By: Candace Gilbery
Chocolate is made from the pods harvested from the Theobroma Cacao tree. Theobroma is literally translated from Latin meaning, “cocoa, food for the gods”. It takes a bit of work to turn cocoa seed pods into delicious chocolate, starting with the careful process of removing the beans from the pods along with the white, sticky mucilage. Once this has been accomplished, the beans and mucilage are fermented underneath banana leaves for 5-7 days during which time they are rotated often to ensure consistent fermentation and prevent black spots. This allows the flavors and aroma to develop and removes most of the tannins in the cocoa bean. The beans are then dried for another 5-7 days to stop the fermentation process and further develop the flavor of the cocoa before being bagged and tagged and shipped off to factories. At the factory, the beans are broken open and the inside pulp is removed. This is called the cocoa nib and it is roasted before being ground into cocoa liquor. At this point, it is ready for use or can be further refined into cocoa butter and cocoa powder1,2.
Cocoa and chocolate have a long history, dating back over 4000 years and belief in its medicinal qualities has always been asserted. During the first millennia AD, the Mayans used it as currency and worshipped the chocolate gods, even having special serving utensils for the sacred drink. In the 16th century the Spanish were convinced it was a magical potion1. Chocolate does contain protein, which may lend credence to the credit given for increased stamina. It also contains a variety of vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, niacin, calcium, iodine, iron, potassium, magnesium, sodium, and phosphorus1,3.
In more recent history, polyphenols, the same antioxidant compounds found in some fruits and vegetables, coffee, tea, and red wine, have been found in high concentrations in chocolate, or more specifically, cocoa. The main polyphenols are the flavanols, one which has been studied quite extensively is epicatechin, a variant of which is found in green tea. Evidence has demonstrated it may be responsible for the beneficial effects on disease prevention. One meta-analysis published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed improvements to several cardiovascular disease risk factors with short term chronic use of ≤18 weeks of chocolate, cocoa, and/or other cocoa flavanols3.
A review of 19 controlled trials involving 1131 subjects using either cocoa flavanols or a placebo discovered lowered triglycerides, increased good cholesterol, and reduced inflammation and blood sugar3. The reasoning behind this, according to an adjunct professor of nutrition and food sciences at Louisiana State University, is the flavanols may fight off the inflammation linked to CVD and diabetes. He recommends taking the cocoa through supplements to avoid the addition of sugar that usually accompanies cocoa in products. He claims to eat 2 tablespoons of cocoa with his oatmeal every day, though, having tried it just for fun, I do not personally recommend this vehicle of administration4.
What these studies all had in common was not that the evidence disputed the hypothesis of cocoa’s health benefits, rather it is the inability to come up with a recommended therapeutic daily dose of chocolate. Such a shame there will not be an addition to the My Plate diagram any time soon. However, there are some good rules of thumb to follow before stocking up on chocolate coated flavanols: The darker the better. You are looking for anything greater than 60% cocoa. Make sure it is made with cocoa butter and not coconut or palm oil or anything hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated5. It is the cocoa solids (cocoa liquor and cocoa powder) you are looking at that have the high concentrations of flavanols and the darker the chocolate, the more solids, less butter, sugar, and milk it contains2,3,5. White chocolate contains no solids, only cocoa butter and milk. Milk chocolate is also much lower than dark chocolate but milk binds to the antioxidants rendering them unavailable. This means don’t drink milk with your double chocolate chunk cookies if want to claim any benefit either5. Certainly, think quality over quantity for maximizing the benefits without counteracting them with added sugar and fat. Dark chocolate is also higher in calories so you want to factor that in as well. Most importantly, when you are eating chocolate to better your cardiovascular health, along with all the other potential benefits, and reflecting on the many cultures before you that have enjoyed this delectable treat, you should be mindful and savor the experience.
- History of chocolate [Internet]. Barry Callebaut is a B2B chocolate & cocoa manufacturer. [cited 2016Dec16]. Available from: https://www.barry-callebaut.com/chocophilia/history-chocolate
- Cocoa Fermentation – All About It: Part 2 – Amano Chocolate [Internet]. Amano Chocolate. 2013 [cited 2016Dec16]. Available from: http://www.amanochocolate.com/blog/all-about-cocoa- fermentation-part-2/
- Alderton S. Chocolate – the heart-healthy treat. Is this too good to be true? Nutrition Bulletin [Internet]. Wiley-Blackwell; 2014Mar [cited 2016Dec15];39(1):89–94. Available from: https://login.dax.lib.unf.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/ login.aspx?direct=true&db=rzh&AN=104028255&site=eds-live&scope =site
- Dotinga R. Is It Really True That Chocolate May Be Good for You? [Internet]. Consumer HealthDay. 2016 [cited 2016Dec15]. Available from: https://consumer.healthday.com/cardiovascular-health-information- 20/misc-stroke-related-heart-news-360/more-evidence-that-chocolate -may-be-good-for-you-715932.html
- The University of Michigan Health System [Internet]. The University of Michigan Health System. [cited 2016Dec16]. Available from: http://www.med.umich.edu/umim/food-pyramid/dark_chocolate.html