Throughout history, cacao beans have been revered as food of the Gods, used as currency, traded globally, and received a lot of press. An estimated 50 million people make their living from this $50 billion industry every year. Americans and Europeans consume almost 85% of the annual production. Recent studies show that chocolate may provide certain health benefits. Is dark chocolate healthy?
Are these reports factual or have they been generated to bolster sales of a product that we would rather not live without?
The Background of Chocolate
Chocolate (Theobroma cacao) was cultivated for over 3,000 years in Mesoamerica. Mayans made a hot, bitter brew from the seeds. Aztecs preferred theirs cold, seasoned with flower petals or chiles. Spaniards added sugar and honey to the mix in the 15th century, creating the sweet treat we enjoy today.
Chocolate comes from the cocoa bean which goes through fermentation to remove the bitterness, then roasting and ground. Then goes through cooking into a liquid state called chocolate liquor and separating into cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The cocoa solids contain most of the flavonoids and alkaloids that we have learned are healthful. Is dark chocolate healthy for us, as recent reports state?
- In America, it must contain a minimum of 15% chocolate liquor to be receive the label of dark chocolate.
- In Europe, it must contain a minimum of 35% cocoa solids. That leaves a lot of room for other ingredients.
The Dark Side of Dark Chocolate
Chocolate takes shape by adding fat and sugar to the cocoa mixture. It is deliciously addictive, but is dark chocolate healthy or marketing hype?
- Dark chocolate contains Theobromine which can over-relax the esophageal sphincter muscle, causing acid reflux.
- Also, dark chocolate contains high levels of oxalate, a fat soluble nutrient that can cause kidney stones.
- Today, two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa, where child labor and slavery are common practices. The cost of chocolate in Africa is very high. Most cocoa farmers can’t afford to taste their own product. Many humanitarian-conscious food manufacturers and organizations are recognizing this. They have demanded that Fair Trade agreements be put in place to help bridge the gap between farm workers and plantation owners. This may help curb the exploitation of workers in the cocoa industry, but it drives up the cost of chocolate.
- Huge corporations account for most of the industry and are concerned about losing money. Production costs can decrease by reducing cocoa solids or by substituting less healthy fat for the cocoa butter. By bringing production costs down, it may be possible to offer a higher payout to the cocoa farmers. There is no guarantee that the workers will see improved conditions.
So, Is Dark Chocolate Healthy?
We are hearing more and more about the benefits of chocolate. Nutritionally speaking, 100 grams of chocolate with 70-85% cocoa contains 11 grams of fiber. There are significant levels of iron, magnesium, copper, and manganese, and traces of potassium, phosphorus, zinc, and selenium.
- Theobromine helps harden tooth enamel, acts as a diuretic, and may suppress coughs.
- Antioxidants with a high oxygen tadical absorbance capacity (ORAC) are part of cocoa. These flavanols, polyphenols, and catechins stimulate nitric oxide which can lower blood pressure. They may raise HDL cholesterol, lower LDL cholesterol, and help protect our skin from sun damage. They are famous for lowering the hardening of the arteries and the risk of stroke.
- Flavonoids from chocolate reduce insulin resistance, lowering the glycemic index. This can lower the risks of diabetes.
- A small square of chocolate eaten 20 minutes prior to a meal can trigger hormones that give us a feeling of fullness, causing us to eat less.
- Chocolate contains phenylethylalamine (PEA) which simulates the love chemical found in our brains. In Finland, one study showed that the babies of mothers who ate dark chocolate, at least 3 times per week, smiled more.
To the Verdict
With all this going for it, we still have to ask: Is dark chocolate healthy or are all these health claims simply a plot to market more of it at a higher price? Every benefit you can receive from eating chocolate can duplicate by eating other foods. Not many single foods have the same combination of nutrients found in chocolate. You would have to mix and match them to get the same effect. Most of us would rather eat the chocolate, in moderation, of course.
Is dark chocolate healthy for a world economy? By purchasing your chocolate ethically, you can help ensure that farmers receive fair payments for their work. Ethical buying also promotes ecological health and fair treatment of workers. So, to answer that question; Is dark chocolate healthy or just a marketing product? The answer is a resounding Yes!
The images are from depositphotos.com.