Can it possibly be true that one of the most decadent, tasty treats around... is actually good for us?

a l l  n a t u r a l  i n f o


The History and Health Benefits of Chocolate

by Sharon Houghton    

There's been a lot of talk in the news recently about the health benefits of chocolate. It's time to separate the fact from fiction, cut to the chase, and get to the heart of the matter.  Is chocolate healthy for us... or not?

     Several years ago, I was fortunate to be traveling through a Caribbean jungle with a  knowledgeable guide named Martin.  We were walking, as Martin stopped, reached up high into a tree, and cut off  a large football-sized pod.  He sliced it open to reveal a whitish pulp, containing many large seeds.  "Try it" he said.  Nervously, I popped a seed into my mouth and chewed on it.  It tasted like nothing I'd ever had... but I liked it!  It wasn't sweet, but it had a very appealing flavor that I continued nibbling on as we roamed further along on our journey.  Then I remember him turning and saying something about how you don't want to eat too much or you might get sick.  "Now you tell me!" I thought.  After hearing that, I tossed the rest aside (even though I wanted to continue eating it).  Turns out, it was a pod from the Cacao plant, or the beginnings of what we commonly refer to as... Chocolate.

A Little History about Chocolate

     It's been said that it was the ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations that named the Chocolate tree 'Theobroma', which means 'Food of the Gods' (latin name, Theobroma cacau).  They made a bitter, medicinal drink by mixing the ground Cacau seeds with Chilies and various spices.

     Until the 1500's, Europe had never heard of  Cacau (Chocolate).  It was the Spanish Conquistadors that brought the seeds back with them after conquering Mexico in 1521.  At that time, the Cacau beans were so prized by the Mexicans that they were used as a form of money, to the victors went the spoils.  This began a long period of exportation of the Cacao to Spain, which includes a history of enslaving workers that tended the Cacao and Sugar plantations in the Americas (this slavery went on for centuries!).

     The Spaniards were the ones that turned the Cacau into what is generally known today as 'hot chocolate' by adding sugar, cinnamon and other spices to the original bitter beverage.  It was an expensive export, and only the most wealthy  and well-connected could afford it.  It was nearly 100 years before chocolate became known by other European countries.  When the secret got out, it quickly became the enjoyment of the royal courts across Europe.

     The English, Dutch and French began colonizing Cacau plantations near the Equator.  The English started with Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Dutch in Venezuela, Java and Sumatra, and the French planted trees in the West Indies.  Eventually, they were all shipping plenty of Cacau back to Europe to satisfy the growing demand.  To keep up with production, the earlier hand-grinding methods were replaced with wind-drawn and horse-drawn mills.  The Europeans eventually began mixing their warm beverage with milk, for a smoother flavor and consistency.

     It wasn't until the mid-1700's that chocolate was made into what we now know as the solid candy.  The industrial revolution brought about new methods of manufacturing that up until that point had been done by hand.  Two Frenchmen invented two separate machines to grind the chocolate into a finer consistency.  One was a hydraulic machine, the other a steam-driven one.  It was a Dutch chemist named Van Houton that invented one of the most important machines, the cocoa press, in 1828.  It squeezed out the cocoa butter, leaving the powder we call cocoa behind.    This made chocolate-making more consistent, and cost effective, bringing it to the masses.  For the first time, the general population could afford this sweet treat.

     Milk chocolate was introduced by Daniel Peter, and Henri Nestlé in 1875 when they added condensed milk to the formula.  This quickly caught on and became very popular.  Over time, chocolate started being thought of as an ingredient to be used in other dishes such as cakes and pastries.  Advertising made this a popular breakfast drink as well as something to nibble on throughout the day.  It was even advertised as a medicinal cure for lethargy and to improve many other conditions.

     Throughout the last century, the popularity of chocolate has spread throughout the world.  It is now enjoyed in many different ways, with new creations coming along all the time. 

  An actual cocoa tin from 1906, made by the Chas. H. Phillips Chemical Company, the same company that has been making Milk of Magnesia for decades.  On the side of the tin, it states: "During illness where liquid nourishment is desired, or solid food cannot be taken, PHILLIPS' DIGESTIBLE COCOA will be found invigorating and sustaining."  


Health Benefits?

