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Chocolate (health benefits)
Chocolate: Guilty pleasure or healthy snack?
I keep reading about “healthy” chocolate. Can chocolate really offer health benefits?
If you have a sweet tooth, the news has been hard to miss:
A number of chocolate manufacturers claim their products can promote heart health, lowering blood pressure and aiding circulation by delivering a powerful dose of antioxidants that may help stave off damage caused by aging and the environment.
Claims for heart benefits are based on studies that have found some properties of chocolate have positive, measurable effects on the circulatory and cardiovascular systems.
Cocoa beans are rich in flavonoids, which are part of a class of plant-derived antioxidants called polyphenols shown to have heart-protective effects.
Fruits, vegetables, tea, and red wine also contain flavonoids, but certain types of chocolate have higher antioxidant levels than these foods and beverages.
Although cocoa beans have substantial flavanoid levels, many chocolate products are highly processed, a procedure that often adds sugar and milk, lowering the flavonoid content of the finished bar or beverage.
The darker the chocolate, the higher its cocoa and flavonoid content.
White chocolate, a mix of cocoa fat, sugar, and flavorings, contains no flavonoids at all.
A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine noted that ordinary plain dark chocolate is 43% cocoa, plain milk chocolate, 30%, and a typical candy bar, only 15%.
All chocolate is high in saturated fat, the less healthy type of fat that when consumed in more than very moderate amounts, can contribute to weight gain and other problems such as atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease.
A Dutch study found men who regularly consume cocoa products have lower blood pressure and are less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those who abstain.
Studies also have shown flavonoids may help arteries stay flexible and some suggest chocolate has an aspirin-like action that helps prevent blood clots, both of which could prevent heart attacks and strokes.
Much of this research has been conducted with cocoa and chocolate with high levels of flavonoids — not the milk chocolate most often favored by Americans.
Most chocolate is cholesterol free, but milk chocolate can contain small amounts of cholesterol. Although the fat in chocolate is highly saturated, a third of it is in the form of stearic acid, which does not boost blood cholesterol levels as much as other saturated fatty acids.
Although milk chocolate may not raise your cholesterol, the milk may interfere with absorption of flavonoids, according to recent research in the scientific journal Nutrition and Metabolism.
And all chocolate is fairly high in calories — about 135 to 150 calories per ounce — and weight gain can cancel out any positive health effects provided by chocolate.
Some studies have asked participants to increase their daily chocolate consumption to as much as 3.5 ounces a day — about 500 calories.
Most of these studies — many funded by the chocolate industry — have been small and have not lasted longer than a few weeks.
It’s not really clear how much dark chocolate people would need to eat to reap health benefits, and long-term research is needed to clarify the impact of chocolate on cardiovascular health.
The bottom line:
Moderate amounts of dark chocolate may have some heart benefits, but many claims are unproven and much more research is needed before chocolate can take its place among true healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, which also contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber not found in chocolate.
That said, replacing the regular sweet treat in your diet with the darkest chocolate you can find (look for a high cocoa content) won’t hurt you and may have some health benefits.
The Surprisingly Manly History of Hot Cocoa
‘Tis the season for hot cocoa.
At least it is for red-cheeked children who are looking to warm up after coming in from a well-spent snow day.
And for lady folk curled up in a blanket watching The Shop Around the Corner.
But a man, he’s sitting by the fire in his leather chair, drinking a properly manly drink like black coffee, or scotch, perhaps.
Such is the perception of cocoa these days. It is but a sweet confection a man might drink a few times each year, if at all.
For thousands of years, however, it was quite a different story. While we tend to think of chocolate today in its solid form, for nine-tenths of its long history, chocolate was a drink – the first true chocolate bar as we now know it was not invented until 1839. In the thousands of years before that time, chocolate was seen as an invaluable, sacred, even magical beverage — a symbol of power, a privilege of warriors and the elite, and a satisfying tonic that was consumed daily and offered the sustenance needed to tackle virile challenges.
Contrary to its ho-hum, sometimes even junk food-y reputation, real chocolate is an incredibly complex substance, containing 400-500 different compounds.
Among those compounds are several with mind and body boosting benefits:
Caffeine – a stimulant present in small amounts, depending on the type and amount of chocolate ingredients.
Theobromine – a mild stimulant distinct from caffeine which provides the lion’s share of chocolate’s kick and energizes without greatly activating the central nervous system the way the former does. It also enhances mood, dilates blood vessels, can lower blood pressure, relaxes the smooth muscles of the bronchi in the lungs, and can be used as a cough medicine.
Tryptophan — releases the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.
Phenylethylamine – functions similarly to amphetamines in releasing norepinephrine, which increases excitement, alertness, and decision-making abilities, and dopamine, which releases endorphins (natural painkillers) and heightens mood.
Flavonoids – antioxidants which may improve blood flow to the heart and brain, prevent clots, improve cardiac health, and act as anti-inflammatories.
