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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

The Truest Chocolate Lover

“Chocolate is a physical incarnation of happiness for me”, said my sophomore friend, when I casually asked her what role chocolate plays in her life. I laughed at her response and figured she was just the typical avid chocolate lover, the kind that jumps up and yells “I’ll eat it!!” to any mention of chocolate. Little did I know that this friend of mine would be the perfect candidate for an interview for my chocolate class because of her “bougie” opinion of chocolate but ignorance, for lack of a better word, of the issues surrounding this sweet. She embodies a true chocolate-lover who strictly buys chocolate because she loves the taste, and doesn’t buy into marketing strategies.

Memories created around chocolate:

Anytime she eats chocolate, my interviewee is reminded a lot of her family at home who also loves chocolate. Every single holiday, she and her siblings buy their mom chocolate as a gift. Every year on her dad’s birthday, her family makes a “really rich chocolate mousse cake”. Every single day, her parents eat a square of chocolate after lunch for dessert. Even while in college, her mom sends her chocolate in care packages.

It is not uncommon for a sweet like chocolate to mean so much to a group of people. In fact, throughout history, chocolate has had great significance in social settings. In ancient Mayan society, the word “chokola’j” meant “to drink chocolate together” (Martin). When chocolate was introduced in England in the 1650s, the act of drinking chocolate in chocolate and coffee houses while socializing and talking about politics and playing games quickly became popular (Coe 165). Chocolate-house-london-c1708

A chocolate house in London, 1708

Chocolate evidently still has a social nature, as it is a common snack at get-togethers or holiday events. Even while writing this, my friend brought us chocolate to enjoy while studying together. My interviewee clearly also enjoys eating chocolate with others, like her family, and chocolate, therefore, has become a special part of her life.

This family doesn’t just enjoy any chocolate, however. To my surprise, my interviewee knew the exact percentage of cacao that she and her parents like best. She told me that her parents always buy 72% Ghirardelli bars and that she, specifically, prefers bars with 85-88% cacao, but “the percentage has been increasing over the last three years”. She went on to explain that in high school, she “was super down with 72” but then started eating 77 and found that she liked it better, and so “kept trying darker chocolate and kept really liking it”.

Ghirardelli chocolates with different cacao percentages

When I asked if that’s because she prefers the bitter taste usually associated with darker chocolate over the sweet and dairy taste associated with milk chocolate, she answered, “No, I actually feel like it gets sweeter as it gets darker and I love it”. I found this opinion interesting, especially coming from someone who knows the exact percentages of cacao she prefers, and should then know that milk chocolate contains more sugar than dark. One look at the ingredients for milk chocolate compared to dark would show this fact. For instance, the top ingredients for a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Kiss are “sugar, milk, and chocolate”, while the top ingredients for a Lindt’s 90% Excellence Bar are “chocolate, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder” (Martin). Although my friend could be considered “dumb” for thinking that the darker the chocolate the sweeter, I consider her a true chocolate lover who could care less about the ingredients and just wants to enjoy the taste.


Health effects:

It seemed fitting to ask if my interviewee cares at all about the health effects. I, too, prefer dark chocolate over milk or white but one of the main reasons is because I know it’s less unhealthy for me. Not only is there less sugar, but there are studies that show that dark chocolate, specifically, can reduce heart attack risk and blood pressure (Watson). But when I asked my interviewee if she ever considers the nutritional or health effects, she yelled, “oh, hell no!”. She said that she sometimes eats chocolate in small amounts to not feel guilty, but when she’s purchasing chocolate, she never thinks about the fat and sugar content. Instead, she bases her decisions solely off what taste she prefers. She told me, “If I’m choosing between two different chocolates, I would never go for the one with less sugar content”. She added that she convinces herself that the sugar and caffeine in one square of chocolate is “enough to perk her up” so she uses it as an “award” when studying.

The origins:

I asked her if she ever thinks about where the cacao in the chocolate she eats comes from and she answered that she sometimes does, but “actually has no idea” how chocolate is made. She continued to say that she knows there are such things as cacao nibs and has always wanted to know more, but from the way she was talking, I could tell she was more interested in the machinery and technology aspect and less of what actual cacao farmers in places like Ivory Coast do. When I threw in the word Africa, my interviewee started reminiscing on a “chocolate passport” that her aunt once gave her that had different South American and African countries on it, but then quickly said, “I feel like a lot of chocolate bars have information on them about what country it’s from but it doesn’t really influence what I buy”. She proceeded to say that she sometimes buys Endangered Species chocolate because it makes her feel “better” about herself but she knows in her heart that it’s just a marketing strategy.

