Chocolate as everyone knows is disgustingly unhealthy; it makes you fat, it makes you blue. Yucckkk!
Well, let’s back up right there. Because this bit of pseudo-science isn’t really true. Chocolate is given a lot of bad press, because of ignorance and disinformation. It is true that most chocolate candy bars you buy at the store, or the chocolate drinks you consume from the designer café outlets, are bad for you. They contain too many calories, too much sugar (or artificial sweetener, which is even worse) and a number of metabolically undesirable substances which are the products of the manufacturing process. But take those away and the product has very different properties.
Chocolate, if you did not know, is made from the beans of the cacao tree Theobroma cacao. Cacao (mind the spelling there) is grown only in or near the tropics. After hulling the beans are fermented and then roasted, to bring out the special flavour. Finally, the bean is winnowed (the shell removed) and ground up to produce cacao liquor, a brown sludge which is still quite bitter in taste. Cacao liquor is 55% fats or “cocoa butter”. Oleic acid, stearic acid, and palmitic acid account for more than 95% of the fatty acids in cocoa butter.
From cacao liquor the processing can lead either to cocoa powder, a very fine dust with most of the flavour properties of chocolate, or directly to chocolate itself. This is the stage at which sugar is added, to sweeten the product and flavours may be added, most notably vanilla. Originally chocolate was served as a drink and fashionable chocolate drinking houses were very elite and trendy across Europe in the 17th and 18th century. Sometime in the 19th century the first solid chocolate was created. Nobody is sure exactly who thought of it but Fry and Sons of England were likely the first1.
During processing, chocolate spends much of its time as a liquid. Viscosity, flow properties, and particle size are therefore important factors in chocolate manufacture. Changing the fat content can have a dramatic impact on viscosity. For example, increasing the fat content of chocolate from 27% to 28% can halve its viscosity. Chocolate viscosity can also be reduced by adding a small amount of an emulsifier, such as lecithin.
Sometimes chocolate manufacturers subject their product to a process known as “Dutching”. This entails the addition of an alkali to the mixture. It darkens the chocolate and is supposed to enhance the flavour. Not all manufacturers agree however and many do not use the Dutching process.
The most important influences on flavour are the species of cacao bean and how it is grown; the fermentation process; the roasting stage; and flavours added deliberately by the manufacturer.
The Health Ingredients of Chocolate.
Cacao liquor contains very little sugar, it is quite bitter. Only added sugar can increase the glycaemic content of chocolate. If little is added, the resulting proportions can be relatively safe. Unsweetened chocolate can be too bitter but is definitely healthier.
You have nothing to fear eating compounds rich in cocoa butter. All you have to do is close your ears to the foolish and misinformed propaganda that all fats are “bad” and you can enjoy your delight with a clear conscience.
In passing it is worth mentioning that chocolate contains small quantities of essential minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, and iron. In addition, there are several bioactive compounds in chocolate that promote alertness, lessen pain and promote well-being. These include caffeine, theobromine, tyramine and phenylethylamine (PEA)2. Thus chocolate may refresh you but can also cause headaches in caffeine-sensitive individuals. Tryptophan, an essential amino acid also present, helps lessens anxiety by producing the neurotransmitter serotonin. Anandamide acts like a cannabinoid (like Marijauna) to promote relaxation3 And last but certainly not least, chocolate foods trigger the production of endorphins, the body’s natural analgesics.
The health-giving properties of chocolate don’t stop there. Chocolate contains large amounts of recognized healthy substances called flavonoids, which are natural powerful antioxidants. So far, scientists have found more than 4,000 flavonoids. Antioxidants are known to block free radicals and prevent heart disease, stroke, cancer and other signs of aging. Flavonoids are widely distributed in plant foods and include:
Some research has shown that a small bar of dark chocolate contains as many flavonoids as six apples, 4.5 cups of tea, 28 glasses of white wine and two glasses of red wine. However the actual levels vary, according to the process used in manufacture. Heating and Dutching both lower the antioxidant properties markedly.
A definitive study concluded by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists and their cooperators investigated the total antioxidant capacity (TAC) and procyanidin levels of six chocolate and cocoa products: natural (unsweetened) cocoa powders, Dutch processed (alkalinized) cocoa powders, unsweetened baking chocolates, semi-sweet chocolate baking chips, dark chocolates, and milk chocolates.
The researchers found natural cocoa powders contained the highest levels of TAC and procyanidins, which are the dominant antioxidant in chocolates. Milk chocolates, which contain the least amount of cocoa solids, had the lowest TAC and procyanidin levels. Baking chocolates contained fewer procyanidins, because they contained more fat (50-60 percent) than natural cocoa. Alkalinization, used to reduce the acidity and raise the pH of cocoa, such as Dutch chocolates, was found to markedly reduce procyanidin content. Researchers concluded that chocolates containing higher amounts of cocoa ingredients have higher procyanidin contents, therefore, higher antioxidant capacities4.
