the drying, the fermentation and roasting duration all have effects on the flavonoid concentration before the alkalinisation process does its own flavonol stripping.
It is thought that the bitterness and tactile sensation of astringency in foods like cocoa is related to the flavonoid content.
So, the more bitter the cocoa powder is, the higher the polyphenols (flavonols) in it.
Which translates to:
The more flavonols in the cocoa powder the healthier it is.
Here are a few tips to consider for the best cocoa for health:
- Always go for the unsweetened cocoa powder. Cocoa powder could be sweetened or unsweetened. If eating for good health is your primary consideration, go for the unsweetened cocoa all the time.
2. Go for the Natural cocoa powder instead of the Dutch cocoa powder if you have to choose between the two. And it’s got to be the unsweetened one, remember. The reason is obvious as from above. The more processed it is (think Dutch), the less flavonols you have in the cocoa powder.
3. Consider using the low fat cocoa powder if eating for health is your primary consideration. Look at the food label on the pack. Not only will the total fat content be around about 11% (0.5 gm of fat per serving of 5 gm of the powder), the saturated fat content should be low as well.
I am not a big fan of saturated fat personally. Why, well that’s a matter for another day. Fortunately, you don’t have a big decision to make as a lot of the low fat cocoa powder have low saturated fat anyway.
You may lose a bit of flavour with the low fat cocoa powder as the high fat cocoa has richer chocolatey flavour but your overall health matters more.
But I find that the difference in taste is not much in practice. I use the Terrafertil organic cacao powder which I get from Costco without any problems. It’s low fat but manages to retain its nice chocolatey taste. Get a similar healthy original cacao powder here from Amazon.
Having said that, I like to be as practical as possible. If you have difficulty finding the low fat cocoa where you live, you can use the high fat one temporarily whilst you search for the low fat one.
One pack of high fat cocoa is not going to ruin your health unless you have pre-existing heart disease. It’s a long term consistent use of a high fat cocoa powder that may be of concern in the long run.
4. If you are one of those people on high fat diet or ketogenic diet, then the high fat cocoa will be your cocoa powder of choice. That type of cocoa powder corresponds to your current eating plan anyway, so nothing to worry about there.
5. Use the Cacao powder in place of cocoa powder if you want the best cocoa for health.
See cacao vs cocoa explanation here. Cacao is better than cocoa in nutritional terms.
Those are the type of cocoa powder I would advise if good health is your primary consideration.
Hopefully, you have had some fun reading this. Go enjoy your cocoa (or should I say, cacao) and sleep easy.
Suggested further reading:
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