Last Chance Foods: Why You Shouldn’t Eat Raw Chocolate

And other little-known chocolate facts

Friday, February 14, 2014

Today is Valentine’s Day, so we’re going to talk about chocolate. That’s the easy explanation. The more complicated version of how Last Chance Foods choose to approach the topic of such a beloved confection involves a former aerospace engineer turned farmer, a vertically integrated beans-to-bar company, and a three-year-old factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn

Those are the bones of the story behind Cacao Prieto. Founder and CEO Daniel Prieto Preston started his career as an aerospace engineer, and after selling his defense company and signing a strict five-year non-compete agreement, he decided to turn his attention to his family farm in the Dominican Republic.

The farm had been growing organic cacao for more than 100 years. (Preston said most farming on the island is organic because of strict regulations to prevent deforestation like that seen in neighboring Haiti.)

The cacao pods that are harvested twice a year bear little resemblance to chocolate. “You have these strange football-shaped pods in all different colors that grow anywhere on the tree, not just at the end of the branches,” Preston explained. “They can come right out of the trunk. It looks like something that would be in a children’s coloring book.”

The fruit has a gooey white pulp with about 40 seeds inside each pod. “It’s not a bean,” Preston said. “That’s just another misnomer. You’re actually eating the seeds of the cocoa fruit.”

Even the word “cocoa” is a misnomer. “Cocoa is actually a misprint in an English dictionary from the mid-1850s, which became just sort of universally used,” he said. “So you can use it synonymously with cacao. Generally speaking, you’ll refer to cocoa as something that’s been processed, but people use it for everything.

(Photo: Amy Eddings and Daniel Prieto Preston at Cacao Prieto in Red Hook, Brooklyn/Joy Y. Wang)

In most chocolate production processes, the cacao pods are hacked off the tree and then left to rot in 5-feet-high piles in tropical weather. “Most people don’t realize that chocolate is a fermented food,” Preston said. “The average fermentation pile probably has 400 different microorganisms and a least a dozen pathogens. That’s one of the reasons why it’s actually not good to eat raw chocolate. It needs to be sterilized first.”

Preston, who is also an inventor, felt like he could do better than that. Cacao Prieto created a controlled fermentation process that keeps out contaminants, and they inoculate the cacao seeds with lab-grown strains of yeast. He also created and patented a vortex winnower that uses a vacuum and centrifugal force to separate cacao nibs from the shells.

“There’s a saying in chocolate that every step of the process is the most important step,” he said, adding that the controlling fermentation helps Cacao Prieto control the flavor and bitterness of the finished chocolate.

“Sophisticated palates, I think, prefer bitter flavors to begin with,” said Preston. “I like a little bit of sugar, so my preference is something around 72 percent. Never milk. Milk chocolate’s not real chocolate to me.”

To see more about how cacao is processed at Cacao Prieto, check out this video.

Amy Eddings and Daniel Prieto Preston in front of his vortex winnower at Cacao Prieto in Red Hook, Brooklyn. 

Cacao nibs
Cacao nibs at the Cacao Prieto factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn.


Daniel Prieto Preston

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Amy Eddings


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Comments [6]

Hi, Stanchaz! Cacao nibs are a result of the roasted cacao beans, so I believe the microorganisms that might have built up during the fermentation process have been subject to high heat. It would be the raw cacao that's been fermented in an uncontrolled environment that I wouldn't eat. The fruit is usually just dumped in huge piles and left to rot in the sun.

Feb. 20 2014 05:46 PM
stanchaz from nyc

So what are you saying - it's not 'good' to eat cocoa nibs?
Or just that you don't care for the chocolate making process that starts with cocoa nibs?
As for "fermentation", I would not go whole hog on sterilizing everything.
Fermented food of all sorts not only have beneficial bacteria for the gut, but also serve as
PREbiotic food- for PROBiotic bacteria that supports immunity as well as a whole host of other healthy effects in our body/mind/mood system. When you sterilize you get rid of the Probiotics.
We have enough non food foods on the market.

Feb. 18 2014 01:02 AM

Very strange! Thanks for the heads up, Margaret, Ivan, and Zee. Seems like a strange glitch with the link. It worked properly on a computer but not on my mobile devices.

Feb. 17 2014 08:57 PM
Zee from NY,NY

Loved the video on how to make pirogues, but would like to see the one in cacao.

Feb. 17 2014 08:47 AM

Dear's possible the video on the red hook cacao plant has accidentally been substituted for the one on perogi, thought you might like to know... Best regards ivan

Feb. 17 2014 08:16 AM
Margaret borger from NYC

The how it's made video is about pierogies not chocolate

Feb. 17 2014 07:53 AM

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About Last Chance Foods

Last Chance Foods covers produce that’s about to go out of season, gives you a heads up on what’s still available at the farmers market and tells you how to keep it fresh through the winter.


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