Chocolate's Health Benefits and Many Uses

Close up of assorted chocolates
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Chocolate has been an appetizing, popular and useful commodity for over 2,000 years. From candy bars to milkshakes, coffee to mole, its uses truly span the culinary gamut. Some consider the tasty treat to be an aphrodisiac; others point to its medicinal qualities. A recent from the University of South Australia, in fact, found that chocolate consumption might help decrease the risk of heart disease.

History

Chocolate comes from the seeds of the cacao tree which originated in the tropical rainforests of South and Central America. Maya and Aztec people first utilized the seeds by pressing them into a spicy, frothy, bitter drink. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers brought the seeds back from their travels to Spain where chocolate drinks became a favorite of the rich and royal. About 100 years later, this delectable delicacy – which was expensive and labor intensive to produce – was introduced to the wealthy in other European nations. 

Awesomely, it was the industrial revolution – and the invention of the cocoa press in 1828 – that helped bring chocolate to the general public. Less expensive production methods allowed chocolate to be mass-produced in a more affordable, solid form. Popularity soared even further when, in 1875, Nestlé's Daniel Peter introduced condensed milk to the mix, creating creamy, smooth “milk chocolate.” By the early 1900’s chocolate was widely available to everyone.

Today, chocolate is a solid part of the global market economy.

The Chocolate Tree

Cacao trees are smaller, “understory” trees that grow beneath the upper canopy of the rainforest where they can receive the right balance of shade, humidity, and nutrients. Small flies, no bigger than the head of a pin, called midges, live in the debris of decaying rainforest plants, and pollinate the cacao tree’s flowers, which eventually produce pods filled with up to 50 cacao seeds each!

It takes time, flowers appear on the cacao tree after about five years of growth.

From Tree to Your Table

Despite technological innovations, cacao seeds are still harvested, fermented -under banana leaves- and dried by hand. Most cacao is grown by farmers in rainforests near the equator and sold to chocolate processing companies throughout the world.

Once in the factory assembly line, the seeds are roasted, then broken open to release the “nibs,” which are ground to make chocolate liquor (a non-alcoholic mixture of chocolate liquid and solids). Next, depending on the final product, the liquor is mixed with milk and sugar and additional cocoa butter, and then refined in a conching process.

Combinations of different varieties of cacao are mixed to form new and delicious flavors, like bittersweet chocolate, which contains at least 35% chocolate liquor, dark chocolate, which contains 15% to 35% liquor, and milk chocolate, which contains less than 15% liquor. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, but no chocolate liquor.

Most chocolate comes from three different types of cacao – forastero (which accounts for 90% of the world’s chocolate), criollo (harder to grow but contains a more delicate aroma than forastero) and trinitario (a combination of forastero andcriollo).

Unfortunately, much of today's cacao is still grown on “sun plantations,” cleared, unshaded fields that maximize growth and produce large quantities of cacao for short periods of time. The removal of rainforest not only disrupts the cacao tree's growing cycle, but it also disturbs the healthy balance of the rainforest. In addition, cacao trees grown on sun plantations are more prone to pests and require the use of pesticides and fertilizer.

Fortunately, sustainable cacao farming takes place in a more varied rainforest ecosystem. There are many benefits including extra income from crop diversification, lower maintenance costs, and improved tree longevity.

Health Benefits

There are over 300 chemicals in chocolate, and scientists are always discovering new information about them and how they work in the human body.

Mayo clinic studies, for example, have found that chocolate contains stearic acid, which is a neutral fat that does not increase LDL cholesterol. Other research has pointed to the antioxidant effects of dark chocolate as well as its mood-elevating properties. Nutritionally, a 1.5-ounce serving of milk chocolate contains approximately 3 grams of protein, and a small percentage of riboflavin, calcium, and iron. 100 grams of cocoa contains a whopping 13,120 oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC), the measure of antioxidant capacity. Antioxidants have the potential to improve overall health, delay the onset of many age-related diseases, reduce the risk of some cancers, improve cardiovascular function, and more.

More on Chocolate and Cognitive Function

Eating chocolate may help keep us sharp into old age, according to a study, published in the journal Hypertension. The study tested the hypothesis that dietary flavanols (from chocolate) might improve cognitive function in elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which can include difficulty with memory, language, thinking, or judgment.

Researchers found that those who consumed high or moderate levels of cocoa flavanols for 2 months had significant improvements on certain cognitive assessment tests, as well as a decrease in insulin resistance, i.e. improved blood sugar regulation, as well as improvements in blood pressure, compared with those who consumed only small amounts.

Flavanols are a type of flavonoid, the phytochemical or plant nutrient associated with the many health benefits of cocoa. Flavonoids are also found in many richly pigmented fruits and vegetables; various studies demonstrate that flavonoids also have anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and anti-cancer activity.

Chocolate and Your Blood Pressure

A meta-analysis, published in The Cochrane Library, looked at data from 20 studies published during the past decade, and found that those who ate flavanol-rich cocoa products every day, for a few weeks, saw their blood pressure drop by about two or three points, which, in combination with an overall healthy diet and lifestyle could make a big difference to your health.

More Benefits for Cardiovascular Health

A systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled trials, first published in the fall of 2011, then followed by another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in January of this year, "examined the effect of flavonoid-rich cocoa and all major cardiovascular risk factors." The findings of the review of 24 papers with 1106 participants, as reported in The Journal of Nutrition, showed that the cocoa consumption improved blood pressure, insulin resistance, lipid profiles and flow-medicated vascular dilation. Top line? All seemingly good news for our cardiovascular system. And as a result, there has been a flurry of new articles touting chocolate as the latest superfood.​

Chocolate for Brain Health

Research from Reading University's School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences in the UK found that consuming cocoa flavanols may improve aspects of eye and brain function. The study looked at acute intake of cocoa flavanols and then tested the subject's vision and cognitive performance and found that both were improved.

Keep in Mind

The variety of research that demonstrates cocoa's many health benefits is promising for good health, but it’s important to understand that not all chocolate products are created equal. While all chocolate contains some flavonoids, minimally processed dark chocolate with a cacao content upwards of 70 percent is your best choice. The higher the cocoa percentage, the more flavanols and antioxidants it contains. You can also purchase cacao or cocoa powder that can be used in a variety of ways.

To put it into perspective, to get the cardiovascular benefits from cocoa flavanols you would have to eat 33 milk chocolate bars a day! The good news? Switching to dark chocolate means only eating eight to nine bars daily. Wink, wink!

Do keep in mind that the sugar content of your chocolate bar will offset the various benefits – so think about adding minimally processed cocoa powder to smoothies, plain yogurt, your morning oatmeal or cottage cheese, and hey why not make chicken mole, the traditional Mexican dish that includes a sauce made with cocoa powder.  Or you can try making a chocolate pudding with mashed banana, avocado, cocoa powder and either dates or stevia.

Overall, consuming chocolate when minimally processed and pure, can add many health benefits to your daily routine.