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Health Benefits of Chocolate

May 2019, Final Multimedia Essay

Obesity Rates and Diet

Obesity is rapidly on the rise and has been classified as one of the largest public health issues known today. Obesity is a disease that can cause an individual to be at risk for various other health complications such as type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses. In the Untied States, the population of overweight children has tripled since 1980 causing around two-thirds of the American population to be considered overweight (Albritton, 2010). There is a stark contrast between the health of the population and the modernization of society. It has been shown that as populations continue to grow and society continues to modernize and improve, the health of individuals is on the downfall. Worldwide there has been a six-fold increase in the number of individuals who suffer from diabetes since 1985. In India, it was noted that 11 percent of the population suffers from obesity, whereas in Mexico this was found to be 14 percent (Albritton, 2010). This is in part related to the large increase in sugar and sugar filled substances available to the public. Marion Nestle, found that on average Americans consume around 31 teaspoons of sugar a day, half of this coming from soft drinks (Albritton, 2010). Because of the Industrial Revolution and the advancement of technology, sugar (one of the cheapest food ingredients along with salt and fat) has been used by various companies to increase mass production.  

Just as the sugar consumption has been increasing, there is a rapid increase in salt and fat consumption. Today in the United States, salt consumption has increased by twenty percent over a ten-year period. Consequently, as people increase their salt consumption they look for a substance to quench their thirst, which in many cases is satisfied with sugar beverages; thus, increasing sugar consumption. Additionally, there has been around a twenty-fold increase in fat consumption since 2005 (Albritton, 2010). Because of the rapid increase in chronic disease, the World Health Organization in 2003 enacted certain recommendations for specific dietary intakes. For example, they stated that sugars should not go beyond ten percent of an individual’s daily calorie intake. Despite these recommendations, the junk food business has catered towards children’s craving snacks causing American children to receive around twenty five percent of calorie intake from snacks and therefore a continuous increase in sugar consumption (Albritton, 2010).

Obesity Rates by Regions from 1990-2011

Misconception of Chocolate

While most of these sugary, salty and fatty substances come from other junk food brands rather than chocolate, many individuals continue to associate chocolate as a primary cause for the increase in health risks among individuals. Today, chocolate companies have transformed a substance that was once glorified and solely consumed by the elite into one that has become negatively viewed and mass produced. Just as in all other industries, the influence of technology has allowed for chocolate brands to increase their production rate by mass producing a variety of different forms of chocolate. Consequently, individuals have shifted from consuming the rich and pure form of chocolate to consuming a highly processed type that includes the use of more sugar and cheaper ingredients. However, this does not mean that all types of chocolate must be categorized as having a negative impact on an individual’s health but rather that there must be more precaution when choosing what and how much chocolate to consume. Contrary to popular belief, chocolate, can have a wide range of health benefits if the consumer properly selects for the correct type, quality and quantity of chocolate.  

History of Chocolate and Health

Chocolate was first used by the Olmec in 1100 BC. The cacao comes from the tree known as Theobroma Cacao originally found in the Amazon basin. The name itself, originates from the Greek language: Theo which means god and Broma which means drink. The Incas considered this drink to be “a drink of the gods” and therefore the elite were the only ones who were allowed to drink from it (Corti, Flammer, Hollenberg & Lüscher, 2009). They believed the fruit provided wisdom and power while the chocolate drink would benefit their health. The Aztec Emperor Montezuma referred to the drink as “A divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue” (Corti, Flammer, Hollenberg & Lüscher, 2009). Not only did they view cacao as an energy substance but also thought of it as having aphrodisiac properties. It was noted that the Aztec emperor would drink a large amount of chocolate each day before engaging in sexual intercourse (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016).