Chocolate has also for centuries been rumored to be an aphrodisiac.
In short, hot cocoa is a powerful elixir – one which boosts mood and vitality and combats stress, anxiety, and pain. For good reason is the chocolate tree’s scientific name — Theobroma cacao — ancient Greek for “food of the gods.” For what other drink tastes great, is filling in nature, and stimulates mind and body?
No wonder then that this beverage, far from being a kiddie drink, has been a favorite of rulers, warriors, and explorers for centuries.
A Note on Terminology: Hot Chocolate vs. Hot Cocoa
While hot chocolate and hot cocoa are often used interchangeably, they’re not actually the same thing. Chocolate begins as cacao seeds (often referred to as cocoa beans) that grow in pods on the bark of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. These seeds are then fermented, dried, and roasted. The shells are removed, leaving the cacao nibs. The nibs are crushed into a thick paste called chocolate liquor (despite the name, it does not contain alcohol), which is made up of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The ancient peoples of Mesoamerica mixed this paste with water to make a highly-prized beverage.
Before there was Red Bull…there was cocoa.
Chocolate was made this way and consumed almost entirely as a drink until 1828 when Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented a process that could separate out most of the fat — the cocoa butter — from the chocolate liquor, leaving a dry cake that is then pulverized into cocoa powder. Before undergoing this “Dutching” process, the nibs are treated with alkaline salts to neutralize their acidity, mellow the flavor, and improve the cocoas’ miscibility in warm water. The end result is “Dutch cocoa.” “Natural cocoa” is that which does not undergo this Dutching process.
To make quality solid chocolate, cocoa butter is re-added to the chocolate liquor, along with other ingredients like sugar, vanilla, and milk.
So, hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder, either Dutch or natural, and hot chocolate is made with little pieces or shavings of solid chocolate. The latter is sometimes also called “drinking chocolate.” Both are delicious.
Drink of the Gods: Chocolate in Ancient Mesoamerica
The earliest cultivation of cacao can be traced to ancient Mesoamerica, in which it served a religious, financial, and nutritional purpose.
The drink that was made with cacao, xocolātl, wasconsidered sacred by the Mesoamericans and used during initiation ceremonies, funerals, and marriages. Cacao beans were also used as currency. Because cacao was both currency and food, drinking chocolate was like sipping on cash — kind of like lighting your cigar with a hundred dollar bill – and for this reason was a privilege mainly limited to elites.
Cacao was cultivated and consumed by the Olmecs and Mayans, but is most famously associated with the Aztec civilization. Montezuma the II, who kept a huge storehouse of cacao (supplied by conquered peoples from whom he demanded the beans as tribute) and drank 50 golden goblets of chocolate a day, decreed that only those men who went to war could imbibe cacao, even if they were his own sons. This limited chocolate consumption to royals and nobles who were willing to fight, merchants (their travels through hostile territory necessitated their taking up of arms), and warriors. For the latter, chocolate was a regular part of their military rations; ground cacao that had been pressed into wafers and could be mixed into water in the field were given to every solider on campaign. The drink provided long-lasting nourishment on the march; as one Spanish observer wrote, “This drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.”
All Aztecs thought of both blood and chocolate as sacred liquids, and cacao seeds were used in their religious ceremonies to symbolize the human heart – harkening to their famous ritual in which this still-beating organ was torn from a sacrificial victim’s chest. The connection between blood and chocolate was especially strong for warriors, and it was served at the solemn initiation ceremony of new Eagle and Jaguar knights, who had to undergo a rigorous penance process before joining the most elite orders of the Aztec army.
In peacetime, chocolate was an after-dinner drink, served along with smoking tubes of tobacco, much in the way modern gentlemen once enjoyed brandy and cigars after a meal (and still do). The Mayans liked their chocolate hot, the Aztecs liked it cold, but all Mesoamericans preferred it foamy – a quality that was accomplished by pouring the chocolate back and forth from a bowl held high into one below (a large, foam-creating swizzle stick was added later through a Spanish creolization of the practice).
Mesoamerican chocolate, unless honey was added, was also bitter. To this strong, bitter brew was added a great variety of spices and seasonings, such as ground up flowers and vanilla. The Aztecs were especially fond of adding chili pepper, which gave the drink a delightful burn going down. Maize was often added to stretch the chocolate and turn it into a more filling gruel, but this version was considered inferior to the pure, potent variety.
The Beverage of Movers and Shakers in Europe
When chocolate was brought back to Spain in the 17th century by conquistadors, it quickly spread throughout Europe, where it continued to be considered a luxury and a drink of the elites. Originating on the continent from Spain, and more expensive than coffee, chocolate was seen as southern, Catholic, and aristocratic, while coffee was viewed as northern, Protestant, and middle-class.
