June 12, 2014 § 9 Comments
Can we talk about chocolate? First of all I’ve discovered that, apparently nothing rhymes with it. According to the unerring wisdom of the Internet, it rhymes with charming words like “slut,” “butt,” “gut” and “mutt.” This is probably why we don’t see any chocolate candy bars with cute rhyming names because they’d have to be something like: “Glutbutt’s Chocolate Nutty Sluts”!
But we all know chocolate doesn’t really rhyme with “nut,” because if it did we’d pronounce it “choc-LUT,” as opposed to “choc-LET.” (My computer goes on to insist that chocolate also rhymes with blanket, beechnut, carrot and zealot. My computer is, apparently, a moron.)
It seems nothing really rhymes with chocolate. Likewise, nothing really can take its place. During our Year of No Sugar I found lots of sugar replacement strategies that worked great, or at least pretty well. I managed to make banana ice cream, shortbread, brownies and coconut cake all of which passed effortlessly for sugar-containing (read: fructose-containing) treats.
But not chocolate. Chocolate, we came to realize during that sugar-free year, was the one thing we simply could not have, or even approximate.
Now, this isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of “Sugar Free,” chocolates on the market to choose from, but in the marketplace “Sugar Free” usually means traditional sugar has been replaced with one of two things:
- fake sugars (Aspartame, Neotame, Saccharin, Sucralose which are marketed as Nutrasweet, Equal, Sweet n’ Low, Splenda)
- sugar alcohols (usually Maltitol but also Xylitol, Sorbitol, Isomalt etc.)
Because of reported possible side effects ranging anywhere from gastric distress to infertility and cancer, our family chose to away from both of these categories as well. So “Sugar Free” chocolate was also out.
Instead, we fed our inner chocolate lover with baked goods made with unsweetened cocoa. And those were good, often really quite good. But nothing ever came close to replicating the experience of a bite of actual, snap-when-you-bite, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate. Accordingly, at the end of our Year of No Sugar, when we all chose a special treat to have at midnight- what did I choose? A Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. Ahhhh- chocolate at last.
So you can imagine how intrigued I was to find out recently that some friends of ours have recently taken up the pastime of home-chocolate making. Immediately, I wanted to know: could they make chocolate with a non-fructose sweetener? Could one make chocolate with… dextrose??
Now I’ve been down this road before. Similar to chocolate, sugar has some unique, magical properties that can’t always be replicated. Not only does sugar sweeten, but it also preserves, it thickens, it fills, it transforms things from one state to another. Therefore, using an alternative ingredient in sugar’s place may meet one need of the recipe, but not another. Exhibit A: Dextrose Jelly. In my book, Year of No Sugar, I tell the story of how I tried to make Concord Grape Jelly using dextrose in place of sugar, but suffice it to say that (spoiler alert!) I ended up with quite a few jars of an only just passable grape sauce instead.
Nevertheless, in the case of chocolate, my friends Tom and Robin were game to try. So one day recently I arrived at their home armed with my beach-ball-sized, orange, plastic barrel o’ dextrose.
Let me just say right now: making your own chocolate is unbelievably complicated. It’s the kind of thing that’s so convoluted that half-way through you begin to wonder how on earth it ever got invented in the first place. It’s not the kind of thing I would do to relax in my free time at home, any more than I would choose to build a particle accelerator out of matchsticks and used chewing gum in my backyard. But nonetheless this is Tom’s hobby.
Tom began by taking cacao beans he had already roasted and running them through a Champion juicer. Immediately, I was in out of my depth. Tom was talking about “volatiles” and “acetic acid” and “particles below 20 microns.” There was vocabulary, which being a word-person I can handle, but there was also lots of chemistry, which, being a word-person, makes me vaguely nauseous.
I tried to keep up. After grinding, the cacao bean “nibs” are separated from the husks via a complicated winnowing apparatus known as Tom’s hairdryer. Then back into the juicer they go, for a second grinding, which turns the nibs into a cocoa “liquor,” a rich-looking brown paste. The paste then gets ground by another specialized machine- a “melanger”- which refines all the grains down to a smooth consistency.
Then came an important moment- the step in which we would add the dextrose powder in place of sugar. But when we did, Tom was not pleased with whatever was happening in the melanger. He wondered aloud whether the mixture would “seize,” which definitely sounded like a bad thing, and made repeated frowning faces into the revolving mixer.
