We Love Our Chocolate, Don’t We?
We love it as a drink, in a chocolate bar, in cake, in ice cream and in numerous other ways. It is a gift we like to give and receive. We celebrate special holidays with chocolate, adding in flavours such as mint, raspberry and many others. Chocolate is enjoyed around the world, crossing all cultural boundaries. Chocolate makes us feel good, we believe. And chocolate is associated with love and romance (Valentine’s Day). We sometimes even say that chocolate is “decadent” when our chosen dessert or snack is brimming with chocolate. Yes, indeed, we love our chocolate!
Some Little Known Facts about Chocolate
(1) Chocolate inspired the invention of the microwave
A scientist who was working on WWI radar and weapon projects also happened to be a chocolate fan and probably always had some on hand. As it turns out, he had some chocolate in his pocket and noticed that the chocolate softened fairly quickly when he was near a device called an magnetron. He thought that maybe the magnetron would make it possible to heat up food quickly – and the microwave was born.
(2) Chocolate actually does make us happy (for a time)
Chocolate contains different chemicals including trytophan, which through a chemical process can, when we eat chocolate, bring us into state of euphoria.
(3) Chocolate was once used as currency
The Aztecs and the Mayans placed an extremely high value on the cocoa bean and considered chocolate to be the “Food of the Gods”. To them it was like “gold.” They would exchange cocao beans for the goods and services they needed.
(4) Chocolate may protect against tooth decay
Pure cocoa (without the sugar) contains natural chemicals that can fight against the bacteria that cause tooth decay. Maybe one day there will be “cocoa toothpaste” (if it doesn’t exist already).
(5) Too much chocolate can kill you
It’s true; chocolate can kill (for all you “Death by Chocolate” fans). Chocolate contains a compound called theobromine, which, if taken in very high doses, can cause heart failure, seizures, kidney failure and dehydration. It is highly unlikely that we would consume the amount of chocolate required for this to happen, but dogs, which are much smaller, only require a small amount of chocolate to bring about these symptoms. so.. no chocolate for Fido!!
(6) Chocolate slices created for your sandwiches
There is a company in Japan that specializes in making chocolate slices (similar to cheese slices) for sandwiches and, probably more importantly, to make chocolate flower decorations (by the very skilled, of course).
(7) There may be bugs in your chocolate
A chocolate bar can typically contain about 8 insect parts. The FDA still considers this safe. When the proportion goes beyond 60 insect parts per 100 grams, then it would be considered unsafe to eat. But let’s not worry. Today, you can find many opportunities to eat chocolate covered insects (grasshoppers and maggots), right? So. no worries!
A Bit of History
Chocolate found its beginnings in what is now called Mexico about 4,ooo years ago when the first cocoa plants were found. One of the earliest civilizations in the region -the Olmec- were the pioneers in transforming the cocoa bean into a bitter chocolate drink. Later, this bitter drink was named “xocolat” by the Mayans.
Chocolate was considered by the Mayans and the Aztecs to be the “Food of the Gods” It was used in the sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death. It was also given to victims being sacrificed as a way to “cheer them up” and was often tainted with the blood of previous sacrificial victims.
The Spanish Conquistadors were introduced to this bitter drink and brought it back to Europe’s upper class. Eventually chocolate moved beyond the upper classes and into the general population. In the 19th century innovation led to creating solid chocolate, milk chocolate (Switzerland: Daniel Peter) and, of course, lots of sugar.
Today we may wonder if the ancient Mayan and Aztec would even recognize the drink they once called :The Food of the Gods.”
So, Is Chocolate Really a Health Food or a Superfood?
Chocolate, especially high percentage dark chocolate, has been hailed, in recent years as one of the superfoods of the 21st century. Many health claims have been attributed to this bitter seed from the rainforests of South and Central America and the African varieties. It seems, from all the studies, that chocolate may:
- lower blood pressure
- improve blood circulation
- protect skin from sun damage
- improve vision
- improve brain function
- fight off disease
These are some of the claims associated with eating chocolate. They all seem plausible and cocoa is natural, isn’t it? And what about the overwhelming number of studies that substantiate these claims? What are we, the consumers and chocolate lovers, to make of all this?
Is It Good to Eat?