     So you see, now that you understand the origin of that little square of confection that we call chocolate, you can understand that somewhere in there, there is an actual natural source... the Cacau bean!  And that is what we will refer to when we talk about the health benefits.  The darker the chocolate, the closer it is to its natural state, and the better it is for you.

     Flavonoids -

     Flavonoids (a type of polyphenol) are found in abundant supply in many plants, including Cacau, in its original form.  They act to protect the plant from environmental toxins as well as repair damage to it.  When we consume these flavonoids, they have "anti-oxidant powers" for us.  Anti-oxidants are believed to have the ability to help the cells in our bloodstream destroy free radicals.  Free radicals are the cells that are formed by contaminants in our environment like cigarette smoke and other toxins.  This free radical damage has the potential to increase LDL-cholesterol oxidation and plaque formation on the arterial walls.

     Preliminary research has also shown that eating chocolate may reduce blood clotting, promote the relaxation of blood vessels, which in turn can lower blood pressure.  The same polyphenols that have anti-oxidant powers, reduce the stickiness of platelets, cells that play an important role in blood clotting.  This means that the blood will take longer to clot, which reduces the risk of coronary artery blockages.

     There are several processes that the cocoa bean goes through to reduce its naturally pungent taste, to become the actual chocolate product that we've come to know and love.  Flavonoids are what provide the pungent taste.  Consequently, flavonoids are what get minimized throughout the processes.   The usual steps in the processing are:

  • fermentaion
  • drying
  • roasting
  • alkalizing
  • conching

     Just to repeat, if you want the healthy "anti-oxidant powers" in your chocolate, you'll want to opt for the less-processed, more bitter versions, like cocoa powder and dark chocolate.

     Today's scientific minds are working on this as we speak.   The race is on to come up with ways to reduce the destruction of these beneficial flavonoids throughout the candy making process, while balancing it with the best flavor possible.  Soon you will see more and more companies coming out with a 'healthier' chocolate, one that has more flavonoids left intact, along with the great taste. 


     Other Healthy Benefits

     Compounds in chocolate also increase the release of mood-affecting chemicals, including serotonin, endorphins and phenylethylamine, similar to those released during exercise or romance.  The phenylethylamine increases the heartbeat and releases feelings of well-being.  Feelings of cheerfulness are also brought about by the distribution of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline.

      Chocolate contains many important nutrients such as potassium, magnesium and vitamins D, E, B1 and B2.  It's documented properties and actions include antiseptic, diuretic, emmenagogueue, parasiticide, vulnerary.

      It has been reported that the cocoa butter in chocolate helps to coat the teeth to prevent plaque buildup prevent the bacteria from decaying the teeth.

     Chocolate does contain a slight amount of caffeine, but not as much as most people believe.  You'd need to eat 12 bars of chocolate to equal one cup of coffee.  It also contains theobromine and theophylline, which is used in modern medicine as an antiasthmatic for their stimulating properties.


In Conclusion

     I guess what we've learned here is twofold.  Is chocolate completely healthy?  Well, I guess the answer lies in what form you are talking about.  The sugary-sweet milk chocolate bar is so laden with questionable ingredients, that I doubt anyone would tell you that it could be called a "health bar".  But if you are talking about the Cacau fruit that is plucked fresh from the tree, eaten fresh while walking through the jungle, yes, it could be considered a delectable healthy food.  Oh, but just like that chocolate truffle... don't eat too much, or you might get sick.  At least that's what I've been told. ;-)




My tip for healthy hot chocolate:

Rather than buying the already-made version from your grocery store.  Heat some soy milk in a pan, when its very warm, add some unsweetened Cocoa powder (find organically grown at your healthfood store), mix well and then add honey to sweeten, mix and serve. Mmmmmm!






Interesting Reading... "Fair Trade Chocolate - A Thoughtful Luxury"  by Alicia Lundquist Guy

Resources:  Database with complete description of Theobroma cacao - Great photos of the tree with its fruits  Special Anti-aging Chocolate - Save on Foods by Patricia Chuey, M.Sc., RDN  Advice column at the Dr. Andrew Weil web site  Stuffed Chocolate


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All views expressed in the articles on the "All Natural Info" page are those of the various authors, they are presented here for your enjoyment and enlightenment. 

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