“It’s behaving very differently,” he said raising an eyebrow. “Well… we’ll see.”
“How does it taste?” Robin asked when he sampled some.
“Not very good,” he said matter-of-factly.
At this point I was quietly fearing for the life of the Dextrose Chocolate, who without warning was now under 24 hour surveillance in the chocolate ICU. Doctor Tom didn’t seem to like its chances for survival, and even if the patient survived, I wondered: what kind of quality of life could it possibly hope for as a chocolate that doesn’t taste good? And who does one contact to administer last rites to a blob of cocoa paste?
It would be awhile before we found out the answers to these questions: the melanging step lasts hours– I came back the next day for the final steps, which included “tempering” the now super-smooth paste by heating it in the microwave to exactly 120 degrees. Once the correct temperature is reached, you quickly reduce the temperature to 81 degrees. This is accomplished by spreading some of the paste on a marble slab and working it back and forth with a spackle thingy. (That’s a technical term.)
Patiently, Tom smoothed the chocolatey blob back and forth like the world’s most delicious wall plaster until he could tell from experience it was ready to “seed” the rest of the batch. Tom was talking about the four different types of butterfat crystals and the fact that the time-length for heating is not linear because of the changing crystal structure. He also said, and I quote, that “chocolate is a non-Newtonian liquid.” If you figure out what this means, please do not tell me.
Then back to the microwave! Are you with me? Now that the correct chemical whatzit had been reached we wanted to reliquify our chocolate to allow for spreading it into the bar molds. After this was accomplished, Tom checked carefully for evidence of any “bloom” which would’ve required the tempering process be done all over again. Incidentally, this is the point at which many chocolate makers kill themselves.
So do you want the good news or the great news? The good news is that the chocolate worked– the consistency was right, the liquid turned into actual, snap-able bars, tempered properly with no bloom and everything. The better news? It’s not only good- it tastes like… chocolate! Real chocolate! After licking one of the spoons used to portion the bars, Greta was fully prepared to arm-wrestle Robin for dibs on the spatula. It was very dark, yes, less sweet, yes. But no weird aftertaste, no “gastric distress.” There’s no fructose in sight and yet- it is nonetheless, undeniably real chocolate.
Who would’ve guessed that chocolate might rhyme with… dextrose? I mean, besides my computer.
May 11, 2011 § 9 Comments
What if we could find something that tasted like sugar- but without the toxic effects to our bodies of fructose? How much would that change our lives? All our experiments this year have been moving in that general direction: not only are we weaning ourselves down from a taste for sweetness on the one hand, but we’ve been working on sweet alternatives on the other. Ideally, happiness and healthiness meet somewhere in the middle, get married, and live happily ever after.
Thus our many experiments with banana and date sweetened cookies, banana and coconut pancakes, and most recently yogurt and banana popsicles. Recently, however, I’ve begun to wonder just how many bananas a person could reasonably eat. Also, I’m getting a little tired of all my cookies— carob chip, peanut butter, raisin— all tasting pretty much like bananas and dates.
So imagine my surprise when my husband Steve came home a few weeks ago with a (get ready) chocolate bar!! Gasp! Avert thine eyes!
But no! he says, we can eat this.
Huh? I thought I had seen it all in my desperation to comb the internet for sweet substitutes that our Year of No Sugar would accommodate. I have yet to try brown rice syrup, but other than that we haven’t found much beyond cutting up fruit, putting it into our recipes and hoping the other ingredients don’t notice.
But this was a bar of what looked an awful lot like my long lost friend chocolate. “Chocoperfection” was the name, with the tag line, “Sugar Free… Naturally!” How could this possibly be okay? Steve’s massage therapist, our friend Ellen, had given him one upon hearing of our project. “I,” she said ominously, “am about to change your life.”
We eyed the gold wrapper. We read the ingredients. We reread the ingredients. There were two I wasn’t familiar with: “oligofructose” and “erythritol.” Hmmmm. Sounded suspiciously fakey- and we don’t do artificial sweeteners, (although according to my husband Diet Dr. Pepper drives a car with diplomatic license plates, and therefore doesn’t count.)
So I looked it up. Turns out, oligofructose is extracted from fruits or vegetables- in this case from chicory root. It is touted as being not only not bad, but in fact health promoting on account of the extremely high amount of dietary fiber (one Chocoperfection bar brings with it an astounding 52 % of recommended dietary fiber) as well as prebiotic effects- which is to say it is believed to stimulate the growth of “good” bacteria in the colon.
