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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

Conclusion

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.

References

  1. Albritton, R. (2010). Between obesity and hunger: The capitalist food industry. Socialist Register,46, Socialist Register, 0, 2010, Vol.46.
  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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