Chocolate is a delicious treat that garners immense temptation from millions worldwide. It approximately takes about 400 beans of cocoa to manufacture one pound of chocolate. The majority of cocoa used for chocolate production comes from West Africa, with roughly 1.5 million cocoa farms. The European continent is the largest manufacturer & exporter of chocolates worldwide. Germany is its largest consumer, followed by Switzerland.

The evolution of the multi-billion-dollar chocolate industry is due to several key factors. Some of these factors include growing consciousness about its health benefits and the persistent demand for chocolate-based confections, which results in impulsive buying. 

Indulging in chocolate is being encouraged for its health-promoting micronutrient composition. Numerous studies indicate that cocoa provides several health benefits, especially preventing cardiometabolic disorders. In addition, chocolate consumption helps maintain an active and balanced immune system, efficient control of diabetes, skin protection against sun damage, and stress reduction.

The story of chocolate comes in various versions. However, most of the talk revolving around chocolate being unhealthy is mainly due to its high fat, high sugar or calorie content. Therefore, side effects of consuming too many chocolates involve obesity, hypertension, migraine, diabetes, and coronary heart disease. 

But, first, let us look in detail at the origination of chocolates and how they are made.

History of Chocolate

The origin of the word “Chocolate” traces back to the Aztec word “Xocoatl.” Xocoatl referred to a bitter drink fermented or brewed from the cacao tree beans, or Theobroma cacao, meaning “Food of the Gods” in Latin. The origin of chocolate can be traced back roughly 3500 years, during the time of Olmec’s of Latin America, one of the earliest civilisations. The Olmec were the first to refine chocolate from the cacao plant. According to both Aztecs and Mayans, cacao beans possess enchanting & divine traits. These are suitable for sacred occasions like marriage, birth, and death. 

How are Chocolates Made?

A cacao pod is the prerequisite material required for producing chocolates. Bean or seed extractions from this pod are firstly fermented and then roasted into the most widely recognised form of cocoa beans. The cocoa nibs, the meat inside the cocoa bean, are first separated from the bean’s shell. Next, you ground the nibs to obtain cocoa butter and the fatty portion and obtain chocolate liquor following the separation. Finally, this liquor is processed further to receive solid cocoa and chocolates meant for consumption. Subsequently, removing the nibs and grinding the beans further to obtain the cocoa powder, using it for beverages and bakery products. 

Types of Chocolate

You can classify chocolates into dark, white or milk chocolate. Dark chocolate constitutes 50-100% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar, whereas milk chocolate contains approximately 10-50% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, and milk in some form. Conventionally, dark chocolates are almost devoid of milk. 

Cross-contaminants like milk traces may be present since we use the same machinery in manufacturing both forms of chocolates. Contrarily, white chocolates have a minimal amount of cocoa solids made of cocoa butter, milk, and sugar.

Nutritional Value of Chocolate

Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate usually contains around 70-85% cacao solids. Additionally, it also has several other essential minerals in diverse quantities. According to the data made available by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), every 100 g portion of dark chocolate constitutes:

  • Energy: 598 kCal
  • Protein: 7.79 g
  • Fat: 42.6 g
  • Carbohydrates: 45.9 g
  • Fibre: 10.9 g
  • Sugars: 24 g
  • Magnesium: 228 mg 
  • Phosphorus: 308 mg
  • Calcium: 73 mg
  • Iron: 11.9 mg
  • Potassium: 715 mg
  • Sodium: 20 mg
  • Cholesterol: 3 mg
  • Caffeine: 80 mg

Milk Chocolate

Similarly, according to USDA, a few of the constituents per 100 g portion of milk  chocolate include:

  • Energy: 467 kCal
  • Protein: 4.44 g 
  • Fat: 28.89 g
  • Carbohydrate: 55.56 g
  • Fibre: 2.2 g
  • Sugars: 42.22 g
  • Sugars added: 28.9 g
  • Calcium: 116 mg
  • Iron: 2.22 mg
  • Potassium: 267 mg
  • Sodium: 89 mg
  • Cholesterol: 22 mg
  • Caffeine: 20 mG

Milk or white chocolate manufacturers proclaim that consuming white chocolate is better for health. It is because milk provides protein and calcium. However, advocates of dark chocolate insist on high antioxidants levels and higher iron content.

