What does raw cacao actually mean?
Whats up with raw cacao and is it really raw… Some insights from our experience and research.
Raw food is unprocessed (or as little as possible) and especially uncooked. An importent element is that the food is not heated above 42°C otherwise it is not considered raw anymore. A very easy guideline.
There are different process steps for cacao that exceed this temperature threshold. This is why we want to be as transparent as possible to understand what raw cacao actually is and why it is so complicated. To understand this better we first need to look at how cacao is processed.
Fermentation: after harvesting, cacao beans are fermented in the sweet fruity flesh of the fruit. During a good fermentation it reaches 50°C which is important for the taste development amongst others. Already surpassing the 42°C which means by default that almost all cacao that you know is not raw.
Drying: after fermentation the beans are dried, depending on the weather and set up this can be in the sun or under a roof. As cacao grows in very hot climates temperatures can reach up quite some, especially when sun-dried. It’s difficult to say anything about general temperatures here, but in it can easily reach above 42°C. Drying the beans properly below a certain moisture level (from ±60% to below 7%) is important for storage. No one wants to loose their harvest due to mold and improper drying.
Roasting: Well this step is not very relevant here as raw cacao should of course never be roasted. Traditionally cacao is roasted however to clean and remove husks more easily. It is also an important step for flavor development. Research found that short roasting actually increases or activates different active compounds. It is also and important step for taste development in chocolate making and different roasting profiles can bring out different flavors. Sadly industry standards are high temperature and long roasting time which destroy many beautiful things of the cacao.
Winnowing: In this step the husks are separated from the beans. The husks are removed for different reasons, but an important one is to clean the beans, especially with raw cacao. The warm humid climate, fermentation, etc create very patogen-friendly environments. Possible mycotoxins are mostly found in the husks. This is why you want to work as clean as possible with cacao (which is definitely not the standard situation!).
Grinding: After the husks are removed the beans/nibs are ground into a fluid paste, similar to molten chocolate. There are different grinding set-ups and they all include friction that increases the heat. To keep below the 42°C, machines have to be adapted or slowed down. Often a missed step in the process, easily reaching up to temperatures of 60-80°C.
Long story short
This sums up the complexity of processing cacao and why ‘raw’ cacao is technically not raw. Although it might be treated with the most care and respect it would be better to label it as ‘unroasted’ unless it is temperature controlled in every step. Sometimes also the concept of raw is changed to a higher temperature to make it fit in and still sell it as raw, which does sound sexy of course, but isn't very fair.
This hopefully provides some more insight in a quite complex process and helps you to ask the right questions to producers to check if their raw cacao is actually raw.
Our own cacao is lightly roasted for which we look at traditional preparation so all the good stuff is still actively present. Research has found that lightly roasting cacao increases the level of some active ingredients as well as it preserves better.