For anyone interest in maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a balance of nutritious foods, exercise, rest, and personal fulfilments, to suggest that chocolate might fit into the positive scheme of things might seem utter madness! But in the light of recent nutritional research, our old friend/foe chocolate rates a second chance – with certain qualifications.
Researchers have found that chocolate can aid digestion, boost blood flow to the heart, help chest congestion, boost blood copper levels, and make us feel good! Chocolate’s place in history is legendary, so let’s revisit chocolate and learn how all these findings came about.
SOUTH AMERICAN ORIGINS
Before we open the history books here is chocolate’s real botanical name: Theobroma cacao. The cacao or cocoa tree is a native to South America, thrives best within 20 degrees latitude north or south of the equator on drylands, and requires 5-8 years to mature and produce its crop of beans or cocoa seeds which yield the cocoa extracts.
Harvested cocoa beans are usually sun-dried then roasted at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 hours. Basic raw cocoa liquor and pulp is produced from the roasted and hulled beans by crushing in a mill. The resulting mass is the base material of all chocolate products.
Cocoa butter is the vegetable fat content of the cocoa bean and is usually separated off in processing and added back later in varying proportions. Botanically, cocoa is related to the Kola nut tree and like it contains both caffeine and theobromine – two powerful cardiac stimulants.
Both the ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures of Central and South America used and revered the special drink they called xocoatl made from cocoa beans. This brew was very expensive to make. Spanish Conquistador, Hernando Cortez, learned from the Aztecs to xocoatl was so costly that 100 beans were the market price of one healthy human slave.
Aztec xocoatl was a heady bitter drink which bears no resemblance to our modern-day sweet hot chocolate but Cortez was smitten with it and returned to Spain with the first samples of it in 1528.
The Spanish monopoly on cocoa did not last long once trade with the New World opened up and by the 1660s cocoa had spread throughout Europe (along with other New World products like potatoes, tobacco, tomatoes, and coffee).
In England and Holland, the bitter drink was sweetened with milk and sugar, but cocoa remained a beverage until eating chocolate was invented in 1847 by Fry and Sons of England. At this time, the new confection was considered a rare novelty and not widely consumes.
Milk Chocolate – the candy treat we know today – was the invention of Swiss chocolatier, Daniel Peter, in 1874. Peter discovered how to smooth out the bitterness of cocoa with the addition of milk products and sugar.
SOME EARLY CHOCOLATE CURES
As mentioned above, cocoa had almost a religious status with the native South and Central American cultures. However, its use as a medicinal herb was evidenced early on, as Herbalist Michael Castleman writes in his Healing Herbs, cocoa was used to treat fevers, coughs, complications of pregnancy, and childbirth.
The American Eclectic physicians (so-called because they drew on the practices of knowledge of traditional medicine and attempted to bring them together) used cocoa butter externally to treat wounds and internally as a hot drink to treat asthma and as a nourishing drink for invalids.
CHOCOLATE’S BAD PRESS
As we can see, cocoa products as they were originally known had only good attributes to them. Chocolates Bad Press reports came about once eating chocolate overtook the simpler concoctions of cocoa that were beverages and not sweet or fatty.
Eating chocolate’s fat content has been cited as its worst aspect and most negative health characteristic followed only by its high sugar content. This is especially true of dairy milk chocolate whose saturated fats can raise cholesterol levels and contribute to weight gain.
Chocolate’s bad chemicals are naturally occurring caffeine (180mg per 100g), tyramine (known to trigger migraines in some people), theobromine (2,320 mg per 100g), and oxalic acid (similar to that in rhubarb).
Taking all the bad aspects about chocolate into account, there is no evidence chocolate causes kidney stones, acne, or infant colic; however, some arguments can be made against using chocolate to flavor milk as its oxalic acid content binds calcium and makes it unavailable for absorption. Remember, we are talking about the ill effects of sweetened and fatty chocolate products in this bad press section.
If used as a herbal medicine – without the fat and sugars – chocolate has benefits that are varied. For example, as a pick me up, cocoa as a beverage has only 10-20 percent of the caffeine found in a similar-sized cup of coffee. Cocoa, therefore, can relieve drowsiness without causing jittery nerves or insomnia – taken in moderation.
The theobromine content of cocoa – like the theobromine in tea – can soothe the smooth muscle lining of the digestive tract. Both caffeine and theobromine are related chemically to the pharmaceutical theophylline often used in asthma treatments. While one should never forego close medical supervision of an asthmatic condition, a properly prepared beverage of cocoa can bring some relief.
Common sense would dictate that anyone with chronic insomnia, anxiety problems, high cholesterol, and blood pressure, diabetes, or heart disease should limit all sources of caffeine. Therefore it is important to keep in mind that cocoa is still a source of caffeine.
Chocolate has been found to be a significant source of dietary copper according to an American source (Nutritional Research, 1996) with dark chocolate found to contain more copper than milk chocolate. Insufficient dietary copper has been linked to some forms of arthritis.
Cocoa powder has been shown to contain a chemical that inhibits the bacteria which promotes tooth decay (International Association for Dental Research, 1978) much as Green Tea has been shown to contain a similar substance that produces this inhibiting effect.
Chocolate also contains PEA’s (Phenolethylamines) which produce the same feel-good brain chemicals that are released when we are happy or – in love! PEA’s are stimulated by other dietary protein compounds so it is really true we can find emotional highs in our foods.
Chicken, almonds, and milk also contain some of these feel-good amino acids (protein compounds), but chocolate seems to be foremost in its ability to promote the high. I would suggest that possibly this is due to the accompanying caffeine and theobromine stimulants in chocolate both of which can induce increases in pulse rate and are easily addictive.