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The Love of Chocolate

Excerpt from Our Journey with Food ©2015, 2018
Revised 2/2021

 

By Tammera Karr PhD

The cacao tree, aptly named Theobroma cacao, by the famous botanist Carl Linnaeus. The cacao tree only grows within twenty degrees of the equator in the tropics’ damp conditions. Once mature, the tree will produce small, white flowers that can only be pollinated by midges, a fly no larger than a pencil’s tip. When cacao pods are mature, they are harvested by hand using a machete. Each pod is broken open to expose the beans and white pulp and collected into a pile. The beans and pulp remain outside in the heat and high humidity to undergo fermentation.

 

What is fermentation?

Fermentation is a metabolic process that occurs with microorganisms. Bacteria and yeast thrive in hot, moist climates, and the cacao pulp is an excellent nutrient source. In this case, the bacteria and yeast are needed to produce the precursor compounds necessary for chocolate’s characteristic flavor and aroma. Bacteria do this by eating some of the sugar and acid content, converting it into other molecules. Fermentation typically lasts for about a week. Once fermentation is complete, the farmers will separate the beans from the pulp, used as a nutrient source during fermentation. Next, the beans are left to dry in the sun.

 

A little history

In Greek, Theobroma translates to food of the gods. Chocolate connoisseurs know there is more than a gustatory pleasure to be found in this food of the gods. In 1753, Carl von Linnaeus, a Swedish scientist, thought cacao was so important he named the genus and species of tree Theobroma cacao, which means cacao, the food of the gods. This food dates back to prehistoric times and was extensively cultivated in Mexico, Central, and South America for centuries before Europeans’ arrived. 173 The Mayan Indians began cultivating cacao about 600 AD. The indigenous populations ate only the fruit, which contains numerous health benefits. The seed or cacao nib was set aside for a psychedelic brew, called ayahuasca, and for medicines. According to Aztec myth, the cacao awakened power and wisdom. When the explorer Cortes brought cacao back to Spain in 1528, it was sequestered and enjoyed only by nobility and the wealthy.

The many uses of chocolate

In medieval times, chocolate was viewed as a luxury item and an indulgence. In modern times chocolate is used as gifts for mothers and sweethearts. It is made into cocktails, cold and hot drinks, candies, powders, wines, and lotions. The Spanish are widely responsible for the introduction and development of chocolate foods and beverages.

 

The making of chocolate foods

The most critical step is roasting. Roasting generates hundreds of the flavor compounds associate with chocolate. The beans are roasted at high temperatures for roughly one hour. There are many chemical reactions responsible for cacoa color, flavor, and aroma. Cacoa naturally has a strong, pungent/bitter taste, which comes from the flavonols. Without roasting, the cacao beans would never obtain the flavor profile we associate with modern chocolate. Cacoa nibs are crushed to form cocoa butter and cocoa liquor. There are several processing steps involved in reducing cacaos bitter taste. Cocoa liquor has a very concentrated, chocolatey flavor with a trace of bitterness and acidity. Other ingredients like sugar, milk solids, vanilla, and emulsifiers are added to the pure cocoa liquor. The addition of these ingredients to the liquor results in a coarse, heterogeneous mixture that still must be further processed. The more chocolate is processed (through fermentation, alkalizing, roasting, etc.), the more flavanols are lost. 174

 

What science tells us about the health properties of chocolate

Flavonoids are naturally-occurring compounds found in plant-based foods that offer specific health benefits. They are part of the polyphenol group (chemicals found in plants). Flavanols are a type of flavonoid found explicitly in cocoa and chocolate. More than 4,000 flavonoid compounds are found in various foods and beverages, such as cranberries, apples, peanuts, chocolate, onions, tea, and red wine. Most popular commercial chocolates are highly processed, providing little if any health benefits.

Dark chocolate contains a large number of antioxidants (nearly eight times the amount found in strawberries). Flavonoids also help lower blood pressure nitric oxide production; they can also balance certain hormones. The fats in chocolate (1/3 oleic acid, 1/3 stearic acid, and 1/3 palmitic acid) do not impact your cholesterol. Dark chocolate helps restore flexibility to arteries while preventing white blood cells from sticking to blood vessels’ walls. Both arterial stiffness and white blood cell adhesion are known factors that play a significant role in atherosclerosis. Scientists found that increasing the flavanol content of dark chocolate did not change this effect. Research published in the March 2014 issue of The FASEB Journal.

The effect that dark chocolate has on our bodies is encouraging not only because it allows us to indulge with less guilt, but also because it could lead the way to therapies that do the same thing as dark chocolate but with better and more consistent results,” said Gerald Weissmann, MD, editor-in-chief of The FASEB Journal. Until the ‘dark chocolate drug’ is developed, however, we’ll have to make do with what nature has given us! 175, 177

 

Benefits of dark chocolate

  • Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fat; also found in olive oil
  • Stearic acid is saturated fat, but one that research shows has a neutral effect on cholesterol
  • Palmitic acid is also a saturated fat that may elevate cholesterol levels
  • Lowers blood pressure: Studies have shown that consuming a small bar of dark chocolate every day can reduce blood pressure
  • Lowers cholesterol: Dark Chocolate has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol by up to 10%
  • Stimulates endorphin production, which gives a feeling of pleasure
  • It contains serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant
  • Source of theobromine, caffeine, and other stimulants

 

Chocolate is a complex food with over 300 compounds and chemicals in each bite. Look for pure dark chocolate or dark chocolate with nuts, orange peel, or other natural flavorings. To enjoy and appreciate chocolate, take the time to taste it. Most studies used no more than 100 grams, or about 3.5 ounces, of dark chocolate a day. One bar of dark chocolate has around 400 calories.

Enjoy moderate portions of chocolate (e.g., one ounce) a few times per week, and don’t forget to consume other flavonoid-rich foods like apples, red wine, tea, onions, and cranberries. Your best choices are dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate (especially milk chocolate that is loaded with other fats and sugars) and cocoa powder that has not undergone Dutch processing (cocoa treated with an alkali to neutralize its natural acidity).

Caution: According to the National Hazardous Substances Database: In large doses, theobromine may cause nausea and anorexia, and the daily intake of 50-100g cocoa (1.5 g theobromine) has been associated with sweating, trembling, and severe headache. Occasionally, people (mostly the elderly) have needed hospital treatment for a theobromine reaction.

References
  1. The Science behind Chocolate by Abbey Thiel: https://sciencemeetsfood.org/the-science-behind-chocolate/
  2. (Based on materials provided by Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.)
  3. The Poisonous Chemistry of Chocolate – https://www.wired.com/2013/02/the-poisonous-nature-of-chocolate/
  4. Is Chocolate a Healthy Choice for Valentine’s Day? That Depends on Which Kind, Wall Street Journal,
  5. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-bitter-truth-about- chocolate-1518100791