Theobroma Cacao Tree

When the Spaniards discovered chocolate and observed the way the Aztecs used this substance, they soon realized the medicinal benefits the cacao drink could have. The Aztecs would primarily consume this drink before hard labor, in order to avoid getting tired throughout the day (Coe & Coe, 2007). As the discovery of chocolate began to spread, the literature began documenting the health benefits of chocolate. In 1592 the Badianus Manuscript stated that the cocoa flowers had the ability to reduce fatigue. In 1590, the Florentine Codex stated that cocoa could be used to treat fever, diarrhea and heart weakness (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016). In 1591 Juan de Cárdenas published the treatise on New World Foods and described that if cacao was prepared a certain way (toasting, grinding and mixing with atole) this could aid in digestion and make an individual powerful and joyful (Coe & Coe, 2007). Soon after the Spanish discovery of chocolate, it was introduced throughout Europe and in 1741 Linnaeus documented the role of chocolate as a source of nourishment, a cure for illness and an aphrodisiac. In 1834 prior to the first chocolate boom, the Dispensatory of the United States stated that chocolate was nutritious and should only be consumed as a drink in the morning as a substitute for an individual’s morning coffee (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016).

Although the Aztecs and the Mayas mainly consumed chocolate as a liquid drink, the Industrial Revolution popularized chocolate as solid bars. In 1847 Joseph Fry created the first chocolate bar and soon after the first chocolate boom occurred between 1880-1940, when there was a spike in income and more people began purchasing and consuming chocolate (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016). The creation of two key inventions during this time, Hydraulic press and Dutch-process, allowed for diversity in the chocolate making business. The Hydraulic press was used to strip away the fats from the cocoa and produce cocoa butter from the beans. The Dutch-process introduced the alkalization of the cocoa which could change the color of the chocolate products made (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016). These key inventions allowed for the creation of different forms of chocolate, which large chocolate companies would benefit from in order to expand their specific brand. Chocolate was soon created in the form of cereals, cakes, ice cream and even lotion. However, chocolate bars continued to be among the most popular type of chocolate consumed in the American economy.

Not only were chocolate bars consumed by children but also by soldiers during the American Civil War. With the new packaging and production of chocolate bars, the soldiers were able to easily and quickly consume this new food product. Similar to the Aztecs, the soldiers took advantage of this energy dense food product. During the war and specifically in times of emergency, the chocolate bars would help provide soldiers an easy and efficient way to sustain themselves throughout battle (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016).

Use of Chocolate in the Army

Biochemistry of Chocolate

In addition to energy, chocolate has been studied to provide a large range of health benefits including cardiovascular benefits, insulin resistance, lipid levels, antioxidant effects, mental health benefits and many more. In an interview with Marissa Zarco, MS RDN she noted the key reason for such health benefits comes from the micronutrients found in chocolate specifically flavanols. Mrs. Zarco explained that the flavanols found in chocolate exhibit a vasodilating effect on the human body and therefore can have a positive effect on cardiovascular diseases and blood pressure.

Flavanols are a subcategory of polyphenols which are found in plants and have been proven to alter the function of different pathways in the body. Flavanols are made up of two aromatic rings which are bound together by a three-carbon chain (Farhat, Drummond, Fyfe, Al- Dujaili, 2014). Flavanols can be subdivided into monomers which are called epicatechin and catechin and polymers which are known as procyanidins. The monomers are more common in various different types of fruit and the procyanidins give cocoa the bitter taste (Corti, Flammer, Hollenberg & Lüscher, 2009).  Flavanols have the ability to reduce blood pressure, improve cardiovascular effects through vasodilation, antioxidant effects by reducing reactive oxygen species and improving platelet levels etc.

Health Benefits of Flavanols

Specifically, flavanols activate nitric oxide concentration levels, which can help combat reactive oxygen species and prevent oxidative stress. When the body has too high a concentration of reactive oxygen species such as oxygen free radicals, the body will go into oxidative stress and cause for the development of severe diseases. Therefore, a high flavanol diet will allow for an increase in the nitric oxide concentration which can lead to vasodilation, prevent cell adhesion and platelet aggregation. However, not all types of chocolate contain the same amount of flavanol content because of the reduction in the flavanol levels that occurs as the cocoa beans are processed. (Corti, Flammer, Hollenberg & Lüscher, 2009).  

