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A look at the history of chocolate and how it is contracted into the treats we eat. Looks at the potential health benefits of chocolate in its raw form and the potential dangers of excessive consumption. Also gives chocolate consumption rules for health.

“They say that 99 out of 100 people like chocolate and the other one lies”

We all relish in the delights of chocolate from time to time, and for some chocolate is a daily indulgence. Almost everybody loves chocolate, but for some the relationship is as bittersweet as the cocoa been itself. We all know that too much chocolate is not a good thing, but if we choose the right types of chocolates and practice moderation, we can successfully incorporate this delicacy into a healthy lifestyle.

Chocolate was first discovered by the ancient Aztec Indians, who believed the cocoa bean was brought by the Gods from Paradise.

It was brought to Spain in the 1500’s, where it was enjoyed as a sweet drink. Milk chocolate was invented in Switzerland in 1876 and the rest, as they say...is history.

Why Do We Love It So Much?

Chocolate contains many chemicals that are addictive. Chocolate does contain some caffeine but it’s not much (about 30mg per bar, which is not even half a cup of coffee). Its main psychoactive component is a caffeine-like substance called theobromine (Theobroma means food of the gods). Besides theobromine chocolate contains other psychoactive compounds such as phenylethylamine and cannabinoid-like fatty acids that could all contribute to its addictive potential. This, plus its high fat and sugar content and rich, creamy texture make it the perfect comfort food.

Ever wondered why chocolate has been branded as a substitute for sex? There is a physiological explanation. Theobromine and phenethylamine are powerful stimulators of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It is thought that the dopamine surge from eating chocolate turns on hormones that make a woman more interested in sex.

Different types of chocolate contain different amounts of mood enhancing chemicals. In general, levels are higher in dark chocolates than in milk.

Types of Chocolate

Chocolate comes in many forms, and the less adulterated or processed the chocolate is, the better it is for you. Chocolate is essentially a range of different products made by mixing cocoa bean with cocoa butter (a fat) and sugar. Cacao and cacoa are actually two terms for the raw form of chocolate. Cacao is made by cold-pressing raw beans. The process keeps the living enzymes in the cocoa and removes the fat (cacao butter). Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures. Cocao therefore has more enzyme potential and greater nutritional value.

Dark chocolate contains cocoa, sugar and cocoa butter but no added milk solids. The cocoa content of commercial dark chocolate bars can range from 30% (sweet dark) to 70- 80% for extremely dark bars.

Milk chocolate is similar to dark chocolate but contains either condensed milk or dry milk solids.

Milk chocolate must contain at least 3.39% butterfat, and 12% milk solids. It also contains more sugar than dark chocolate.

White chocolate has no cocoa in it but must contain a minimum 20% cocoa butter, 14% milk solids, and a maximum of 55% sugar.

The Health Benefits Of Chocolate

Most of the health benefits of chocolate are actually related to the cocao or cacoa component and not to the cocoa fat, milk solids and sugar (although cocoa fat does have some benefit). Remember too that most commercially available chocolates have very little cocoa at all in them and are predominantly made up of things like sugar, caramel and wafer. While it is OK to indulge in the occasional milk chocolate, the benefits are not going to be very huge at all and the risks associated with eating too much fat and sugar will outweigh the benefits.

In any event, here are some of the benefits that can be reaped from eating cocao or cocoa rich chocolate:

Chocolate helps blood sugar levels due to its low glycemic index.

It does have a high glycemic load however, so small amounts are recommended to reap benefits.

Provides the antioxidant resveretrol which is known for its heart and nervous system protective effects.

May lower heart disease risk. Although chocolate does contain some bad fats, it also contains some good one’s, like oleic acid- a monounsaturated fat like the one found in olive oil, which lowers total cholesterol. Another fat, stearic acid, has been found to decrease platelet activity, which may contribute to cardiovascular health. A groundbreaking Greek study presented at the European Society of Cardiology’s meeting in 2004, showed for the first time how eating dark chocolate improved the function of blood vessels and prevented blood clotting. The effect was seen after eating 100g of dark chocolate. Scientists believe that chocolates’ protective effects may have something to do with its high flavonoid content, making it an effective antioxidant.

Are There Any Downsides?

If you eat milk or white chocolate or chocolate bars that contain more sugar than anything else, you might fall pray to the health risks associated with eating chocolate, which are very similar to the health risks associated with eating bad fats and sugar. 

These include weight gain, tooth decay and increased risk for diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Chocolate versus carob

Some “health” bars are covered in carob, a substance obtained from the seedpods of the carob tree, instead of chocolate. There is a perception that carob is a healthy alternative to chocolate. The kilojoule and fat content of carob is actually very similar to chocolate, the only difference is that carob is free from the mood-altering components in chocolate.

Chocolate consumption rules

As with any stimulant, chocolate should not be eaten every day, but rather kept as a special treat.

  • Be careful not to devour chocolate, but rather savour its taste and texture by sucking it in your mouth
  • Do not eat excess chocolate if you are overweight
  • Do not eat excess chocolate if you suffer from kidney stones (chocolate is high in oxalates, which contributes to the formation of stones)
  • Do not eat chocolate if you suffer from migraine headaches, as it may worsen symptoms
  • Beware of adulterated chocolate. Milk solids, caramel, wafers and the like are often added to chocolates for taste and appeal but take away from the health benefits
  • Eat dark chocolate or add cacao or cocoa to smoothies, milky drinks, cereals and fruit salads. Any significant benefits that come from eating chocolate are obtained from eating the dark type. Milk chocolate will provide some benefits but is usually laden with sugar and excess saturated fat and has a lower cocoa content than the darker varieties.
  • Look for raw chocolates that are sweetened naturally with goji berries, xylitol or agave syrup instead of sugar or corn syrup. 
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