Nonetheless, the consumption of chocolate as a product, in general, has numerous health benefits.

Nutritional Benefits of Chocolate

Chocolate, even though it is known for causing weight gain, there are a plethora of health benefits that come along with it, only when consumed in limited quantities which are prepared with healthy ingredients.

Some of the benefits are:

High Nutrition Composition

Dark chocolate is extremely rich in minerals, namely zinc, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, and sodium. Moreover, it also constitutes various compounds known to possess antioxidant properties, namely polyphenols and flavanols. Antioxidants prevent oxidative stress, which is responsible for damaging the cells & tissues by neutralising free radicals.

According to various studies conducted on antioxidants, oxidative stress promotes ageing, Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular diseases, and others. Hence, controlled consumption of dark chocolates, which are rich in antioxidants, has been proven to be beneficial in avoiding such conditions in the long run.

ORAC or Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity is a metric used to measure the antioxidant activities in foods. The ORAC testing of unprocessed, raw cocoa beans reveals that it is one of the few food products with extraordinarily high levels of antioxidant activity. 

Performance Booster

Dark chocolate with high cocoa content is nutritionally rich and plays a significant role in boosting athletic performance. In addition, a good quality dark chocolate has many soluble fibres and beneficial fatty acids, including palmitic acid, stearic acid, and oleic acid.  

Similarly, research conducted on cyclists in the U.K. by Kingston University supported the same theory. A two-minute flat-out time trial revealed that consumption of dark chocolates before cycling enhances the performance of cyclists. As a result, riders tend to cover extra distances and utilise less oxygen.

Effect on LDL & HDL Cholesterol Levels

Cholesterol is classified into two types: High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL), commonly known as the ‘good’ cholesterol, and Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL), the ‘bad’ cholesterol.

A study published in The Journal of Nutrition recommends that the consumption of chocolate assists in lowering LDL. For individuals with high cholesterol, consumption of chocolates led to a rise in HDL & simultaneously lowered LDL levels.

Currently, researchers worldwide are actively investigating the effects of Cocoa Flavanols (C.F.) and Plant Sterols (P.S.) on cholesterol levels. A study on dark chocolate containing C.F. & P.S. supported cardiovascular health. The study also concluded that the inclusion of dark chocolate as a part of a low-calorie diet might improve blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels.

Diabetes Control

Diabetes is one of the most rapidly spreading chronic diseases across the globe. It is also one of the principal causes of debilitating complications like heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure. In 2019, the prevalence of Diabetes in India stood at 8.9%, which rose from 7.1% in 2009. Moreover, the burden of the diabetes epidemic in India stood at 77 million, making India the second-highest ranked country after China in terms of global diabetes endemic.

Several research studies have found that consumption of good-quality dark chocolate containing around 80-100% cocoa with no added sugars improves insulin resistance. Flavonoids present in chocolate perform this function of altering glucose metabolism by improving endothelial function and reducing oxidative stress. Therefore, the possibility of insulin sensitivity also establishes the positive effect of cocoa on endothelial function. 

Another study published in 2013 showed the relation between dark chocolate and diabetes & endothelial function. The study concluded that flavonoids and cocoa play a positive role in modulating mechanisms associated with cardiovascular protection.

Reduction of Risks Associated with Cardiometabolic Disorders

According to data published by WHO, in 2019, approximately 17.9 million lives are lost globally due to cardiovascular diseases (CVD). CVDs occur due to unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, excessive tobacco & alcohol use, and obesity. Therefore, consumption of dark chocolate every day significantly reduces the risks associated with heart diseases. Also, antioxidants present in chocolate provide a high degree of protection against LDL oxidation. This oxidation plays a crucial role in lowering the risks of heart disease by reducing the chances of cholesterol deposition on the walls of arteries.