Chocolate was a popular beverage among monks and priests; Jesuits ran some cacao plantations in the New World. According to the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, many of “the first recipes using cacao beans came from a 12th century Cistercian monastery, Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de Piedra monasterio. Extant documents indicate that by 1534 it is already a staple in the monastic kitchen. According to tradition, a Franciscan friar, Fray Jerónimo de Aguilar, who had traveled with Cortéz, gave a recipe and some beans to Don Antonio de Álvero, the Abbot of the Monastery. As depicted in this photo – located at the Monasterio de Piedra – Cistercian communities, even to this day, often have a room located above the cloister, known as the chocolatería, used specifically for the preparation and enjoyment of chocolate.” Interestingly, the popularity of drinking chocolate among Catholics led to sometimes fervent debate over whether it was a drink or a food, and thus whether it could, or could not, be consumed during times of fasting.
Yet with the Spanish revival of the Mayan practice of drinking chocolate hot and the welcome addition of milk and sugar, the beverage soon won converts from many corners – many of whom began to give the ancient drink some twists of their own. The addition of cinnamon and black pepper was popular, as was ambergris, a solid, fatty substance found in the intestines of sperm whales, and musk, secreted by the glands of the Himalayan musk deer (and believed to be an aphrodisiac). Other drinkers experimented with throwing orange peel, rose water, cloves, ground up pistachios and almonds, or egg yolks into the brew.
Chocolate was drunk in large cups at Spanish bullfights, and began to be served across Europe both at dedicated “chocolate houses” and at coffee houses, where members of the upper class gathered to sip hot beverages, gamble, and discuss the pressing philosophical and political issues of the day. In England, each establishment was typically associated with one of the Parliamentary parties, and often turned into full-on gentlemen’s clubs. For example, the Cocoa-tree Chocolate House, located on St. James Street in London, was patronized by the Tory party, and then became the Cocoa Tree Club; eminent men like Jonathan Swift and Edward Gibbon were members. Mrs. White’s Chocolate House, another Tory establishment, was created on Chesterfield St. in 1693; it was famous not only for its chocolate but as a notorious center of gambling – the gaming room was nicknamed “Hell” and patrons placed bets on everything from elections to which raindrop would make it to the windowpane first. The chocolate house moved to St. James Street in 1778 and transformed into an official, and highly elite, gentlemen’s club. Over 300 years later, it is still around and now simply called White’s. The club’s rolls have included three monarchs and a huge consortment of other royals, nobles, and prime ministers.
Fueling Expeditions to the Ends of the Earth
With its hot, filling, rejuvenating qualities, cocoa has been an essential staple on all the major expeditions to the North and South Poles. Explorers and their teams of men would drink cup after cup of it as a bulwark against the morale and strength-sapping task of trudging across an icy, austere landscape.
The daily ration for Robert Falcon Scott’s trek to the South Pole: 450g biscuit, 340g pemmican, 85g sugar, 57g butter, 24g tea, 16g cocoa.The sugar was mixed into the cocoa, and Scott said, prevented the men from wanting to kill each other. As a side note, these rations only provided each man about 4,500 calories a day, at least 2,000 less than is needed for sledging, which is why the men starved and died on their return from the Pole. Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott to the Pole, and actually gained weight on the way back, brought five times as much cocoa.
During Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, he had his men drink hot cocoa five nights a week. Each evening when they stopped for supper, they warmed up one pot of what they called “hoosh” — a thick stew made with pemmican (dried beef and fat) and hard biscuits – and a pot of cocoa. They washed the former down with the latter. While as one of his men, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, recorded in his dairy, “Many controversies raged over the rival merits of tea and cocoa,” and some of the men preferred the former, Scott preferred cocoa for its milder stimulation. As Cherry-Garrard noted, “the warmth of your hours of rest depends largely on getting into your bag immediately after you have eaten your hoosh and cocoa,” and having to get out of the bag during the night, exit the tent, and expose one’s peppermint stick to the cold was not a thought anyone relished. Scott compromised by allowing tea two evenings a week. He also had his men drink cocoa in the mornings to get something substantial and invigorating in their stomachs while minimizing bathroom breaks on the march.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard (right), a member of the Terra Nova Expedition, was asked by Scott to man-haul a sledge 60 miles to Cape Crozier to retrieve an Emperor penguin egg. The men became pinned down by a blizzard, their tent blew away, and they laid in their sleeping bags exposed to the falling snow and -40 degree temperatures. It was so cold, Cherry-Garrard shattered most of his teeth because they chattered so hard. The men returned to the base camp a month later exhausted and frozen and were revived with cups of cocoa. In his account of the horrific experience, The Worst Journey in the World, Cherry-Garrard mentions cocoa no less than two dozen times, saying, “there was always plenty to be had,” and calling it “the most satisfying stuff imaginable” and “the most comforting drink.”
In 1989, when American explorer Will Steger spent 220 days traveling almost 4000 miles in the first dog-sled traverse of Antarctica, he and his international team of five others went through 2,070 cups of Swiss Miss.
