The Light and Dark Side of Chocolate
A Brief History
The cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, is native to the rainforest areas of Central and South America. It was first harvested by the ancient Mayan people around 250-900 A.D. They took the cocoa seeds and fermented, roasted, then ground them into a paste to be mixed with water, chili peppers, and cornmeal, plus a few other ingredients. This made a spicy, bitter drink, which played an important role in both their religious and social lives. Drinking this sacred brew was restricted to royalty, priests, and certain honored individuals. As part of religious services the priests would make offerings of cocoa seeds to their gods and serve a chocolate drink during sacred ceremonies. (They obviously took their chocolate appreciation as seriously as many people do today.) At that time, sugar was not known to the people of Mesoamerica, so the pungent spices were probably used to balance the bitter taste of the chocolate.
In 1528, along with all the riches purloined from the Aztecs, chocolate sailed across the ocean to Europe, where it was introduced as a foamy, bitter drink named chocolatl. With a bit of innovation the Spanish made the beverage more to their liking by adding sugar, cinnamon and vanilla, eliminating the chilies. In this form it spread from one royal court to the next, enjoyed for both its medicinal qualities and its delicious taste.
Around 1850 the Cadbury and Fry chocolate companies thought to mix cocoa powder with milk, cocoa butter and sugar to form a solid milk chocolate bar. Since the moment of chocolates introduction to Europe, the production and consumption of chocolate has grown to a global scale, with individuals proud to admit they are slaves to a chocolate addiction.
The Dark Side
According to Carol Off, in her book, Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, almost half of the worlds production of cocoa comes from the Ivory Coast in West Africa, with Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil rounding out the world’s top five cocoa producers. Harvesting and preparing the beans is labor intensive, and various economic and government forces have driven the price of the bean further and further down. Some cocoa farmers have resorted to using child labor to harvest the bean and satisfy the world’s sweet tooth. Nonetheless, dismissed as a form of junk food and despite its widespread popularity, it is only recently that scientific studies have been done on the benefits of including chocolate in your diet.
Chocolate and Your Heart
Including dark chocolate in your diet may benefit your heart due to phytochemicals found in the cocoa bean. The two positive effects these have on the body are the ability to block arterial damage caused by free radicals, and inhibit platelet aggregation, which could cause a heart attack or stroke. There have also been studies indicating that the flavonoids in cocoa relax the blood vessels, which inhibits an enzyme that causes inflammation.
According to a recent study by Holland’s National Institute of Public Health and Environment, “Chocolate contains up to four times the anti-oxidants found in tea.” The study showed that chocolate, most importantly dark chocolate, contains 53.5 mg of powerful anti-oxidants catechins per 100 grams. By contrast, 100 ml of black tea contains a mere 13.9 mg of catechins.
But let’s face it, chocolate lovers, one of the best things about chocolate is that feel-good lift you get after eating a few pieces. Another positive is that dark chocolate, can provide some of the highest amounts of magnesium, after sea vegetables, available in plant form. But with the sweet comes the bitter news, that chocolate is also high in oxalic acid and the caffeine-like substance theobromine, which when taken in excess (emphasis on excess), can inhibit the body’s ability to absorb minerals and result in feelings of anxiety, nervousness, and insomnia. Something to consider when you cannot sleep after consuming a few chocolate truffles before bedtime.
Two researchers at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California, Daniel Piomelli and Emmanuelle di Tomaso discovered in a 1996 study, that, “chocolate contains pharmacologically active substances that have the same effect on the brain as marijuana, and that these chemicals may be responsible for certain drug-induced psychoses associated with chocolate craving.” The chemical in question is a neurotransmitter known as anandamide, which is produced naturally in the brain, and is also a component of chocolate. Although eating chocolate won’t get you “high”, these particular compounds (and there may be more) provide that “good feeling” you get from eating good, quality chocolate.
It is important that you purchase only the best and beware of inexpensive chocolates blended with wax, and contain very little real cocoa butter. Inexpensive brands are made with “partially hydrogenated palm oil”, preservatives, and high amounts of sugar. Quality chocolate is made with real cocoa butter, the finest organic cocoa beans, minimal sugar and an extensive refining process. And, as always, the best can cost twice as much, but millions of people feel it is well worth the sacrifice.