endangered species
Endangered Species ad

I asked her if she knew about the child labor issues surrounding chocolate, to which she responded that she figured there were labor issues but not child labor, in particular. She told me that she knows chocolate is the “biggest thing that’s fair trade-oriented” and that she always notices the Fair Trade symbol. But when I asked her if that affects her in anyway, she said it doesn’t because she feels “so removed” from the issues at hand and that she thinks the label was “made for elites to feel better about our choices, as if we’re actually making a difference”. When purchasing chocolate, the Fair Trade label Fair_Trade_Certified_Logo-CMYKdoes nothing to sway my friend in any direction. The organization that claims to “improve an entire community’s day-to-day lives” with “day-to-day purchases” of products with their label has failed to influence the decisions of customers like my friend, who comes from a social class that may be more likely to spend the money in the first place (“What is Fair Trade?”).


My interviewee is actually quite correct in saying that the label just makes customers “feel good”. Ndongo Sylla explains in The Fair Trade Scandal that in theory, through the Fair Trade strategy of pricing some goods made from raw materials produced in the South at a slightly higher price, the living conditions of workers in the South should be improved. Sylla writes that although Fair Trade products have gone up dramatically in sales, the actual economic gains are low, especially for the poorest developing countries – the minority producers which Fair Trade USA seemingly favor most. The countries ranked by the World Bank as upper middle-income countries account for 54 percent of the producer organizations that have received Fair Trade certification, while only 21 percent are low-income countries. This means that from a marketing standpoint, Fair Trade has been successful. Sylla concludes that “whatever definition of poverty and economic vulnerability used, the conclusion is the same: Fair Trade tends to exclude the poorest countries”, and yet, its “Fair Trade” label gives consumers a false confidence (as shown in the video below). Thankfully, there are people like my interviewee who aren’t completely fooled.

Chocolate as a luxury:

I then asked my friend how she chooses her chocolate: What’s the most important detail to her? And does she choose some brands over others? She immediately answered that she looks at the percentage of cacao first, then the price. Her cutoff price is around five or six dollars, since she doesn’t like the texture and taste of some really expensive chocolate (her example was Taza chocolate that makes her feel as if she is eating “chocolate sawdust”) but also “won’t buy sh*tty chocolate”. I, of course, asked her what she defines as “sh*tty chocolate” to which she responded, “like Hershey’s dark chocolate, like the kind that says extra dark and it’s not even that dark”. Another friend overhearing our conversation commented that my interviewee sounded like a “chocolate elitist”, and I honestly couldn’t disagree because I felt a tad offended. Sure, I don’t think Hershey’s chocolate is the best of the best, but I do love Hershey’s extra dark and it was a low blow to my heart. She added that she doesn’t like salted or flavored chocolate (like added orange flavoring) and that Ghiradelli is her favorite because it’s “perfectly good and on the cheap end”.

Next, I asked her if she thinks everyone can afford to and has the liberty to be this picky when it comes to a simple snack like chocolate. To my relief, she replied that “it’s definitely a bougie thing” and “definitely a luxury, not an essential” but she’s willing to spend the money for her contentment. My interviewee explained that when she was younger, her family considered themselves in the upper middle class and although they may be lower in economic status now, she said with a laugh, “I developed my tastes while we had more money and I refuse to back down now”. Whenever she eats chocolate, she said she refuses to chew it like others might, and instead breaks the bar into small pieces and sucks on each piece individually to get the full taste. Being in college, she said she doesn’t eat as much as she does at home with her family, but sometimes gets “some good chocolate” for “pretty cheap” at Trader Joe’s. She added, now more than before, if I’m buying myself chocolate, I know I’m indulging myself so I’m willing to spend more”.

It’s certainly true that better-quality chocolate is a “luxury” for some economic classes, and chocolate has been linked to notions of class since its origin. From Mesoamerica to Baroque Europe, chocolate was solely associated with the elite class. The chocolate houses mentioned earlier were only used by the upper class, and in France, chocolatières were prized by the nobility (Coe). Since then, chocolate has certainly become more widespread and is consumed by all economic classes. Some products of brands like Hershey’s and Mars are even considered a “cheap commodity” that is available in almost every convenience store. This doesn’t change, however, the stigma that still exists around “good” chocolate and “sh*tty” chocolate. As there continues to be a wide gap between “Fair Trade”, “better quality”, “saving animals”, or “higher percentage of cacao” chocolate and the cheapest Hershey’s bar, chocolate will always be associated with different classes. If more consumers are like my interviewee, however, maybe we’d have less conflict. In a perfect world, all consumers would have the freedom to ignore marketing strategies or sugar content or price and solely buy chocolate based off of preference of taste. Unfortunately, this is unrealistic and not everyone can afford to do this or wants to. But props to my interviewee and friend for being the truest chocolate lover I have ever met!