Several long-term research studies conducted on cocoa intake have shown promising results. For instance, in a study conducted on 470 senior men, chocolate consumption reduced fatal episodes due to heart conditions by nearly 50%. Similarly, another study revealed that dark chocolate could reduce a staggering 32% risk of the accumulation of calcified plaque in arterial vessels. First, however, consume chocolate twice or more times every week.

Another study, conducted by Canadian scientists on 44,489 individuals, revealed that eating chocolates can reduce the risk of developing stroke by nearly 22%. In addition, research shows that the risk of fatal stroke among individuals gets reduced by 46% who consume approximately two ounces of chocolate every week.

Improvement of Cognitive Function

Likewise, studies on the correlation between chocolates and cognitive functions have also demonstrated beneficial results. For example, chocolates improve blood flow in the brain, resulting in increased memory & improvement in cognitive capabilities. Equivalent studies have also found that the consumption of 2 cups of hot chocolate every day plays a significant role in keeping the brain healthy. Moreover, chocolates also assist in preventing memory decline and improving cognitive impairment conditions among the ageing population.

Effective treatment for conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s remains unrecognised even after several years of R&D. The best solution to such harmful needs is to adopt preventive measures. Here cocoa plays its role as a potential preventative food product.

Several research studies have also demonstrated that Lavado, a component present in the cocoa extract, may also be beneficial in treating Alzheimer’s. For example, Lavado cocoa extract prevented protein amyloid peptide-β (Aβ) from forming clumped oligomeric structures or abnormal sticky clumps in the human brain. This process prevents the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by resisting damage to nerve cells and cognitive decline.

Similar studies also showed that consumption of cocoa flavonoids promoted the enhanced flow of blood in the brain. One can also spot neurovascular coupling and an increase in transient neuronal activity of the brain. This entire process is crucial in improving Episodic memory among young adults & simultaneously preventing the incidence of conditions like Alzheimer’s.

Furthermore, studies also indicated that stimulants like Theobromine and Caffeine in cocoa might also play a significant role in improving the brain’s short-term cognitive functioning.

Benefits in Fetal Development and Growth

Flavonoids-rich dark chocolates are often associated with pregnancy benefits. Also, studies have found that chocolate consumption during pregnancy improves Uteroplacental circulation and a lower risk of preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication characterised by damage to organs like kidneys & liver and high blood pressure. 

Similarly, another study also found that consumption of 30 g of chocolates by expectant mothers proved to be highly beneficial for the growth and development of the fetus. However, all these potential benefits do not necessarily mean that one should go all out and consume loads of chocolates every day. Chocolates still are loaded with calories and are extremely easy to overeat. The high sugar content and weight gain are a few of the most common side effects of chocolate consumption overdose. A few other likely negative impacts of chocolates include developing poor bone structure and the risk of migraine.

Chocolates also constitute high heavy metals like Lead (Pb) & Cadmium (Cd). Therefore, excessive consumption of cocoa-based products may lead to the deposition of these metals, which may cause toxicity to the bones, kidneys, or other body tissues. On a positive note, as the news of pregnancy also accompanies a long list of food products to avoid, these research studies are likely to make numerous moms-to-be globally happy.

To reap the above mentioned health benefits of chocolate one should keep a few things in mind while selecting the right kind of chocolate.

1. Cacao concentration

Minimum 70% dark chocolate one should opt and preference can go up to 99-100%. Higher the percentage of cacao, greater the bitter flavor and higher chances to obtain the most flavanols.

2. Ingredients

First ingredient should be cacao/cocoa, cocoa mass or cocoa liquor as it will give the most benefits. Avoid chocolates with unnecessary ingredients like synthetic chemicals, high sugars, milk, trans fats, flavouring agents or anything which you don’t recognize.

3. Processing

The more chocolate is processed, the less beneficial health properties it will have. Avoid chocolates which say “processed with alkali”. This process is also called dutching which destroys many beneficial antioxidants.

