There's been a
lot of talk in the news recently about the health benefits of
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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'
will be found invigorating and sustaining."
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 (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
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.
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:
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.
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
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,
been reported that the cocoa butter in chocolate helps to coat the
teeth to prevent plaque buildup prevent the bacteria from decaying
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.
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:
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!
Trade Chocolate - A Thoughtful Luxury"
by Alicia Lundquist Guy
Database with complete description of Theobroma
- Great photos of the tree with its fruits
Special Anti-aging Chocolate
Save on Foods by
Patricia Chuey, M.Sc., RDN
http://www.drweil.com/u/QA/QA64347/ Advice column at the
Dr. Andrew Weil web site
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