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Martin, Carla. “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization”. Harvard University, CGIS, AAS 119x. 2017.

Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao”. Harvard University, CGIS, AAS 119x. 2017.

Sylla, Ndongo Samba. The Fair Trade Scandal, Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2014.

Watson, et al. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Vol. 7. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 2013.

“What is Fair Trade?”. Fair Trade USA. Web. 2016.


Chocolate: The Safe Cognitive Performance Enhancer

Since ancient times, cacao has been believed to be one of nature’s medicines with various health benefits. Aztec texts from the 1500s tell us that their Emperor kept a botanical garden specifically for growing and experimenting with different plants in hopes to discover their unique medicinal abilities. Cacao was one of their successful trials, as they eventually came to understand its ability to help treat stomach problems, cure infections, end fevers, and help control coughing.1 Most of these cures and treatments required combining cacao with another substance, but this would prove to be only the beginning of exploring the medical potential of pure cacao and eventually chocolate in its many forms that we enjoy today. The investigation of chocolate’s medicinal value continued as the Spanish came into contact with the pleasing food and proceeded to spread it across Europe. However, only recently has the depth and scientifically sound research of chocolate’s effects on the human body began to unfold in its true immensity. In 2013, a composition of work from 89 contributing experts was produced titled Chocolate in Health and Nutrition, measuring 542 pages in length and consisting of 40 separate chapters thoroughly exploring a broad spectrum of information on chocolate.2 The scale of this collaborative piece provides some perspective on the complexity of chocolate and its effects, and people’s magnificent efforts to explore and understand them. Perhaps one of the most exciting recent developments in this research is understanding cacao’s effect on the human nervous system. It has long been known that consuming chocolate can affect our mood, but in the last ten years it has been revealed that chocolate can actually provide a temporary boost to cognitive function, thus leading to extensive studies in attempts to know how and why this happens, and how it can be applied medicinally.3 I will provide detailed insight to this recently discovered effect of chocolate consumption on the human brain, as well as explore its potential medicinal applications as a unique benefit of cacao, and finally consider the consequences that this discovery can have on the contemporary state of the cacao-chocolate industry.

First, we need to understand how eating chocolate increases our cognitive function. Ian Macdonald, professor of metabolic physiology at The University of Nottingham, led a study in which he found that consuming a chocolate drink increased blood flow to specific areas of the participant’s brain for up to three hours. The chocolate drink was “rich in flavanols — a key ingredient of dark chocolate,” which he predicted to produce such a response.4 The boost in blood flow to specific areas of the brain is what allowed participants in the study to display increased cognitive performance in specific tasks through improved alertness. Macdonald was also able to monitor brain activity in the participants by using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), through which he saw an increase of activity after the individuals consumed the cocoa. He attributes this to a response to the flavanols in which cerebral blood vessels dilate and allow more blood to reach the vital areas of the brain, improving oxygen delivery and therefore increasing cognitive function.4 One limitation to these findings comes from the fact that the level of cacao flavanol that the participants consumed during the study is significantly higher than that normally found in chocolate products. However, this doesn’t negate the significance of the findings, it simply means that you won’t experience such strong effects by having a bite of your favorite chocolate bar, at least not yet. Such doses of cacao flavanols and their affects may be explored as a possibility within commercially produced consumer products or even in purely medicinal forms in the near future, but this will be discussed in more detail later in the essay. For now, we know that even small doses of cacao flavanols, such as those found in a typical chocolate product, improved cognitive performance in young adults during a separate study. The participants experienced enhanced spatial memory and reaction times.5 These new findings leave us with seemingly countless potential medicinal applications.

We’ve seen that cacao flavanols have been scientifically proven to sharpen the mind in a temporary boost of cognitive abilities, scalable with greater effects at higher doses. But how can we use this knowledge in medicinal purpose to help people? The most obvious opportunity is in helping to treat fatigue. The idea of using chocolate to battle fatigue is far from new, as it has long been known that chocolate has small amounts of caffeine in it. Aztec Emperor Montezuma II is quoted acknowledging these effects of cocoa: “…the divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day…”.11 It has now been scientifically proven that something other than caffeine within chocolate is contributing to the boost it gives you, and perhaps these flavanols could be isolated and ingested specifically for the improved cognitive function they provide. Researchers have already found that consistent consumption of chocolate that is rich in flavanols “significantly improved symptoms of chronic fatigue after 8 weeks.”2 This means that cocoa flavanols could theoretically be used to help combat the effects of increased fatigue due to aging, as well as within the general population to help battle sleep deprivation. Another potential medicinal use could be to create a chocolate based drink that is rich in the relevant flavanols (and not caffeine) as an alternate to coffee. This could help people avoid some of the negative effects that coffee can have when consumed consistently or in high quantities, as many people will need a substitute for their ritualistic boost from a hot drink.6

Now imagine your favorite chocolate product, but with the understanding that consuming it will not only bring you the delicious pleasure it normally does, but also help you perform better on the final exam you’re about to take, respond better to questions during your job interview, or compete better in your chess tournament. What if the cognitive boosts from potential new flavanol-rich chocolate based products or medicines could help treat attention deficit disorders? The Centers for Disease Control reports that as of 2011, rates had risen to 11% of children in the United States being diagnosed and treated for ADHD.7 Typical medications for ADHD have many known and consistently prevalent negative side affects, some of which are shown in the image below alongside the side effects of caffeine.

