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Sweet Medicine: The science of chocolate and health



Chocolate had used as medicine since its inception. The Aztec king Montezuma is said to have consume anywhere from 20 to 50 glasses in order to remain virile. In more recent times, scientists have been looking into whether there are some medical treasures hidden in this scrumptious treat. Naturally, scientists have been zooming in on what it is in chocolate that gives it its health benefits. Scientists now believe these compounds in chocolate, called flavanols, have antioxidant properties and could help treat a variety of conditions and fight a variety of diseases. This has led to a lot of good research being done. There have been studies done that look at chocolate’s impact in fighting heart disease, diabetes, and cancer[1]. There have been studies looking at chocolate’s effect on cognitive function, memory, and blood pressure.  However, before you run to the pantry to self-medicate with chocolate be forewarned; this research, like all medical research, in fact like all science, has caveats. This particular group of research has a good deal of caveats, though not every study has the exact same caveats. Those depend on the strengths and failings of each individual study.

There is one caveat though that applies to this entire group of research; all the chocolate in these studies is all dark chocolate, that is to say to that it is at least sixty percent cacao solids. Milk chocolate is not included and for good reason. US law states that chocolate only needs to contain ten percent cacao in order to legally qualify as chocolate, the rest is mainly sugar, fat, and a few other things such as milk. According to professor Carla Martin, lecturer at Harvard University and director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, “A Hershey’s Kiss typically contains about, I think, 11 percent cacao content”. To put that in perspective, if you had a bar of typical milk chocolate that weighed one hundred grams (about the weight of an iPhone 5S[2]), then the actual amount of chocolate in the bar would be only about ten grams, or the weight of two nickels. The fact that milk chocolate has barely any actual chocolate means that milk chocolate has barely any of those cacao flavanols that are thought to provide the health benefits. Thus, anyone, scientist or otherwise, looking towards chocolate for health benefits has to look towards chocolate with a high cacao content.

Chocolate flavanols table
Figure 1


There are many pitfalls a research study can fall into. One of these is having a limited and/or small sample size.  Multiple studies on the effect of chocolate on health have had sample sizes of less than a couple hundred people. One such study, the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study had only ninety participants. The study found that regular cocoa flavanol consumption can reduce some measures of age-related cognitive dysfunction, but given such small sample size it is difficult to draw any large generalized conclusions for the general population, since there is a wide variety of differences across populations. Moreover, the CoCoA study limited their sample size in an attempt at prove clearer causation; because this was a study on aging all the participant were elderly, and the study also excluded Current smokers, habitual users of antioxidant supplements (including vitamins C and E), habitual consumers of chocolate or other cocoa products (daily consumption of any amount), or individuals prescribed medications known to have antioxidant properties (including statins and glitazones) or to interfere with cognitive functions (including benzodiazepines and antidepressants). This means for populations outside the participant group, the research has limited application, since the researcher did not look at how cocoa flavanol intake affects people with these additional variables. It has to be remembered that studies like this are jumping off point, they prove that there is something there that needs to be looked into, but further research is required in order to the proper applications and implications of the initial research.

Continue reading Sweet Medicine: The science of chocolate and health

Ration D-day: Chocolate’s role in Warfare


When you think of warfare, you probably think of soldiers, tanks, or guns; you probably do not think of chocolate, however, chocolate played an integral part in World War II. The military in the first half of the 20th century had a problem. Men were fighting on the front lines were in conditions where field kitchens could not be established. Sustenance would have to be shipped in and it would have to be compact and portable. It was to this end that Captain Paul Logan, of the office of the U.S. Army Quartermaster General, turned to chocolate. He met with William Murrie, then president of Hershey Chocolate Corporation, and Sam Hinkle, his chief scientist, in 1937 about developing a chocolate bar emergency ration that could stand up to the rigorous military standards required for field rations[1]. Chocolate was uniquely qualified as a choice for rations as it is not only lightweight and portable but it is also is a stimulant, provides a quick burst of energy and is fairly nutritious. There were, however, some technical issues that need to be dealt with before chocolate was ready for duty on the front lines.Nestle's 1943 Ad

As anyone who has left a chocolate bar in their pocket on a summer’s day knows, chocolate tends to melt in moderately high temperatures. This gives chocolate its wonderful mouthfeel but also makes it a challenge to transport it hot climates. This is due to one of chocolate main ingredients; cocoa butter, which has a melting point of 78 degrees Fahrenheit[2], turning any chocolate above that mark, whether in your mouth or in your pocket, from a solid bar to a mushy mess.