Hot Cocoa on the Front Lines
Beginning with the Aztec warriors, chocolate and cocoa has been included in military rations for centuries.
During the Revolutionary War, officers often breakfasted on chocolate and members of the Continental army were given a monthly allotment of chocolate according to rank; colonels and chaplains received four pounds of chocolate, majors and captains three pounds, lieutenants two pounds, and so on. This chocolate ration was created by smooshing prepared cacao nibs into a cake. With their pocket knives, soldiers would shave pieces of the cake off into a pot of boiling water. The resulting drink was considered rejuvenating, and much of the chocolate available went to hospitals to help the sick and wounded get their strength back.
The invention of cocoa powder made “chocolate” easier for soldiers to carry and prepare while on campaign. But during World War I, before true field rations had been invented, troops were often supplied with hot cocoa by YMCA volunteers. In a time where the military had not yet developed its own morale, welfare, and comfort services, the YMCA took on this role, sending 25,000 volunteers to military units and bases from Egypt to France. Among their many services, “Red Triangle Men,” as they were called, set up comfort huts and canteens, often quite close to the battlefield, where soldiers could come for food, smokes, and cup after cup of piping hot cocoa after a firefight.
“Once again the Ypres Salient was resounding with intense artillery fire. The British regulars had blown up six giant craters in the enemies’ lines at St. Eloi and the Canadians were holding the captured territory. But the ground was held at great cost. Our men were returning wounded, broken, and weary. In those days both the man and the dug-out were needed. Early and late he toiled over a troublesome gasoline stove to prepare hot cocoa for the wayfarers. A constant stream of heroes came down the road. “Walking patients,” men who had not been too severely wounded, in the head or arm, were sent from the trench dressing station to the field dressing station lower down. Some who passed by had been buried by “Rum Jars”; others were victims of shell concussion, but most of them had been struck by shrapnel and were faint with loss of blood. Wounds had taken all the “sand” out of them, and the hot cocoa was a welcome tonic for the weary and wounded marchers.” -Young Men, Vol. 43, 1917
During WWII, new kinds of combat rations were developed, including the C-Ration. The C-Ration was a two-can meal, consisting of an M-unit – an entrée, like meat stew — and a B-unit – bread and dessert. The latter originally contained 5 hardtack crackers, 3 sugar tablets, 3 Dextrose energy tablets, and a packet of beverage mix (instant coffee, powdered lemon drink, or boullion soup powder). In 1944, the beverage list was expanded and a disc of sweetened cocoa was added to the choices.
Cocoa mix was added to the C-ration in 1944.
In the years after the war, the C-Ration was modified and revised and went through several subsequent variations. In 1954, the C-4 was released, which added, among other things, sugar and non-dairy creamer to the mix. Soldiers often used one package of each to enhance their cocoa.
C-Rations were phased out in 1958, although Vietnam soldiers continued to receive cases of them marked with dates from the 1950s. To replace the C-Ration, the military developed the “Meal, Combat, Individual,” or MCI, which included more variety than its predecessor. Four different B-unit cans were available, including the B-3, which contained 4 cookies and a packet of cocoa mix. Cocoa packets were prized and nonsmokers would trade their cigarettes (4 were included in the MCI’s “Accessory Pack”) for them. Some of the men would add the cocoa to their coffee to make a mocha beverage. If they were out of cocoa, the men would heat up water inside a can, chop up their Tropical Bar (a heat resistant chocolate bar that came in their sundries kit) into the water, and add a packet of creamer and sugar to make a hot and satisfying drink.
Cocoa mix is still included in MREs, which began to replace MCIs in the 70s and 80s.
Celebrate the Holidays (and Beyond!) with This Virile Elixir!
If this post has you hankering for a cup of cocoa, here are a few tips to get the most out of this virile beverage.
Dark chocolate has as much as three times more flavonoids than wine and green tea, and cocoa powder has more of them than solid dark chocolate does. However, because the alkalizing process that Dutch cocoa undergoes saps 60-80% of its flavonoids (although cocoa is so high in them that actually still leaves a whole lot), you may want to look for natural cocoa to get the most potent dose. Prepared cocoa mixes also oftentimes contain more sugar than cocoa, so add a little sugar or a natural sweetener (like stevia) to an unsweetened variety as desired. Mark, of Mark’s Daily Apple, drinks it as a rare holiday indulgence (he’s not a proponent of regularly consuming dairy) straight up in his milk, arguing that the leche adds enough natural sweetness on its own. Unfortunately, studies have shown that dairy may inhibit antioxidant activity and absorption in the body, so if you’re looking to get those benefits, you may just want to mix it in almond or coconut milk, or straight up in hot water. You can even create a truly potent tonic using raw, ground-up cacao nibs, just like a proper Mayan. (Bonus: cacao nibs are an excellent source of magnesium, which naturally helps boost testosterone – perhaps there’s something to the old idea of chocolate as an aphrodisiac after all…)
Of course, as mentioned at the start, antioxidants are not the only benefit of chocolate, and its feel-good properties are only enhanced with a little sugar and milk at the proper time. Like on a backpacking trip, or, say, while riding the Polar Express. Can I be the only one who thought as a boy that the mention of “hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars” was one of the most memorable parts of that book?