First of all, even if these study results are all legitimate, who would seriously want to eat chocolate (cocoa) without the sugar – no sugar at all? Not too many of us, I would guess. Even the rainforest animals enjoy nibbling away at the tangy tasting pulp surrounding the seeds but will spit the bitter seeds out on the ground. What do they know that we don’t? Clearly, they are not buying into the health benefits of the cocoa bean pod seeds. It seems that, cocoa. by itself, is not ideal for consumption and that is why we need to sweeten it up. We are certainly, today, very far from the “Food of the Gods” version, aren’t we?
When and why did all this interest in chocolates health properties appear? Chocolate has been with us for a very long time, so when did it become a superfood and how?
It seems that for the past 30 years or so, major chocolate producing companies have been investing heavily into “scientific studies and research grants” that are more favourable to the study of cocoa. The result of all this industry investment is that dark chocolate has sky rocketed into the sphere of “health food stardom.” Yet, despite the massive amounts of money poured into research, the longterm health benefits of cocoa are still questionable.
Vox had this to say about chocolate (cocoa) research studies:
“Here at Vox, we examined 100 Mars-funded health studies, and found they overwhelmingly drew glowing conclusions about cocoa and chocolate — promoting everything from chocolate’s heart health benefits to cocoa’s ability to fight disease. This research — and the media hype it inevitably attracts — has yielded a clear shift in the public perception of the products.”
“Mars and [other chocolate companies] made a conscious decision to invest in science to transform the image of their product from a treat to a health food,” said New York University nutrition researcher Marion Nestle (no relation to the chocolate maker). “You can now sit there with your [chocolate bar] and say I’m getting my flavonoids.”
And the Guardian adds:
Prof Marion Nestle, a nutritional scientist at New York University, uses the word “nutrifluff” to describe “sensational research findings about a single food or nutrient based on one, usually highly preliminary, study”. She points out that most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but journalists generally fail to highlight this. “Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests,” she says.
A Few of the Health Claims of (Dark) Chocolate
(1) Chocolate may improve blood circulation and decrease blood pressure
“More good news for chocolate lovers: A new Harvard study finds that eating a small square of dark chocolate daily can help lower blood pressure for people with hypertension.”
“The study joins the growing research into the heart-healthy benefits of flavonoids, compounds in unsweetened chocolate that cause dilation of the blood vessels. The Harvard study was announced today in Atlanta at the American Heart Association’s science session on cardiovascular disease. “
(2) Chocolate may protect skin from sun damage
“Our study demonstrated that regular consumption of a chocolate rich in flavanols confers significant photoprotection and can thus be effective at protecting human skin from harmful UV effects. Conventional chocolate has no such effect.”
(3) Chocolate improves brain function
“In Dr. Berk’s findings, eating chocolate with 70 percent cacao was shown to increase communication involved in a number of immune responses, such as T-cell activation, cellular immune response and genes involved in neural signaling and sensory perception, associated with the brains ability to adapt and learn new information and skills, according to a press release of the study.”
(4) Chocolate may be helpful in improving vision
“More than 70 per cent of the people scored significantly higher on the vision tests after eating the dark chocolate bar than they did after the milk bar.
One category that saw the biggest enhancement was contrast sensitivity, which is the ability to distinguish between light and dark values especially in situations of low light, fog or glare. Driving at night is an example of an activity that requires good contrast sensitivity for safety.”
There Are Some Downsides
(1) Chocolate may weaken bones
“Increased chocolate consumption was associated with lower mean bone density at all the measured sites. When the researchers took into account other factors, such as age, BMI and lifestyle, that could potentially affect this relationship, they found that some of these relationships (e.g. when bone density and strength were measured in the shin) were no longer significant.”
(2) Chocolate may have a negative effect on moods
“You can see the problem: the tyramine and PEA in chocolate may slow each other’s metabolism. The consequence is having both of these chemicals hang around too long in the body would be high blood pressure, a fast beating heart, heightened arousal, racing thoughts, anger, anxiety and rage.”
(3) Chocolate is high in fact and sugar
“Dark chocolate contains 50-90% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar.”
So, what are we to conclude?
There is so much confusing information out there. Is chocolate healthy, or is it just a hyped “superfood?” There are certainly more than enough studies to highlight its health benefits, but, as we have seen, the studies are funded for marketing purposes. I don’t think we should stop eating chocolate for all of this, but,, everything in moderation, right? So go ahead, enjoy a bit of chocolate. Life is too short to worry about the details.