Three Factors to Consider

When choosing which chocolate to buy, an individual must consider three factors: type, quality, and quantity of chocolate. When choosing the type of chocolate there are usually three options: dark, milk and white chocolate. An individual should aim to choose one that has the highest amount of cocoa with the lowest amount of sugar (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016). In order to create the different types of chocolates, they must undergo manufacturing steps and therefore some are richer in flavanols, cocoa nibs, milk or added sugars compared to others.

Dark chocolate compared to milk and white chocolate has the highest number of cocoa solids and lowest amount of sugar and is rich in flavanols. Milk chocolate has a small amount of cocoa solids mixed with a milk substance whether it be condensed or powdered. Lastly, white chocolate is the least pure out of the three, this type of chocolate has no cocoa solids and is instead made up of twenty percent of cocoa butter in addition to a milk product (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016).

Three Types of Chocolate

The quality of chocolate is assessed by the number of ingredients, the proportion of ingredients, and the processing methods the chocolate goes through. The key ingredients that are considered are: cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar and milk powder. When choosing a chocolate an individual should pay close attention to the label and determine the proportion of cocoa nibs compared to all other ingredients (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016).

Cocoa Nibs

Lastly, the quantity of chocolate is important when analyzing the nutritional benefits. In the past, many nutritionists recommended individuals who were suffering from obesity and/or trying to lose weight to completely eliminate chocolate from their diet. However, today nutritionists have realized the importance of chocolate in protecting the human body from severe diseases or a state of oxidative stress and therefore have emphasized the need to restrict the amount consumed rather than completely eliminate it. Studies have shown that small doses of 5-10g daily of dark chocolate can positively enhance human health whether it be through anti-inflammation, hypertension, and/or altering plasma lipid levels (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016).

Overindulgence of Chocolate

Blood Pressure

Moderate consumption of dark chocolate can help with lowering blood pressure. A study conducted with the Kuna individuals stated that because of their high levels of consumption of chocolate beverages they exhibited remarkably low blood pressure states. However, after further investigation it was noted that this study was not properly conducted and the correlation between the levels of chocolate consumption of the Kuna individuals and blood pressure was not accurate (Howe, 2012). However, this is not to say that current studies have not found a correlation between chocolate consumption and blood pressure.

It has been shown that a regular intake of dark chocolate promotes blood vessel dilation because of the effect of polyphenols on increasing nitric oxide concentration and thus lowering blood pressure (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016). Additionally, chocolate has some levels of potassium which can result in the release of sodium ions therefore aiding the regulation of blood pressure levels. The Rusconi et al. (2012) study assed the relationship between different types of chocolate and blood pressure. The study recruited a group of adult males and had them consume a certain amount of either dark or white chocolate every day. Over the course of 28 days they noticed a decrease in blood pressure in the participants who only consumed dark chocolate (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016).

Plasma Lipid Levels

Chocolate can also improve an individual’s plasma lipid levels. Specifically, cocoa butter found in dark chocolate contains oleic acid which is said to affect lipid levels. Cocoa butter has been found to increase HDL cholesterol, decrease LDL cholesterol and decrease the availability of triglycerides in the human body, which can then have a positive effect on the presence of cardiovascular diseases. A study found this to be true after a group of participants consumed around 75g of dark chocolate a day for three weeks. While this did not hold for the consumption of white chocolate, when assessing milk chocolate the researchers also found there to be a decrease in the triglyceride levels and an increase in the HDL cholesterol levels (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016).

Mental Health

Chocolate can have an impact on mental health and cravings. Because chocolate contains highly branched amino acids, there can be an increase in the amount of serotonin released. Serotonin is neurotransmitter that is linked to depression: low levels of serotonin can increase depression. Therefore, by increasing serotonin levels, chocolate can help improve an individual’s mood. This can be observed throughout a women’s menstrual cycle. During this time a women’s progesterone levels decrease and their cravings for chocolate increase; thus, combatting the effect of depression during this time (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016).