Furthermore, as it was to be an emergency ration, this chocolate couldn’t be the tempting treat you usually think of when you think chocolate bar. According to Sam Hinkle, chief scientist at Hershey at the time, “Captain Logan said that he wanted it to taste not too good, because, if so, the soldier would eat it before he faced an emergency and have nothing to eat when the emergency came,” Hinkle said. “So he said, ‘Make it taste about like a boiled potato.'”[3]

chocolate propaganda

Hershey scientists and the US Army Quartermaster Corps set out together to engineer a chocolate that could stand up to the military’s exacting standards. As Joel Glenn Brenner states in her book, The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, “The result was the famous Field Ration D, nutrition-packed “subsistence” chocolate made from a thick paste of chocolate liquor, sugar, oat flour, powdered milk and vitamins …it could withstand temperatures of up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and contained 600 calories in a single serving.” (Brenner 8). That was all well and good but the military needed to make sure that these Ration D bars could stand up to the challenge of the harsh environment of war. According to the Hershey Community Archives, “The first of the Field Ration D bars were used for field tests in the Philippines, Hawaii, Panama, the Texas border, and at various Army posts and depots throughout the United States. These bars also found their way to Antarctica with Admiral Byrd’s last expedition in 1939. The results of the test were satisfactory and Field Ration D was approved for wartime use.”


Once assured of these chocolate bars being up to snuff, the military put them into production. In her book, Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat, Anastacia Marx de Salcedo describes the packaging process: “The finished bars were sealed in foil and then paper-wrapped in sets of three, for a total of 1,800 calories, enough to sustain a man for a day. (Later, when foil became scarce during World War II and the use of chemical weapons seemed imminent—mustard and chlorine gas had been used frequently in World War I—waterproof cellophane and wax coated boxes were used [to prevent any deadly chemicals from leaching into the soldiers’ food]). By the end of 1945 Hershey was producing 24 million bars a week[4].


As for what the soldiers thought of them, their thoughts can be seen in the nickname they gave it; “Hitler’s secret weapon”. In his article, “Chocolate! The war’s secret weapon: our GIs went to war well supplied with weapons, clothing–and chocolate!”, Terry W. Burger interviews John Otto, a platoon leader in Company A of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 505th Parachute Regiment, for his experience with the Ration D bars, “They were awful,” “They were big, thick things, and they weren’t any good. I tried ’em, but I had to be awful hungry after I tried them once…. Whatever they put in didn’t make them taste any better.” Nevertheless, the Ration D bars kept the soldiers alive on the battlefield and in other precarious situations. Not only that, because chocolate contains stimulants such as theobromine and caffeine, it kept the soldiers awake and alert, which was vital to their survival and success, especially in hostile territories like Nazi-occupied France. Some of the soldiers dislikes of the bar may have stem from their quick consumption; the instructions clearly stated the bars are to be eaten slowly (in about half an hour the label says), so a soldier on the move who consumed his Ration D bar a little too quickly may have experienced quite a bit of gastronomic distress.

1943 chocolate Life Magazine

Either way, the Ration D bars served also as a diplomatic tool, turning many starving Europeans into friends of the United States[5], as described by 82nd Airborne Veteran John Otto, “People wanted them, You’d give them to kids. In some places they were very hungry. And they sure helped relax people about American soldiers.”


Chocolate has been part of the military ever since. In 1943, Hershey created the Tropical Bar, the Ration D’s ever-so-slightly better tasting cousin, for consuming in the hot and humid Pacific[6]. This bar saw action during the Korean War (1950-53) up through the early days of the Vietnam War[7].  In 1990 Hershey created the Desert Bar, which tasted like an original Hershey bar but could withstand temperatures up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit[8]. Not that Hershey was the only game in town; Forrest Mars introduced M&M’s in 1940; just in time for the chocolate candy that “melts in your mouth, not in your hand,” to be added to soldiers rations[9]. Today soldiers receive chocolate in a variety of places, whether it’s in a MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat)[10] ration or a care package that boosts their spirit and gives them a little taste of home.



[1] Hershey Community Archives

[2] Joel Glenn Brenner, The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, page 11

[3] Terry W. Burger, “Chocolate! The war’s secret weapon: our GIs went to war well supplied with weapons, clothing–and chocolate!”

[4] Hershey Community Archives

[5] Terry W. Burger, “Chocolate! The war’s secret weapon: our GIs went to war well supplied with weapons, clothing–and chocolate!”

[6] Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat, page 87

[7] Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat, page 87

[8] Joel Glenn Brenner, The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, page 10

[9] Joel Glenn Brenner, The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, page 46

[10] John C. Fisher and Carol Fisher, Food in the American Military, page 183

Works Cited

Marx de Salcedo, Anastacia. Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat. Penguin. 2015.

Brenner, Joel Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey And Mars. Random House, Inc. 1999.

Fisher, John C., and Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military: A History. McFarlan & Company, Inc. 2011.

Burger, Terry W. “Chocolate! The war’s secret weapon: our GIs went to war well supplied with weapons, clothing–and chocolate!” America in WWII, Feb. 2007, p. 36+. General OneFile, Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

“Ration D Bars” Hershey Community Archives. Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

Schumm, Laura. “The Wartime Origins of the M&M”, June 2, 2014. Accessed  3 Mar. 2017.

Butler, Stephanie. “D-Day Rations: How Chocolate Helped Win the War”, June 6, 2014. Accessed  3 Mar. 2017.

Graber, Cynthia and Twilley, Nicola. (2017, Jan 30). We Heart Chocolate. Gastropod. Podcast retrieved from

Image Credits

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