From Bean to Bar: Ethical Chocolate with a Healthy Twist

I KNOW THERE are many chocolate lovers bracing themselves for a hefty gym schedule in the New Year.  Selection boxes and sweets – mandatory Christmas indulgences – are a neverending pursuit at this time of year.  If I were to tell you there is indeed a chocolate that is good for you, you’d probably believe me as much as one would a tubby bearded man flying through the sky with a troupe of reindeer.

However, research recently conducted by Queen Margaret University has shown Scottish chocolatier The Chocolate Tree has a ‘bar-to-bean’ range produced using ethically sourced cocoa beans that will alleviate some of that guilt.

Nutrition experts at the university have found that when eaten in moderation, the premium chocolate produced by the Edinburgh-based company contains high levels of polyphenols that offer certain health benefits that include lowering the risk of heart disease.

Credit: Erik Hammar
Dr. Mary Warnock, Senior Lecturer in Dietetics, Nutrition, and Biological Sciences at QMU, explained: “Polyphenols actively work in the body to prevent certain disease mechanisms occurring. Polyphenols are antioxidants from plant foods and it is generally believed that they may reduce the risk factors of cardiovascular disease and can help protect the body from chronic disease.”

Importing cocoa beans from Madagascar, Ecuador and Peru, the company focuses on highly ethical sourcing, using only the finest raw ingredients to create their chocolates.  The minimal processing of such fine produce not only leads to a high-end, premium product, but also maintains the natural qualities of the raw ingredients to maximise the natural polyphenols and antioxidants.

Dr. Warnock added: “The study recognised that the great care taken by The Chocolate Tree to apply minimal processing methods in the creation of its high-end chocolate ensured the preservation of naturally occurring attributes within its final product.”

Credit: Erik Hammar
The Chocolate Tree was founded out of sheer passion by Ali and Friederike Gower in 2005 when the couple travelled around music festivals in a solar-powered geodesic dome tent, nourishing weary festival goers in their organic chocolate café serving cakes and hot chocolate.

The feedback inspired them to combine Friederike’s love of baking and Ali’s ambitions to run a business and they graduated to selling their chocolate bars at farmers’ markets, independent retailers and farm shops, gradually growing the reputation of The Chocolate Tree brand.  The success saw their first shop open in Bruntsfield in 2009, and their chocolate now sells to ethical, independent and high-end retailers around the globe.

The key factors in creating these exquisite chocolate treats compared to a typical bar you find on a supermarket shelf is largely down to the processing method, as well as the standard of ingredients.

Credit: Erik Hammar
Ali explains: “The difference cannot be understated. Techniques used to create mass produced chocolate are vastly different from those used by craft chocolate makers. It comes down to attention to detail in every step of the production, from the steps taken at origin to ferment and dry the cacao and the difference in the genetics of the cacao. At our end, it means obsessive sorting of the beans, gentle roasting, adding ingredients in a certain order and using specific techniques and equipment during conching (flavour development) to create flavours the mass produced market can’t touch.”

Now, chocolate this good does come at a price, with the average craft chocolate bar priced at around £6 for 80g, and there needs to be an obvious reason to convince people it's worth it. Ali elaborates:

“I’ve conducted taste tests that compare our bars to supermarket 'finest' ranges, and people are genuinely impressed. It’s important for me to show this, as the price difference is significant. It’s not too different from a blended whisky vs. a single malt, or a cheap wine vs. a good vintage.”

The Chocolate Tree’s ethos in terms of responsibly locating their ingredients and the importance of strong links with growers is highly commendable, and although this essential relationship contributes to the price, it offers numerous other benefits on top of the health ones.

Credit: Erik Hammar
“Working directly with the growers allows us to encourage agricultural techniques which benefit the environment, as well as introducing people to truly excellent chocolate, the likes of which many consumers have never tried before. It’s a great benefit for the farmers to work with people who really care about what is coming from the land. The most important thing is that they are paid a premium for the crops.

“A premium means a significantly better price than the typical market price or Fairtrade certified price. Craft chocolate makers will pay as much as $10 per kg for well-processed beans, while the New York Cocoa Price (standard market price) can be around $3 per kg. This money goes into social improvements and better post-harvest facilities to care for the cocoa.”

The Gowers made full use of the excellent facilities at the new Centre for Food Development and Innovation at Queen Margaret University, where they used the research not only to enhance their products' appeal and learn of its nutritional values, but also to showcase their principles in working ethically with organic farmers across the world.

Credit: Erik Hammar
“Queen Margaret University was able to provide scientific evidence of the antioxidant profile and mineral content of our organic certified ‘bean-to-bar’ range and provide professional guidance on the health and nutritional aspects of our products. This is helping us develop accurate information for labelling and marketing purposes.

“Ultimately, we hope to use Queen Margaret’s research to help us campaign for better transparency in the chocolate industry. It will also allow us to showcase how companies can work ethically by supporting organic farmers in Peru, Madagascar, and Ecuador by sourcing cocoa directly from the growers for the manufacturer in order to make ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate.”

Having sampled the merchandise, the differences in Ali and Friederike's chocolate compared to more commercial brands is truly worlds apart. The depth of character from each different variety and knowing that this craft is conducted with superb passion and skill means that I'll be looking forward to a guilt-free, choctastic Christmas with added health benefits.

Credit Erik Hammar
With a delightful range of chocolates to complement their ‘bean-to-bar range’, The Chocolate Tree offers quirky creations incorporating some of Scotland’s other outstanding foods and drink, such as Haggis Spice, Bramble, and Cardamon and Beer chocolate.  There is also a very special Christmas range on offer; what better festive gift can be found now that you can explain to loved ones the inspirational story behind these local, handmade goodies?

Twitter: @Choctree
The Chocolate Tree,
123 Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh, EH10 4AQ
11 Hardgate, Haddington, EH41 3JW

For further information on the Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation visit:

Special thanks to Lynne Russell at Queen Margaret University and Ben Gould for his invaluable time