Erythritol is a “sugar alcohol,” which doesn’t sound like a good thing. After all, sugar alcohols such as “xylitol” and “maltitol” are known to be associated with laxative properties and “gastric distress.” Ew! However, erythritol is unique; unlike other sugar alcohols it is absorbed in the small intestine and then excreted. Translation? No tummy troubles.
Upshot: together, oligofructose and erythritol have a pretty good thing going. They supplement one another’s sweetness and counteract one another’s aftertaste. What’s the down side? Well, aside from making my digestive area a little gurgly and- ahem- wind-filled (heLLOO fiber!) the number one complaint would have to be it’s expense: one tiny 1.8 oz bar goes for between three and four dollars- that’s nearly a dollar a bite.
But nutritionally? Well, let’s review: what are the complaints about sugar (fructose)? It gets metabolized as fatty acids. This, in turn, creates cardiovascular disease, fatty liver disease, stroke, insulin resistance/diabetes, not to mention promoting the growth of cancerous cells. Basically, every problem known to man except hemorrhoids and hammer toes.
Well- from everything I can discern, oligofructose and erythritol don’t turn to fat in your bloodstream, don’t raise blood sugar levels and don’t even cause hammer toes. Instead, there is a boatload of fiber, which by definition means it isn’t even being processed until it gets to the colon, at which point it ferments into gases and… well, we’re back in the windy city, so to speak. Best of all? Drumroll please… the “chocolate” bar? Is pretty darn good. I mean, good.
Well, at least the “Almond Dark Chocolate” is. “Milk Chocolate,” which we also tried, has a hard-to-place weird taste. (Other flavors offered that we did not try are “Dark” and “Dark Raspberry.”) You can’t buy these bars anywhere around here so, in the interest of pure, selfless, scientific research, we ordered a small box of almond dark chocolate bars and a small bag of granulated “sugar” (!!) to try in cooking.
Unfortunately, the “sugar” doesn’t work as perfectly as one might hope- the texture is a little crunchy/dry/grainy in baked goods (we tried one batch of somewhat pasty peanut butter cookies), and there is a more distinct aftertaste than in the bars. Then again, maybe it’s not so unfortunate. Ever since we tried the “Chocoperfection” bars I’ve felt kinda… weird about the whole idea. Isn’t this cheating? I think.
I wondered, is this an “artificial” sweetener because it isn’t sucrose/fructose, or is it a natural sweetener because it comes from chicory root? If the point is to avoid fructose, as well as artificial sweeteners that have known negative effects on the body, then we were doing that! If the point is to avoid extracted fructose, as well as any stuff that simulates fructose, then we weren’t doing that! Help!
I felt so conflicted and confused that I e-mailed my question to Dr. Lustig, and waited breathlessly for- at last!- a definitive answer. What he graciously sent me, instead, was this:
“As to non-nutritive sweeteners, there are pharmacokinetics (what your body does to a drug) and pharmacodynamics (what a drug does to your body). We have the former (that’s how they got FDA approval), but none of the latter. So I can’t recommend any of them. But stay tuned, this information may be coming in the future.”
Hmm. Well, that’s essentially where I had ended up before: I don’t know. The thing I have to remember is that Dr. Lustig is a doctor and I’m a writer: he’s offering a doctor answer to what might be, for me, a writer question.
Meanwhile, non-doctor David Gillespie has this to say in his book Sweet Poison:
“No amount of rat studies will reassure me that industrial chemicals that have been in our food supply for less than a few decades are definitively safe… It took almost 100 years of mass consumption before researchers started questioning whether sugar was dangerous. Can we really know if sucralose or aspartame are safe after just a few decades?”
Hmm again. I think I’m getting closer to an answer. Gillespie isn’t taking about oligofructose, per se, but as Lustig points out, all these new sweetening options are big question marks at this point. And question marks, Gillespie reminds us, don’t have a terrific track record when it comes to our bodies’ health.
But back to ethics: it just still feels like cheating to me. Steve is a big “Chocoperfection” fan and much less conflicted about the whole thing than I am. His argument is that even with our “special” chocolate bars, spending a year avoiding all added sugar is still really, really hard. Which is true. And yet… don’t you just have to go with your gut, so to speak?
So we slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y finished off the “special” chocolate bars and for the time being have decided not to order more. The bag of “sugar” languishes in the closet. Sigh.