4. Source

Chemical pesticides do affect antioxidant content of the final product. Hence opt for organically produced and pesticide free products.

Conclusion

Chocolates have numerous health benefits as well as risks. Hence, maintaining a sensible, positive, and moderated consumption is necessary. Incorporating chocolate can help someone avail of the broad spectrum of benefits that this food product naturally provides. 

One of the most important factors to consider before including chocolate as part of a balanced diet is to opt for optimum quality chocolate and other chocolate-based products. Furthermore, one should not expect the body to gain all the beneficial nutrients without gaining the avoidable ones. Finally, suppose anyone faces trouble exercising control over their consumption. In that case, the negatives of chocolates will outweigh the positives. It’s best to seek the assistance of a nutritionist, dietitian, or a qualified health expert on how much is good for you if you are looking at losing weight or have conditions like high blood sugar or diabetes. Usually, a couple of pieces of chocolate in small mid meals or before strenuous activity is permissible. Always look for premium quality chocolates to reap maximum benefits. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q. Why do we eat chocolate when stressed?

A. Consumption of chocolates releases Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, which plays a significant role in lowering stress levels. Dopamine, also known as the “happy hormone,” is responsible for experiencing happiness.  

Q. Is it okay to eat chocolate every day?

A. The idea of eating chocolates every day is a very tempting one. But excessive consumption or eating chocolates daily can lead to several ailments like weight gain, development of kidney stones, bone health deterioration, and heavy metals accumulation. 

Q. Does eating chocolate make you smarter?

A. People believe that consumption of chocolate at moderate levels can enhance the brain’s capability with increased intelligence in the long run. Studies have established that chocolates directly amplify intelligence by improving the brain’s plasticity while ensuring ‘neuro-protectiveness.’ 

Q. Is chocolate good for mental health?

A. Chocolates are rich in magnesium, a scientifically well-known compound as a relaxing agent. The effectiveness of magnesium as a stress buster is so prevalent and well known that it is called the “original chill pill.” Research has also suggested that the lack of magnesium availability in our daily diet is easily compensated with the consumption of chocolates since cocoa can provide the body with substantial levels. 

Q. Does chocolate help memory?

A.The presence of antioxidants in chocolate reduces the risk of developing mental health conditions like Dementia & Alzheimer’s. Therefore, chocolate consumption would ensure the protection of the brain for a lifetime. 

Q. How does chocolate benefit the brain?

A.Consuming chocolates help boost the production of endorphins in the brain, a feel-good chemical. According to a study conducted in 2009, chocolate noticeably improves cognitive performance and self-rated calmness while simultaneously mitigating “mental fatigue.” 

Q. Does chocolate cause hair loss?

A.Enjoying dark chocolate supports hair growth and helps prevent hair loss. Cocoa is rich in Proanthocyanidins, a compound widely regarded as a hair growth promoter.  

Q. How does chocolate improve mood?

A. Cacao and dark chocolate contain Tryptophan, an amino acid required by the brain to produce Serotonin, a neurotransmitter. Serotonin plays a significant role as a mood stabiliser and induces a feeling of happiness; The level is directly proportional to the amount of cacao; therefore, the darker the chocolate, the happier you feel! 

Q. Does chocolate cause acne?

A. Chocolate has been subjected to several studies as a possible cause of acne. Chocolate may aggravate existing acne or promote novel breakouts in acne-prone skin. However, it is better to say that the influence of chocolate on acne development mostly boils down to the genetics of an individual. 

Q. Is chocolate suitable for periods?

A. Dark chocolate helps in relieving pain associated with menstrual cycles. Few studies suggest dark chocolate serves a better purpose than milk chocolate in significantly reducing menstrual pain & cramps. Magnesium found in dark chocolate is known to ease uterine pain & contractions by relaxing the uterine muscles. Copper, another mineral found in chocolate, is also believed to play a role in relieving pain. A serving of 40-120 g of dark chocolate helps in reducing menstrual pain.

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