Chocolate and Mood


Although there is a rapid rise in obesity rates and chronic diseases it is incorrect to generalize this to the effect of chocolate products. As shown, there are a great amount of studies that have been conducted in order to explore the health benefits of chocolate. While it is true that chocolate can negatively impact human health, this is not always the case. By focusing on the three factors: type, quality and quantity when consuming chocolate an individual protects him/herself from the negative effects that can be seen when someone over consumes chocolate that has high amounts of sugar and other cheap ingredients. While, most studies focus on dark chocolate and its health benefits there should be more research focused on how to make this type of chocolate more accessible to the entire population. A valuable food product such as chocolate, should not only be restricted to the elite, as it once was with the Aztecs and Maya, but rather consumed and enjoyed by all.


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  2. Coe, S ., &  Coe, M. 2007[1996]. The True History of Chocolate.
  3. Corti, R. J., Flammer, A. K., Hollenberg, N. F., & Lüscher, T. (2009). Cocoa and Cardiovascular Health. Circulation, 119(10), 1433-1441.
  4. Howe, J. (2012). Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 12(1), 43-52.
  5. Farhat, G., Drummond, S., Fyfe, L., & Al-Dujaili, E. (2014). Dark Chocolate: An Obesity Paradox or a Culprit for Weight Gain? Phytotherapy Research, 28(6), 791-7.
  6. Squicciarini, M., & Swinnen, J. (2016). The Economics of Chocolate. Oxford: Oxford University Press USA – OSO.
  7.  Zarco, M. (2019, April 27). Personal Interview.

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From Foam to Milk: The History of Chocolate Ingredients

March 2019, Multimedia Essay 1,

Around 1500 BCE, the Olmecs discovered cacao, which was later introduced to the Maya and Aztecs and eventually reached Europe and the United States (Coe & Coe, 2007). The way in which chocolate was made throughout time remained relatively similar; however, the ingredients that were used in the different regions and time periods differed. Depending on where one lived and the geographical and economic conditions of that region, the specific ingredients aside from the cacao pods were unique. While some individuals added more flowers and/or chili, others added more cinnamon and/or milk. This continuous addition of different ingredients slowly transformed chocolate to what we know it as today (Coe & Coe, 2007).

Chocolate Food Products

Maya and Aztec Chocolate:

Earlier civilizations such as the Maya and Aztecs placed great importance on the froth-producing process. By transferring the liquid from one vessel to another at a specific height, foam would be produced. The foam was considered to be the most favorable part of the chocolate drink (Coe & Coe, 2007). The image depicted below, as well as other evidence from the period, demonstrates that both the early and late Maya and Aztecs highly valued the foam making process.

Princeton Vase: Collecting the foam

The Maya typically consumed their chocolate hot rather than cold. Two essential ingredients that the late Maya incorporated into their drinks were vanilla and ear flower. In the Americas they also incorporated chili (Capsicum annum), achiote, flowers, sugar and vanilla, which touched upon different taste types, such as spicy, sweet, floral, unammi, nutty and starchy (Sampeck & Thayn, 2017). Because of the economic situation and lack of resources in some regions, not all individuals were able to use a variety of different ingredients to make the drink. However, they still were determined to create a chocolate drink, so they instead substituted some of the more expensive ingredients for others that they could afford. For example, the Batido made by the Guatemalan Indians included vanilla, achiote, ear flower and ground sapote kernels which was then mixed with black pepper and cacao. However, because this region did not have the financial means to purchase and consume a large amount of true cacao, communities learned to preserve the cacao and conceal the flavoring of their drinks with the addition of black pepper. In the Batido, there was much more black pepper added compared to cacao (Coe & Coe, 2007).   

The Aztecs shared similar practices with the Maya but differed in the ingredients and the way in which the drink was consumed. Similar to the Maya, the Aztecs treasured the foam that was produced from the drink, stating that the foam was the healthiest part of the chocolate drink (Coe & Coe, 2007).  However, instead of consuming the chocolate drink hot, this beverage was usually served cold.