How Important is That?
A study published in the British Medical Journal (December 19, 1998; 317:9-10) that showed that chocolate consumption was actually linked to a longer life!5 That’s pretty startling.
Scientists became fascinated by the residents of the island of Kuna in Panama. These indigenous people rarely develop high blood pressure and heart disease, although they drink about 5 cups of cocoa each day and include it in many recipes. This isn’t a genetic advantage: if islanders leave to go to other countries with different eating habits, the risk of high blood pressure returns to normal, and moreover studies found it wasn’t related to salt intake or obesity6.
There are indications that cocoa flavonoids relax blood vessels, so reducing blood pressure, and also inhibit platelet aggregation. One study found that a substance in cocoa helps the body process nitric oxide (NO), a compound critical for healthy blood flow and blood pressure7. Another study showed that flavonols in cocoa prevent fat-like substances in the bloodstream from oxidizing and clogging the arteries, and make blood platelets less likely to stick together and cause clots8.
The other study compared how blood platelets responded to a flavonol-rich cocoa drink with 25 grams of semi-sweet chocolate pieces and a blood-thinning, 81-milligram aspirin dose. The research found similar reactions to the two from a group of 20- to 40-year-olds: both the drink and the aspirin prevented platelets from sticking together or clotting, which can impede blood flow. In other words, flavonol-rich cocoa and chocolate act similarly to low-dose aspirin in promoting healthy blood flow9. Reducing the blood’s ability to clot also reduces the risk of stroke and heart attacks.
Another study showed that chocolate lowers cholesterol, particularly increasing the healthy safe high-density serum lipoproteins (HDL).10
Vinson and his colleagues found that the flavonoids in chocolate are more powerful than vitamins such as ascorbic acid in protecting circulating lipids from oxidation.11
To enjoy the memory benefits of chocolate, however, it is important to choose the right kinds. . White chocolate can claim none of the benefits listed here.
Dark varieties with at least 60 percent cocoa are best. American brands of chocolate, including dark chocolate, are made with very little cocoa. Therefore, it is better to choose French or Belgian brands. Valrhona and Schokinag, for example, are available in some gourmet and natural food stores.
Thankfully cocoa processors and chocolate manufacturers are beginning to wake up to the possibilities and are taking precautions to minimize the antioxidant losses.
Obviously there are still party poopers who believe that it is all too good to be true. You can get all the antioxidants you need from 5- 6 servings of fruit and vegetables a day, the British Heart Foundation points out. Detractors denounce the high levels of saturated fats and sugar in chocolate (actually chocolate bars). This is all overthrown by the BMJ study, showing that, taking everything into account, those who eat chocolate are not at risk and may even live longer than the rest of us.
It’s silky Swiss dark or swallow more apples and broccoli: you decide!
2 – Hurst WJ, Martin RA, Zoumas, BL. Biogenic amines in chocolate: a review. Nutr Rep Intl. 1982;26:1081-6.
3 – Zurer, P. 1996. Chocolate may mimic marijuana in brain. Chemical and Engineering News 74(Sept. 2):31 also: Brain Cannabinoids in Chocolate, Nature, August 22, 1996, pp. 677-678 by diTomaso, E., Beltramo, M., and Piomelli, D.
4 – Adamson GE et al. HPLC method for the quantification of procyanidins in cocoa and chocolate samples and correlation to total antioxidant capacity J Agric Food Chem 1999;47:4184-8.
5 – Lee IM, Paffenbarger R Life is sweet: candy consumption and longevity BMJ 1998; 317: 1683-1684.
6 – K Chevaux, L Jackson, ME Villar, J Mundt, J Commisso, G Adamson, MM McCullough, H Schmitz, N Hollenberg Proximate, Mineral and Procyanidin Content of Certain Foods and Beverages Consumed by the Kuna Amerinds of Panama J Food Cmpstn & Anal 2001;14:553-563
7 – Cocoa, diabetes, and hypertension: should we eat more chocolate? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 81, No. 3, 541-542, March 2005
9 – Rein D, Paglieroni TG, Wun T, Pearson DA, Schmitz HH, Gosselin R, and Keen CL. Cocoa inhibits platelet activation and function Am J Clin Nutr 2000;72:30-5.
10 – Kris-Etherton PM, Derr JA, Mustad VA, Seligson FH, Pearson TA. A milk chocolate bar/day substituted for a high carbohydrate snack increases high density lipoprotein cholesterol in young men on an NCEP/AHA Step One diet. Am J Clin Nutr supplement. December 1994.
11 – Vinson JA, Proch J, Zubik L. Phenol antioxidant quantity and quality in foods: cocoa, dark chocolate, and milk chocolate J Agric Food Chem. 1999 Dec;47(12):4821-4.