Why did chocolate become unhealthy?

During the pre-Columbian era, Ancient Aztecs enjoyed a darker and thicker chocolate drink that had a much higher cacao content than the hot chocolate and chocolate bars we enjoy today. Ancient codices such as the Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams, as IMG_3048 (1)seen to the right, display the medicinal powers of cacao and their belief that chocolate could heal skin eruptions, fevers, and seizures (Martin 68). In contrast, the over-consumption of our milkier and fattier chocolate today is associated with thoughts of nutritional diseases such as diabetes and obesity. An increase in medical knowledge, genetic and environmental changes in cacao, increased technology, and changes in chocolate recipes are all potential causes to explain this nutritional change of chocolate.


Ignorance to Knowledge

The increased knowledge in nutrition that classifies chocolate as both healthy and unhealthy helps transition us from the Ancient Aztecs’ idea of healthy medicinal cacao to today’s unhealthier view of chocolate. The French physician Daniel Duncan published a treatise in 1703 suggesting that chocolate can be healthful if it is taken in moderation (S. D. Coe and M. D. Coe 204). So he agrees with the Ancient Aztecs’ views but moves towards contemporary views as he claims that too much chocolate will make the “blood too sharp, too “hot”, and too thin” (S. Coe and M. Coe 204). As we continue increasing our nutrition knowledge and move from this basic understanding of health as a balance of opposites we may be able to identify unhealthy eating habits that is beyond simply the quantity of chocolate you consume. For example, we may find that consumption of chocolate with different foods is unhealthier than others. Therefore, one consideration as to why chocolate is seen as unhealthy today is that chocolate has always been unhealthy in excessive quantities but it is simply our increased medical knowledge that helps us realise its unhealthiness.


Environment: decreasing use of Fine Cacao

An increase in knowledge may be a reasonable potential cause to some extent, but the ingredients that the Ancient Aztecs and the Baroque Europeans used were fundamentally different and healthier than what we use today. Fine cacao (Criollo and Trinitario cacao-tree varieties) has more flavour, more aroma, and a lower yield than bulk cacao (Forastero cacao-tree variety) (Amores, Butler, Ramos,  Sukha, Espin, Gomez, Zambrano, Hollywood,  Van Loo, and Seguine 5). Bulk cacao is used in 93-95% of today’s global production, which is much more common than fine cacao’s global production of 5-7% (Martin 40). Fine cacao and bulk cacao is not well classified nor fully understood today, but if the common logic that high quality foods are generally healthier than low quality foods, such as a lean steak from a free-range cow is healthier than meat from a factory-farmed cow, we can suggest that today’s chocolate is unhealthier because we use lower quality cacao beans. This lower-quality-cacao reason for unhealthier chocolate is driven by environmental reasons as bulk cacao beans are being used because fine cacao is endangered, not because its flavour is more popular.


Sweet Tooth: decreased cacao content and increased fat content

In addition to cacao beans, which is the primary ingredient in chocolate, historic chocolate differs to today’s chocolate because today’s chocolate recipes use additional ingredients that make it tastier but unhealthier.  In 1879 Daniel Peter created the first milk chocolate bar and in 1930 Nestlé launched the white chocolate “Milkybar” (The Nibble). Though these are definitive events that mark momentous inventions, they demonstrate the gradual decrease in the percentage of cacao used in chocolate products. Sugar, cream, and other fatty dairy unhealthy ingredients are used in today’s chocolate products in substitution for the previously high volume of cacao used. It is likely that our natural desire to fulfill our sweet teeth drives the market to continue producing chocolate products with lower cacao content, since these higher fat content products are more popular and have a higher demand, as shown below.



This figure illustrates the preference of white and milk chocolate over the healthier dark chocolate. The smallest section represents that 10% prefer white chocolate, the largest section presents a 70% preference for milk chocolate, and the darkest section represents a 20% preference for dark chocolate.


Technology & Competitive Market: adulteration and preservatives

As technology and mass production develops, the quality of chocolate products has decreased and unhealthier and more unnatural ingredients are being used. As technology advances, such as Van Houten’s 1828 introduction of the hydraulic press and Rudolphe Lindt’s 1879 invention of the conching process, less and less chocolate is made by hand. Today, few chocolate products are made by grinding cacao nibs on a metate. As technology develops and more machinery is used in the creation of chocolate products, the quality of chocolate decreases. The healthiness of consuming mass-produced chocolate is challenged as some products are adulterated with gum, potato starch, and veal suet instead of cocoa butter. Using machinery also increases the likelihood of impurities being found in products. For example, in the mid-1800s, 39 out of 70 samples of chocolate were found to contain traces of ground bricks in Britain (Martin 19). In addition to machinery, the competitive chocolate companies fight to produce cheap chocolate with longer shelf-life by altering the products’ ingredients. They produce chocolate with preservatives and replace natural ingredients, such as sugar, with artificial ingredients, such as artificial sweeteners, as illustrated below. Therefore, the recent increase in technology and today’s competitive market result in unhealthier and lower quality chocolate products that have been adulterated and contain impurities and unhealthy and unnatural ingredients.


This Hershey’s product is an example of the various unnatural, unhealthy, and artificial ingredients present in one single chocolate product.



In conclusion, many factors can explain why chocolate has become unhealthier over time. As we increase our understanding of nutrition we understand that chocolate is unhealthy in excessive consumption, the changes in the environment prevent us from using high quality fine cacao, our innate “sweet tooth” drives the market to produce fattier products, and the competitive market and technological advances produce low quality unhealthy products. Though these are all reasonable potential explanations, some are practically less useful in improving our health. For example, increasing our nutritional understanding allows us to realise how much chocolate consumption is of concern, but unless we resist that urge to indulge we will continue to become an unhealthy population of chocolate consumers. Therefore, we should continue to increase our understanding of nutrition, care for the environment more, support smaller local businesses and not fuel large competitive chocolate companies, but more importantly, we should fight our sweet tooth’s desires if we want to be healthier.


Works Cited

Amores, David Butler, Gladys Ramos,  Darin Sukha, Susana Espin, Alvaro Gomez, Alexis Zambrano, Neil Hollywood,  Robert Van Loo, and Edward Seguine. “Project to determine the physical, chemical and organoleptic parameters to differentiate between fine and bulk cocoa.” INIAP 15 Aug. 2007:  5. Print.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. “The True History of Chocolate.” Thames & Hudson 2007 (1996). 204. Print

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016. Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”” 2016. Slide 68. Retrieved from: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_kGt6Sj1X5bYUY0UWg0Y1h2TTA&usp=sharing

— “Lecture 5: Popular sweet tooths and scandal” 2016. Slide 19. Retrieved from: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_kGt6Sj1X5bYUY0UWg0Y1h2TTA&usp=sharing

— “Lecture 7: Sugar and Cacao” 2016. Slide 40. Retrieved from: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_kGt6Sj1X5bYUY0UWg0Y1h2TTA&usp=sharing

“The History Of White Chocolate”. The Nibble. The World’s Best White Chocolate. 1 April 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.thenibble.com/zine/archives/best-white-chocolate2.asp#history Retrieved 11 March. 2016.


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