Mmmm, I think I’m going to make a creamy mug and go sit down by the fire. Eat, or as it were, tear your heart out, Aztec warrior.
Chocolate and Nutrition
By Linda Larsen, About.com Guid
Chocolate, in moderate amounts, can actually be good for you! This is great news for people who love sweets but are trying to eat healthy. Here's the scoop:
• Stearic acid is the main saturated fat found in cocoa butter. It doesn't raise blood cholesterol levels. It may also decrease platelet activity, contributing to heart health in a similar way that baby aspirin decreases that activity.
• Eating a small amount of chocolate will probably prevent a chocolate binge. So when you feel a craving, have a piece!
• Chemicals in chocolate called tannins actually prevent cavities from forming.
• A chocolate bar has around 3-4 grams of protein.
• Chocolate contains antioxidants called flavanoids, a category of polyphenols, which may prevent cell damage and reduce the risk of cancer and other age-related chronic diseases. One study found that the polyphenol content in chocolate is four times that found in tea. The monounsaturated fat in chocolate, oleic acid, is also found in olive oil. It can lower LDL and total cholesterol levels in the blood.
• Chocolate is a plant-based food, and contains many nutrients found in other plant foods.
• High flavanol cocoa in beverage form may help blood flow in those who are diabetic by increasing normal endothelial function in the blood vessels.
• A 1.55 ounce milk chocolate bar contains 9 grams of caffeine, compared to around 40 in a regular soft drink.
• Believe it or not, there is no scientific evidence linking sugar consumption to hyperactivity in children. As a matter of fact, sugar consumption has a calming effect because it increases the level of serotonin in the brain. (Source: Food and Drug Administration's "An Evaluation of Health Aspects of Sugars Contained in Carbohydrate Sweeteners" (1986))
• Chocolate is a good source of essential minerals copper, magnesium and calcium.
So enjoy chocolate this Valentine's Day!
In Oaxaca, Mexico, healers called curanderos use chocolate to treat several illnesses such as bronchitis.
In some regions, children drink chocolate in the morning to ward off scorpion and bee stings.
Over 50% of adults in America prefer chocolate to other flavors.
In 2002, Marshall Field’s in Chicago made the largest box of chocolate.
It had 90,090 Frango mint chocolates and weighed a whopping 3,326 pounds.
In a small study at Indiana University, cyclists who drank chocolate milk after a workout had less fatigue and scored higher on endurance tests than those who had a sports drink.
The largest and oldest chocolate company in the U.S. is Hershey’s.
Hershey’s produces over one billion pounds of chocolate product annually.
The most expensive chocolate in the world is the “Madeleine” and was created by Fritz Knipschildt of Knipschildt Chocolatier in Connecticut.
There are actually zero cacao solids in white chocolate.
A drawing from the Mayan Madrid Codex shows gods piercing their ears and sprinkling their blood over the cacao harvest, indicating a strong association between blood and cacao in Meso-American tradition.
In the ancient Mayan civilization, humans were often sacrificed to guarantee a good cacao harvest.
First, the prisoner was forced to drink a cup of chocolate, which sometimes was spiked with blood because the Maya believed it would convert the victim’s heart into a cacao pod.
Belgium produces 172,000 tons of chocolate per year.
Over 2,000 chocolate shops are found throughout the country, many located in Brussels where Godiva chocolate originated.
Owing to the nature of cacao butter, chocolate is the only edible substance that melts at around 93° F, just below body temperature. This means that after placing a piece of chocolate on your tongue, it will begin to melt.
Commercial chocolate usually contains such low amounts of cacao solids that it is more likely the sugar that chocolate lovers are addicted to.
The cacao bean naturally contains almost 300 different flavors and 400 separate aromas.
Cacao has been around for millions of years and is probably one of the oldest of nature’s foods.
Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (Montezuma II), the 9th emperor of the Aztecs, was one of the most wealthy and powerful men in the world. He was also known as The Chocolate King. At the height of his power, he had a stash of nearly a billion cacao beans.
Columbus’s son Ferdinand recorded that when the Mayans dropped some cacao beans, “they all stopped to pick it up, as though an eye had fallen.” Columbus, who was searching for a route to India, did not see the potential of the cacao
market and mistook them for shriveled almonds.
In Mayan civilization, cacao beans were the currency, and counterfeiting cacao beans out of painted clay had become a thriving industry.
Goods could be priced in units of cacao: a slave cost 100 beans, the services of a prostitute cost 10 beans, and a turkey cost 20 beans.
While the Spanish conquistadors horded gold, the Mesoamericans horded cacao beans.