The Aztecs, just as the Maya, began adding a variety of different ingredients which would then be used for different occasions and given to different individuals. There was never one single form of chocolate recipe but rather a large variety of different recipes and ingredients that would be used to make them. Some of these ingredients included maize, seeds from the Ceiba tree, vanilla, and flowers (Coe & Coe, 2007). Among this wide range of ingredients, the Aztecs highly valued three essential ingredients: Hueinacaztli, Tlilxochitl, and Mecaxochitl. Hueinacaztli was the ear-shaped petal from the flower of Cymbopetalum penduliflorum, Tlilxochitl was the black flower, which today we refer to as vanilla, and Mecaxochitl, the string flower, was related to black pepper. (Coe & Coe, 2007).

Highly Valued Foam collected from the Vessel Pouring

European Chocolate:

In the late 1500s, the Spanish, who were fascinated by the chocolate drink made by the Aztecs and its potential, brought chocolate back to their country (Editors, 2017). Soon after, they transformed the cold and bitter drink that was once consumed by the Aztecs into a much more rich and desirable drink. They followed the processing techniques created by the Maya and Aztecs but used different tools to make and serve the chocolate. Rather than pouring the chocolate from one vessel to the next, they would use the molinillo to gather the foam from the liquid. As more European countries such as Italy, France and Britain began exploring different parts of Central America, these countries also brought the product back home (Editors, 2017). Because of their geographic diversity, power and economic stability, Europeans continued to add a variety of different ingredients that were unheard of to the Maya or Aztecs. Some of these included cinnamon, almonds, hazelnut, nutmeg, clove, citron, lemon peel, achiote, musk, orange blossom, and jasmine petals (Coe & Coe, 2007). Some of the most commonly used ingredients were sugar, vanilla, anise, and cinnamon.

The recipes used to make chocolate were adapted from various different parts of Europe, and the British especially were considered to have some of the richest tasting chocolate. Antonios CoMenero de Ledesma’s 1644 recipe illustrates the diverse use of ingredients in the Europeans chocolate drinks:100 cacao beans

  • 100 cacao beans
  •             2 chillis (can substitute for black pepper)
  •             Hanful of Anise
  •             Ear flower
  •             2 Mecasuchiles
  •             1 Vanilla
  •             2 oz cinnamon
  •             12 almonds
  •             Hazelnuts
  •             ½ lbs of sugar
  •             Achiote to taste

            (Coe & Coe, 2007)

In addition to making a chocolate drink, the Europeans began to incorporate chocolate into other food cuisines. For example, black polenta was topped with chocolate bread crumbs, butter, almonds and cinnamon, pieces of liver dipped in chocolate and a chocolate soup which included cacao, milk, sugar, cinnamon and egg yolk mixed together and eaten with toast (Coe & Coe, 2007). 

Chocolate Today:

Although the production of chocolate has remained relatively similar throughout history, the specific ingredients that have been added has allowed each time period and geographical location to reflect a unique version of a chocolate drink. Today, the chocolate we consume has a greater amount of sugar and milk than what was once used. For example, Hershey’s chocolate similarly places great importance on the manufacturing and processing of the beans, but another large component is the addition of milk. The milk is combined with sugar and then mixed with chocolate liquor and cocoa butter (D’Antonio, 2006). Milk has become the essential ingredient for Hershey’s chocolate bar, which in some way hides the flavor of the true cacao beans that are used. However, without milk, Hershey’s chocolate would not be what it is known as today.

It is interesting to note the stark contrast between the chocolate used by the earlier civilization and the chocolate that is consumed today. What once required a minimal amount of ingredients to retain a unique taste now requires a variety of different and overpowering ingredients to make it appealing to the consumer. One would imagine that with technological improvements and refined processes available today, we would accentuate the true flavor of cacao; however, this is not necessarily true. The addition of ingredients such as sugar and milk have concealed the power of the cacao beans that the Maya and Aztecs cherished. The production process may have remained the same, but the quality of the products created has changed.


  1. Coe, S ., &  Coe, M. (2007) [1996]. The True History of Chocolate.
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  4. Sampeck, K., & Thayn, J. (2017). “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” pp. 72-99

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