By GLYNIS VALENTI
Times Leader Staff Writer
In the history of the world, right next to and maybe a little above man's first steps on the moon and the discovery of fire, lies the announcement that chocolate has health benefits. Oh glorious day, when a German research study stated as fact something no one in the twenty-first century had dared hope.
T-L Photos/GLYNIS VALENTI
Chocolate is America’s favorite flavor and takes any number of forms, from chocolate milk to elegant desserts.
However, everyone from the Mayans to Milton Hershey touted chocolate's medicinal uses well before that issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2003-more than 100 documented uses from the 16th through 20th centuries alone. Maybe today's cynical society thought it too good to be true. But it isn't.
The cacao plant from which chocolate is derived is native to Mexico, Central and South America and is at least 3000 years old. Scientists discovered that way back in 1400 BC an early civilization fashioned cacao beans into a drink-the Aztecs called it "xocoatl," meaning "bitter water." Once the benefits of the bean were realized, royalty seized the elixir as its own, though the Mayans and Aztecs also gave the drink to warriors to give them strength. After the Spanish conquest, wealthy Europeans followed suit. In 1657, a "chocolate house" (think coffee house or pub) opened in London, and the Linnaeus-coined "Food of the Gods" (Theobroma cacao) was available to the masses. In 1847, Joseph Fry of Britain decided to form a paste of cocoa powder, cocoa butter and sugar, and the modern concept of chocolate as candy was born, another great moment in history.
The drink was used as a general restorative, to fight fatigue and to treat diarrhea, and the beans were valued so highly by the Mayans that they were used as currency. Today no fewer than 20 studies have delved into the details of what the ancients found.
Chocolate is full of antioxidants. In fact, up to 10 percent of its bean weight is polyphenols that are proven cardiovascular health promoters and cancer fighters. Two tablespoons of cocoa powder contain the equivalents of four cups of green tea or one cup of blueberries. Active ingredients include alkaloids phenethylamine and theobromine (which is toxic to animals.)
What a 2005 Yale University study and a Dutch study published in 2006 discovered was that chocolate helps the heart by improving blood flow and decreasing blood pressure. In addition, certain properties in chocolate help the arteries relax, inhibit clotting and reduce plaque build-up in the arteries.
The Dutch study, conducted on 470 men over the course of 15 years, found that those who consumed a small amount of dark chocolate daily decreased their risks of heart-related deaths by one half. The Yale study found that two hours after consuming dark chocolate, their 45 adults had lower blood pressure and improved blood flow. Though taking a baby aspirin has similar properties and is a treatment for reducing plaque and blood clots, it is now believed that a baby aspirin taken with a dark chocolate beverage will optimize those effects.
Chocolate contains the minerals copper, potassium, calcium, iron, phosphorus and zinc. Depending on what form the cocoa is in, there may be as much as 12 percent of the recommended minimum daily requirement of magnesium, important in those concerned with cardiovascular health, blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. Speaking of which, there is some promising research for using chocolate to regulate blood sugar. Yes, chocolate has a low glycemic index or measurement of impact on blood sugar levels. However, the chocolate used in this research is different than what one finds at the check-out counter-far higher cocoa content and far less sugar and additives.
It gets better. What chocolate doesn't do is cause acne or migraine headaches, and, contrary to popular belief, chocolate is not high in caffeine and has no addictive properties. While it's America's favorite flavor with over 50 percent of Americans stating so, the average one consumes between 10 and 12 pounds per year. The average Swiss citizen consumes over 21 pounds of chocolate in one year.
White chocolate really doesn't contain cocoa solids at all, so is not considered true chocolate. There are some unusual flavor combinations out there, though. Online one can find chocolates with curry powder, wasabi, lavender and even goat cheese. More practical additives are spices like cinnamon, salt, chili pepper and paprika with dark chocolate-interesting without being over the top. The widely available Lindt Chocolates has a series of dark chocolate bars with salt crystals or chili pepper to try. Otherwise add a dash of healthy cinnamon to some hot chocolate for a little kick.
Incidentally, the most expensive chocolate is made here in the states. Chef Fritz Knipschildt in Norwalk, Connecticut makes a dark chocolate truffle retailing for $2600 per pound, $250 per truffle. Made by hand and pre-order only, the truffle is a combination of 70% Valhrona cocao (believed to be the best,) French black truffles, creamy ganache made with truffle oil and dusted with cocoa powder. It almost makes Belgian Godiva's "G" Collection of chocolates with exotic flavors look reasonable at $117 per pound.
Bucking traditional presentations and going online, one could always opt for chocolate perfume, Michigan State's chocolate cheese or an assortment of chocolate-covered bites: ants, crickets, squid, Fritos, onions or, what seems to be the latest disturbing fad, chocolate covered bacon. Locally, Uniquely Designed in Steubenville sells Columbus-produced Anthony Thomas candies including dark chocolate-dipped citrus peel.
Before grabbing the car keys to make a run to the candy aisle for your new favorite health food, here is a reality check. Dark chocolate, as pure as possible is the healthy chocolate. Reese's Cups are not. In fact, it is believed that milk inhibits the absorption of antioxidants into the bloodstream, counteracting any benefits.
In order to mask chocolate's naturally bitter flavor, producers add milk and sugar. In spite of the low glycemic index previously mentioned, the resulting candy bar could be a diabetic's nightmare. A large Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate bar has ten times the calories of an apple. If planning to add chocolate to your daily diet, make sure it's the right type of chocolate and that you cut the extra calories from chips or mocha lattes rather than vegetables and fruits. A steady diet of candy bars will create health problems rather than diminish them.
Though cocoa originated in the Americas, West Africa now produces 80 percent of the world's beans. An estimated six percent of their workforce is not only child labor but children in slavery. Large chocolate companies purchase from a variety of suppliers at commodities markets where beans are often mixed and sold in lots. The best way to insure your chocolate is not tainted by this practice is by reading the labels. Readily available at grocery and drug stores, the following brands are slave free: Camino, Dagoba, Cloud Nine, Green and Black's, Nirvana and Valhrona. Not all organic brands are also slave free, cases in point being Newman's Own and Trader Joe's Organic chocolate bars.
Adding a bit of chocolate is a pleasant and easy way to boost one's health. As with everything, moderation is the key. If there is any question about its effects on your medication or health condition, consult your doctor before taking that first bite. Otherwise, raise a cup of spicy, dark hot chocolate-to your health.
Valenti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.