In some parts of Latin America, the beans were used as a currency as late as the 19th century.
The first machine-made chocolate was produced in Barcelona, Spain, in 1780.
When English Buccaneers overran a Spanish ship loaded with cacao beans, they set it on fire, thinking the beans were sheep dung.
Madame du Barry, reputed to be a nymphomaniac, encouraged her lovers to drink chocolate in order to keep up with her.
Some scholars link the growing popularity of chocolate houses in Europe, such as the Cocoa-Tree Chocolate House on St. James Street in London, with the beginnings of the Enlightenment.
That was the drink on the table when 18th-century
thinkers started to question long-held verities: the supremacy of the Church, the rights of kings, and potential for improvement in the common man and woman
One of Louis XV’s many mistresses, Madame de Pompadour, became a famous chocolate addict and used it as a treatment for her sexual dysfunctions.
The Marquis de Sade, possibly the world’s first sexologist, was also hooked on chocolate.
According to Italian researchers, women who eat chocolate regularly have a better sex life than those who do not. They also had higher levels of desire, arousal, and satisfaction from sex.
One chocolate chip can give a person enough energy to walk 150 feet.
Americans eat 2.8 billion pounds of candy each year. Nearly half of this is chocolate.
Approximately 40% of almonds produced in the world are made for chocolate products.
A Hershey's bar was dug up after 60 years from Admiral Richard Byrd’s cache at the South Pole. Having been frozen all those years, it was still edible
Chocolate was included in WWII soldier rations. According to army specification, it was designed to taste just “a little better than a boiled potato” so soldiers would not eat it too quickly.
In one year, the world can produce 3 million tons of cacao, less than half the coffee crop.
Chocolate melting in a person’s mouth can cause a more intense and longer-lasting “buzz” than kissing.
Hershey’s Kisses were first produced in 1907 and were shaped like a square. A new machine in 1921 gave them their current shape
The health benefits of dark chocolate are all the rage right now, with increasing numbers of studies pointing to its rich concentrations of beneficial antioxidants and polyphenols.
This applies particularly to dark chocolate because it contains a higher concentration of cacao seeds than milk chocolate, and therein lies the secret to its health-promoting powers.
Cacao refers to the plant, a small evergreen tree of the species Theobroma cacao, which is cultivated for its seeds, also known as cacao beans or cocoa beans. The term "chocolate" refers to the solid food or candy made from a preparation of cacao seeds (typically roasted). If the cacao seeds are not roasted, then you have "raw chocolate," which is also typically sweetened.
Cocoa, on the other hand, refers to the powder made from roasted, husked, and ground cacao seeds, from which most of the fat has been removed. Knowing the meaning of these terms is important, because if you think you're improving your health by eating typical chocolate candies, you're being misled.
That being said, however, certain types of chocolate, as well as cocoa powder and cacao, are turning out to be powerful superfoods that rank right up there among the most anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods known to mankind.
Your Gut Bacteria Help Unlock Dark Chocolate's Anti-Inflammatory Powers
Research presented at the 247th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) claims to have unraveled the precise reason why dark chocolate is so beneficial. While it's known that cocoa powder is rich in antioxidants including catechin and epicatechin, along with a small amount of fiber, it was thought that these molecules were poorly digested and absorbed due to their large size.
The new study found, however, that your gut bacteria breaks down and ferments the components in dark chocolate, turning them into anti-inflammatory compounds that benefit your health. In particular, beneficial microbes including Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria "feasted" on chocolate, according to the researchers.
The study, which involved three cocoa powders tested in a model digestive tract, may help explain why chocolate has been found to be so good for your heart, as the anti-inflammatory compounds may reduce inflammation of cardiovascular tissue. The study's lead author explained:1
"In our study we found that the fiber is fermented and the large polyphenolic polymers are metabolized to smaller molecules, which are more easily absorbed. These smaller polymers exhibit anti-inflammatory activity… When these compounds are absorbed by the body, they lessen the inflammation of cardiovascular tissue, reducing the long-term risk of stroke."
Eating Your Dark Chocolate with Prebiotics May Boost Its Benefits
The researchers suggested that consuming cocoa along with prebiotics may be one way to encourage the conversion of polyphenols into highly absorbable anti-inflammatory compounds in your stomach. Prebiotics are carbohydrates found in whole foods that you can't digest… but which beneficial bacteria can, acting as "food" for them.
Unprocessed whole foods, such as onions and garlic, are among the best prebiotics, so if you're eating right, you should be getting plenty of prebiotics. It would seem that taking steps to encourage healthful gut bacteria, in general, would also ensure that you have enough beneficial bacteria available to help break down and ferment the healthy substances in cocoa.
