By Carie Birkmeier EBS STAFF

First consumed by the Mayans, chocolate is now an indulgence enjoyed around the world. Research has shown it to have a positive effect on mood and improve cognitive performance, in addition to containing antioxidants and just tasting downright delicious. But how is it made?

Cacao trees can grow anywhere within 20 degrees of the equator, and can produce fruit for 100 years. Chocolate production is a very labor-intensive process. The butternut squash-sized pods must be hand-harvested by machete from the cacao tree. Each pod contains between 30-50 beans, from which chocolate products are made.

These almond-sized beans are sorted, fermented for three to seven days to remove some of their bitterness, and then dried. Next, the beans are cleaned, weighed and roasted.

The beans are then processed through a machine that cracks the seeds revealing the portion called the nib. The nibs are approximately 47 percent cocoa solids and 53 percent cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is the fat component in chocolate, and cocoa solids are used to make cocoa powder.

At this point, the nibs can either be packaged, or be further processed into a paste similar in consistency to almond butter, referred to as chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor is not suitable for consumption on its own, but is mixed with ingredients like milk and sugar to create the chocolate products that we’re accustomed to. In a process called conching, machines blend the chocolate liquor to remove moisture, or more cocoa butter is added to achieve the perfect texture.

The final product is poured into molds, cooled, and packaged.

Today, there are countless varieties of chocolate on the market, but most fall into one of five categories.

Unsweetened chocolate is 100 percent chocolate liquor that has been further broken down with machinery and processed for days to make its texture more palatable. This is commonly sold as unsweetened baking chocolate.

Bittersweet, semisweet and dark chocolate all contain different percentages of chocolate liquor, but all have a minimum of 35 percent cocoa solids. These types contain no milk or milk powder, and have varying quantities of added sugar.

Milk chocolate contains at least 10 percent chocolate liquor and 12 percent milk solids. There are variations, but generally milk chocolate contains more sugar than the others.

White chocolate is not made from cocoa solids, but only cocoa butter, sugar and sometimes other flavorings. It contains the most fat of any chocolate.

Cocoa powder is created after cocoa butter has been removed from chocolate liquor, and remaining solids are crushed and ground. Cocoa powder is usually sold unsweetened.