By Jennifer Novakovich
Do you love chocolate or the way you feel after eating it? You may be unsure of whether chocolate is healthy, or maybe you avoid chocolate because of the sugar or milk. This article will give you insight into the world of chocolate in terms of its history, health effects, and—most importantlywhy you should choose to relish it. Enjoy!
Carl Linnaeus, in 1753, named chocolate Theobroma cacao which translates to “food for the gods.” This name was given for good reason, illustrated by chocolate’s use throughout history. The medicinal use of chocolate has a long past; the first report was by Hernan Cortes, a Spanish conqueror, after his contact with the Aztec empire. He emphasized that the chocolate beverage he was given was energizing and provided him and the other soldiers with enhanced strength. Reportedly, it was used by the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, before visiting any of his wives to increase his libido. Clearly our ancestors had it figured out, even before all of the science, that there was something special about chocolate.
Throughout history, chocolate has been used for many medicinal purposes including (but not limited to) diarrhea, fever, intestinal upset, stomach ache, fatigue, PMS symptoms, syphilis…the list goes on and on. Chocolate became widely known by the 17th century in early modern Europe; it was even a regularly stocked item for prescription compounding. By the 18th century, chocolate became linked with milk to give rise to milk chocolate. It wasn’t until about the 1900s that chocolate consumption switched from a medicinal purpose to more of a confectionary one. And it was even later, by the end of the 20th century, that scientific interest on the benefits of chocolate was really introduced. Research into the health effects of chocolate has been focused on stearic acid, the stimulant theobromine, and flavonols; all are present in high-quality dark chocolate.
Chocolate and cocoa are made from cacao beans, the seed of Theobroma Cacao. Cacao beans contain about 50–57% fat, which is called cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is composed of about 44% oleic acid, 25% palmitic acid, and 33% stearic acid. These fats have received scientific notice since they do not increase LDL cholesterol like other fats, and furthermore have healthful effects. Cocoa is the non-fat component of pure cocoa bean extracts while chocolate, on the other hand, is the manufactured cocoa product. A good quality dark chocolate will only have cocoa, cocoa butter, and sugar; lesser quality ones tend to have a lot of filler ingredients (including milk).
Although both theobromine and stearic acid have promising health effects, most research in recent years on chocolate have focused on flavanols, with particular emphasis on their effects on heart disease risk. Flavanols are a subclass of flavonoids which are in turn a subclass of polyphenols, a type of phytochemical (plant chemical). Although flavanols are found at low concentrations in red wine, tea, and many fruits, flavanols are found in the greatest concentrations in dark chocolate (responsible for its bitterness) at about 510mg per 100g!
So what’s all the buzz about in terms of health effects? Studies suggest that dark chocolate decreases blood pressure, reduces inflammation, improves insulin sensitivity and vascular health, increases total blood antioxidant capacity, significantly reduces LDL and total cholesterol, and overall decreases risks for heart disease. In a meta-analysis, higher chocolate consumption was associated with a 37% reduction of heart disease risk, 31% reduction of diabetes risk, and 29% reduction of stroke risk! These benefits are thought to be primarily derived from the flavanol content in dark chocolate. Therefore, when buying chocolate it’s important to consider the flavanol content so you can get the most bang for your buck.
What are some factors that influence the flavanol content? Processing is huge! Increased time for fermentation and roasting as well as higher temperatures will result in more flavanols lost. Alkalization, which is a Dutch process, pretty well wipes the flavanol content out. Lastly, bean selection is another indicator of the flavanol content; a better quality bean will typically have more flavanols.
This is all great, but before you go and mow down on that entire box of chocolate, the calorie content (at about 500kcal/100g) should be addressed. Although chocolate is associated with many amazing health effects, calorie consumption will continue to be the stronger predictor for weight control, diabetes, and heart disease risk. Take home message: enjoy—but in moderation! The high sugar content of most chocolates should also be considered. There are plenty of raw, vegan, and low sugar chocolates out there that would make great options for a flavanol rich, healthy chocolate. My personal favorite is a Canadian brand named Giddy Yoyo chocolate; delicious!
Finally, why fair-trade? The current chocolate supply is largely controlled by a small number of big companies; Hershey’s and M&M alone control more than two-thirds of the chocolate industry today. This has led to child slavery and unsafe working conditions in cocoa farming. These companies need to be held accountable! How do we do that? Buy fair-trade!
The health effects of good quality dark chocolate are bountiful, so treat yourself to a good quality and fair-trade chocolate!Fernandez-Murga L, Tarin J, Garcia-Perez M, Canoa A. (2012) The impact of chocolate on cardiovascular health. doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2011.05.011.Hooper L, Kay, C, Abdelhamid A, Kroon P, Cohn J, Rimm E, Cassidy A. (2012) Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. doi:10.3945/ajcn.111.023457.Sudano I, Flammer AJ, Roas S, Enseleit F, Ruschitzka F, Corti R, Noll G. (2012) Cocoa, Blood Pressure, and Vascular Function. doi:10.1007/s11906-012-0281-8.Tokede O, Gaziano J, Djousse L. (2011) Effects of cocoa products/dark chocolate on serum lipids: a meta-analysis. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2011.64.Wilson P. (2010) Centuries of seeking chocolate's medicinal benefits.doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(10)61099-9.See this and other articles on Jennifer Novakovich’s website JennovaFoodBlog.com