This includes not only avoiding sugar and grains but also eating naturally fermented foods and/or taking a high-quality probiotic supplement. One of the major results of eating a healthy diet like the one described in my nutrition plan is that you cause your beneficial gut bacteria to flourish, and they secondarily perform the real "magic" of restoring your health. Interestingly, the researchers also suggested consuming dark chocolate with antioxidant-rich solid fruits, such as pomegranate or acai, as another way to boost its health potential.
Chocolate and Your Heart: What Does the Research Say?
A seven-study meta-analysis sought to find a link between chocolate consumption and certain cardiometabolic disorders, such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Along with those disorders are related problems like hypertension, elevated fasting glucose and triglycerides, high cholesterol, and abdominal obesity.2
But rather than negative effects, scientists found that chocolate – specifically the dark unprocessed raw cacao kinds – actually reduced the risk of such disorders.
In fact, the highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with a 37 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29 percent reduction in stroke compared with the lowest levels! Other research has also shown that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds in chocolate may lower your risk of heart attack and stroke considerably.
Small amounts of dark chocolate can cut your risk of heart attack because, like aspirin, chocolate has a biochemical effect that reduces the clumping of platelets, which cause blood to clot.3 Platelet clumping can be fatal if a clot forms and blocks a blood vessel, causing a heart attack.
Specially formulated raw cocoa powder has the potential to prevent cardiovascular disease in diabetics. When diabetic patients were given a special high-flavonol cocoa drink for one month, it brought their blood vessel function from severely impaired to normal. The improvement was actually as large as has been observed with exercise and many common diabetic medications.4
Researchers also discovered that a compound in dark chocolate, called epicatechin (a flavonoid), may protect your brain after a stroke by increasing cellular signals that shield nerve cells from damage.5 A stroke is similar to a heart attack, but occurs when the blood supply to your brain becomes blocked or reduced, as opposed to blocking the blood supply to your heart.
Another one of the ways chocolate may provide cardiovascular benefit is by assisting with nitric oxide metabolism, as described by Ori Hofmekler.6 Nitric oxide protects your heart by relaxing your blood vessels and thereby lowering your blood pressure.
However, nitric oxide production produces adverse reactions and toxic metabolites, which must be neutralized by your body so they don't result in oxidative damage to your blood vessel lining (by peroxynitrite oxidation and nitration reactions). Cocoa polyphenols protect your body from these metabolites and help counter the typical age-related decline in nitric oxide production.7
Will Taking Chocolate Pills Improve Heart Health?
The promise of chocolate to improve heart health is so strong that a three-year study on that very topic was just launched by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in partnership with (who else but) candy maker Mars, Inc. The study will involve cocoa flavanols taken in pill form… not the more popular chocolate-bar form. It will be the first large study of its kind (involving 18,000 people) to look into the potential role of cocoa flavanols in high-dose form, without the added sugar and fat of chocolate.
As the AP reported:
"The candy company [Mars] has patented a way to extract flavanols from cocoa in high concentration and put them in capsules. Mars and some other companies sell cocoa extract capsules, but with less active ingredient than those that will be tested in the study; candy contains even less."
Chocolate Is Linked to 40+ Health Benefits
In case you were wondering, it's not only your heart that might benefit from the compounds in cacao and cocoa powder. A wide range of accumulating scientific research has linked its consumption to over 40 distinct health benefits.
While most of you have heard about the importance of antioxidants, a primer might help, beginning with the explanation that the formation of free radicals in your cells can damage your DNA to the point that your risk of developing diseases like Alzheimer's, heart disease, and cancer are elevated.
This is why the antioxidant polyphenols in chocolate are so valuable, as they have the ability to stop free radical-mediated oxidation. This helps to decrease your risk of those and other diseases by directly interfering with one of the major preventable causes of chronic degenerative diseases.
Chocolate also contains other potent plant "chemicals," including anandamide, named after the Sanskrit word for "bliss," which is a neurotransmitter in the brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and anxiety. The caffeine and theobromine in chocolate have been shown to produce higher levels of physical energy and mental alertness, and there are likely many more healthy chocolate compounds that have yet to be discovered.
The following table highlights just some of the benefits conferred by the cocoa bean.
Anti-thrombotic, including improving endothelial function
Lowers Alzheimer's risk
Anti-diabetic and anti-obesity
Reduction in C-reactive protein
Cardioprotective, including lowering blood pressure, improving lipid profile, and helping prevent atrial fibrillation
Chocolate is nature’s way of making up for Mondays.
11 Chocolate Myths by Mother Nature Network
The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods,” and it does seem that the fruit of the tree and its delicious derivatives are indeed fit for the deities.
Both the Mayans and Aztecs believed the cacao bean had magical and divine attributes, appropriate for service in even the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death. By the 17th century, chocolate in drinking form was a fashionable quaff for the European elite, who believed it to have nutritious, medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. It’s been said that Casanova was especially enamored by its charms.
And the love affair has yet to wane. Chocolate manufacturing is a more than $4 billion industry in the United States alone, and the average American eats at least half a pound of the confectionery every month.
