The theoretical basis for raw foodism is Ed Howell’s Theory of Enzyme Nutrition. Howell’s work is, to some extent, a continuation of the American Health movement that can claim Kellogg and Graham as adherents.
One of the best summations of the theory of enzyme nutrition can be found here. Basically, it’s junk “science.”
That said, this is not a topic for rational discussion because, in part, it’s based on the notion that, of course, foods that are less processed are better for you than foods that are highly processed. Take that notion to its extreme in one direction and you can only come to the conclusion that raw food is better for you than cooked food.
Of course, that’s not strictly true. What matters is bioavailability. Research has shown that lightly steaming broccoli makes the nutrients more bioavailable. This is true for many foods and in the end it does not matter what is in what you put in your mouth what matters is what your body absorbs. Bioindividuality plays a huge role there, and what might be not enough for one person might be too much for another.
While it is generally accepted that the maximum temperature to which a food can be subjected and still be raw (and that’s 118F or 48.7C) there is no scientific basis for this temperature.
None. Raw faddists make the claim and then say, “Prove us wrong.” That’s not the way science works. Those making the claim need to present the proof that backs up their claim.
As others have stated, fermentation piles routinely reach temperature peaks above 48.7C. One way to prevent this from happening is to simply not ferment the cacao. However, the cacao needs to be dried and if that is done in open sun, temperatures can routinely reach 60C. It is possible to dry cacao and stay below 48.7 but it is time-consuming and expensive, and must be closely supervised.
Even assuming the cacao can be kept below 48.7C during post-harvest processing, it is possible that the cacao could reach well above that temperature during processing. Even if not roasted, I contend that the instantaneous shear temperature at the grinding surface routinely reaches well above 48.7C. One symptom of this is that the product being ground gets hot. If the temperature measured at a random place in the processor gets close to 48.7 it means that the temperature at the grinding surface is almost assuredly above 48.7C.
Raw faddists appear to also be ignorant of thermodynamics and heat transfer. The assumption is made that subject the outside of a cocoa bean to a temperature above 48.7C “kills” all the important enzymes immediately. Which does not happen.
One reason this is the case is evaporative cooling. Raw cocoa beans contain between 6 and 7% moisture and the surface temperature of the bean is moderated by this evaporation during roasting. Anyone who has ever monitored roasting will know that the temperature inside the mass will not really start increasing until after a while. The reason is that the moisture in the mass needs to be reduced significantly before evaporative cooling effectively stops.
Another - and even more important - reason is that it takes a while for the heat to penetrate the shell of the cocoa bean. Yes, that’s right. The papery husk of the cocoa bean is a barrier to heat getting to the bean underneath.
Finally, it is monstrously disingenuous to suggest that subjecting the outer surface of the bean to a temp of, say 100C, instantly “kills” the entire mass of the bean. It takes a long time - many, many minutes - for the center of the bean to get warm. How long depends on many factors, including moisture content as mentioned above but also the size of the beans themselves.
It is quite possible to subject the exterior of a cocoa bean to a high-temperature (100C) sanitizing steam bath for longer than the amount of time required to kill salmonella and e coli and not elevate the temperature at the surface of the bean inside the shell by a fraction of a degree.
So, in addition to not understanding the biology involved, raw chocolate advocates do not understand the impact of the physics of heat transfer, further undermining their position.
Cocoa grading professionals are loath to eat raw cocoa beans. One of the most important aspects of performing a cut test is to determine, visually, if beans are obviously infected with a microbial load. If they are, they are rejected - and they are certainly not eaten before they are sterilized.
The acidity level (pH) of a fermenting cacao is too low for salmonella and e coli to grow. It’s only after fermentation where contamination can happen. Thus, good handling procedures post-fermentation on the farm can mean that there is no salmonella or e coli present when the beans get bagged.
One of the best ways to ensure that there is no contamination is to ensure that no animals - and that includes birds flying overhead - get near the drying beans. Dogs and chickens are common sources of contamination in and around cacao farms. Other sources could be contaminated water used for cleaning.
As mentioned above, it’s possible to sterilize cocoa beans without cooking them. One way is steam, as mentioned above, but a steam bath is less effective when there is a loss of integrity in the shell. If the beans are sitting still on a sheet pan, bacteria hiding inside the hole caused by the germ falling out could reduce the effectiveness of this approach. Another way to sterilize cocoa beans is to soak them in hydrogen peroxide. The beans do need to be dried out afterwards and hydrogen peroxide can be expensive when used this way.
My personal opinions
IMO, the arguments in support of raw chocolate are not rational. People will believe what they want to believe. People believe in stuff like homeopathic vibrations in water and pyramid power I cannot say they are wrong in their beliefs — but it’s going to take a lot of evidence to get me to believe in them.
I don’t eat raw chocolate (and I have tasted a lot of it in the past decade) because I believe in the health claims. In the end, I want to feel good eating chocolate, not feel good about eating chocolate. I want the chocolate I put in my mouth to put a smile on my face.
I don’t eat raw chocolate because I prefer the taste - though many people profess to like and even prefer the taste of raw chocolate. But then, many people will eat stuff they think is healthy even if it tastes awful. I like to eat chocolate, not ground up cocoa beans with a sweetener and lots of added “superfood” powders.
Finally, there is the prima facie assumption that heating something is entirely negative. We know that this is not the case with broccoli. Why not with chocolate? Are there chemicals that are created in the bean roasting process that are good for us? Maybe even better for us than anything in un-roasted beans?
There is no scientific proof that every raw chocolate is better for you than every chocolate made from “cooked” cocoa beans. The “scientific” basis underlying a lot of the claims (Ed Howell’s theory of enzyme nutrition) does not stand up to scrutiny.
There is no scientific proof that the maximum temperature – for all foods – that something can be subjected to before it is no longer raw is 48.7C. Yes, exposing lettuce to 45C in a dehydrator quickly decomposes the lettuce. It’s a stretch to conclude that the same thing happens in cacao.
There are food safety concerns around bacterial contamination that need to be addressed. The fact that there has not been an epidemic of sickness traced to raw chocolate means that:
- raw chocolate makers are extremely lucky; or
- raw foodists are reluctant to report that they got sick from eating raw chocolate; or
- the chocolate is not actually raw; or
- something else (see the first point)
Raw chocolate makers need to be aware of the phasing in of the FSMA, the Food Safety Modernization Act. The FSMA requires that food makers know a lot more about their ingredients and the sourcing of those ingredients than they currently do. In the course of compliance they may find it exceedingly difficult to make the claims they now make.