But chocolate is a funny thing. In recent years it has become the darling of nutritionists as health benefit after health benefit has been revealed — most notably that it lowers the risk of stroke and heart attacks. Yet, it’s long been the character actor bad guy in any number of scenarios, including acne, weight gain and high cholesterol.
But is chocolate’s bad reputation warranted? Should we embrace it as a miracle food, or shun it as a deleterious delight? Here's the dope on chocolate's most notorious myths.
1. Chocolate raises bad cholesterol If you’ve given up chocolate in the name of lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol, you may have been unwittingly sacrificing the sweet treat for nothing. Quelle tragique! While it’s true that chocolate contains cocoa butter, which is high in saturated fat, much of the fat comes from stearic acid, which doesn’t act like saturated fat. Studies have shown that chocolate does not raise bad cholesterol, and in fact for some people, chocolate can lower cholesterol levels.
2. Chocolate is high in caffeine
Contrary to popular belief, chocolate is not loaded with the jitter-inducing compound known as caffeine. A Hershey’s chocolate bar contains 9 milligrams of caffeine and a Hershey’s Special Dark bar contains 31 milligrams, as compared to the 320 milligrams found in a Starbuck’s grande brewed coffee. Darker varieties are higher in caffeine, it’s true, but not as high as many people think.
3. The sugar in chocolate causes hyperactivity
Excessive sugar causes kids to jump off the walls, bounce off the ceiling, and generally mimic a rogue helicopter, right? So we thought. But more than a dozen good-quality studies have failed to find any link between sugar in children's diets and hyperactive behavior. Two theories: It’s the environment that creates the excitability (birthday parties, holidays, etc) and/or that the connection is simply in the minds of the parents expecting hyper behavior following sugar-fueled revelries.
4. People with diabetes have to give up chocolate
Chocolate does not need to be completely avoided by people with diabetes. In fact, many are often surprised to learn that chocolate has a low glycemic index. Recent studies suggest that dark chocolate may actually improve insulin sensitivity in people with normal and high blood pressure and improve endothelial dysfunction in people with diabetes. Of course, always check with your doctor before ripping open the candy wrapper.
5. Chocolate causes tooth decay and cavities
A study investigating the development of plaque from chocolate found that chocolate has less of an effect on dental plaque than pure table sugar. Of course, most of us aren’t snacking on straight sugar, but another study backed it up when it showed no association between eating chocolate and getting cavities. In fact, a study from Osaka University in Japan found that parts of the cocoa bean, the main ingredient of chocolate, thwart mouth bacteria and tooth decay. Fighting cavities never tasted so good.
6. Chocolate makes you gain weight
Of course it does. Well, not necessarily. Obviously, monumental hot fudge sundaes aren’t going to do your waistline any favors, but a large study funded by the National Institutes of Health found this: Consuming a small amount of chocolate each of five days during a week was linked to a lower BMI, even if the person ate more calories overall and didn't exercise more than other participants. Hello, chocolate diet.
7. Eating sugar and chocolate can add to stress
A study found that eating about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate a day for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones in the bodies of people feeling highly stressed.
8. Chocolate lacks nutritional value
If you’ve seen any of the deluge of scientific studies touting the health benefits of chocolate, you know this is not true. But just how nutritious is chocolate? It has bona fide superfood status. A typical dark chocolate bar contains as much antioxidant capacity as 2 3/4 cups of green tea, 1 glass of red wine, or 2/3 cup of blueberries. In addition, chocolate also contains minerals and dietary fiber.
9. Chocolate must contain at least 70 percent cacao to be good for you
The general recommendation is to consume dark chocolate with a minimum of 70 percent cacao to reap the health benefits; in general, the darker the chocolate, the higher the antioxidant content. However, in one 18-week study, participants who ate a small amount of 50 percent cacao chocolate experienced a significant reduction in systolic and diastolic blood pressure. As well, another study showed short-term improvements in blood flow and blood pressure after consumption of a 60 percent cacao dark chocolate.
10. Chocolate is an aphrodisiac
The Aztecs may have been the first to believe in the connection between chocolate and amorous feelings — Montezuma is said to have consumed large amounts to enhance his romantic forays, and Casanova imbibed pre-seduction as well. But numerous studies have yet to find conclusive evidence that chocolate physically gets the fires burning. That said, chocolate is sensual to eat, lowers stress, and may have aphrodisiac qualities that are psychological in origin.
11. Chocolate causes acne
Although any teen will tell you that chocolate causes acne, studies going as far back as the 1960s have failed to show any relationship between chocolate consumption and acne. An extensive review in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that “diet plays no role in acne treatment in most patients … even large amounts of chocolate have not clinically exacerbated acne.”
The moral of the story is: Eat chocolate! Alas, eat it in moderation. An average 3-ounce bar of milk chocolate has 420 calories and 26 grams of fat, almost as much as a Big Mac — and that's a fact.