Side Effects8

If chocolate-based products can be created and brought to market that offer safe alternatives to these fatigue or cognitive function related medicines and remedies, the already massive chocolate industry would take on a vast new amount of demand. The study by professor Macdonald mentioned earlier in the essay also proved that the temporary cognitive function enhancement from cacao flavanols can be achieved without any effect on the subject’s heat rate after ingestion.4 This is an immediate improvement on the dangers of common ADHD medications as well as high doses of caffeine. Such medicinal chocolate-based products could also be aimed at safe recreational use by consumers such as college students who currently look to illicitly abuse prescription stimulants. A 2006 study found that over 8% of college students were illicitly using prescription stimulants, such as ADHD medications, as mental performance enhancers for assignment completion, studying, or exam taking.9 It is feasible that before long, food scientists will be able to develop chocolate-based products that can safely and legally fill that role for students looking for a cognitive boost during stressful deadlines or tests. The prospective applications for such cognitive improvements through consuming chocolate products are abundant. The following statement from Chocolate in Health and Nutrition elucidates the substantiality of the research and findings on this subject, and offers insight to the many ways it could be utilized:


“Overall, five… studies that examined the effects of cocoa- and chocolate-related products in humans found that the products were associated with significant enhancement/improvement of certain aspects of individuals’ neurocognitive functioning, and, in particular, on tasks assessing simple reaction time, rapid visual information processing, energetic arousal, episodic memory, cognitive processing speed and sequential abilities, perceptual speed, global cognition, access to semantic memory, Serial Threes subtractions, visual contrast sensitivity, detection of motion direction, visual spatial working memory, choice reaction time, and mental fatigue.”2


However, chocolate and its ability for cognitive function enhancement don’t have to be limited to medicinal substitutes for existing cures. As shown below, coffee is a multibillion dollar global industry, and happens to be a common pairing with chocolate. The two products can be marketed together as a way to provide an ultimate mental boost, in a variety of new coffee beverages mixed with flavanol rich chocolate.

Coffee Picture.png10

Before hastily racing to expand the chocolate industry’s scope into a new line of products marketed specifically for cognitive enhancement, we must first consider the possibility that such products may come with their own health risks for consumers. There are several potential issues with the possibility of this endeavor in concerns to consumer health risks. Firstly, it remains unclear whether or not the high concentration of the necessary flavanols needed for a noticeable cognitive enhancement come with their own set of unrealized side effects. Experts collaborating to produce Chocolate in Health and Nutrition agreed that further animal and human testing needs to be conducted in order to determine the lowest level of cacao flavanol consumption that can be proven both effective and safe.2 Moreover, it is reasonable to expect that the most successful products marketed with this feature as a highlight will likely be many of the same chocolate products that are top sellers today, simply with supplemented amounts of the necessary flavanols for a temporary cognitive boost. This added benefit would likely increase the addictiveness of such products significantly. We already know that chocolate products are one of the many culprits contributing to the prevalence of obesity and diabetes among Americans due to the often high amounts of added sugar. This could be a major concern and potentially lead to pushback on such products from certain groups.


Perhaps the use of chocolate for the medicinal purpose of a temporary cognitive boost could instead be limited to a very niche product of high purity cacao, and marketed to true chocolate lovers looking for a bundle of health benefits. This video from Fox News13 acknowledges some of the many other health benefits attributed to cacao, including cardiovascular health benefits proven in a study of the Kuna people of Panama led by Harvard Medical School’s Norman Hollenberg .14 If appropriate measures are taken to ensure safe consumable chocolate products are offered that can provide a noticeable temporary cognitive function enhancement, the chocolate industry may have found a massive untapped market for itself. Several studies have scientifically proven that chocolate, an already tremendously popular food item, indeed has the ability to provide us with a brief mental sharpening. Time will tell if it is possible to supplement the relevant compounds in a way that makes them noticeably affective without negatively affecting the taste or safety of chocolate products.




Works Cited


1 Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007 [1996]. The True History of Chocolate.

2 Ronald Watson et al. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Humana Press, 2013. Springer. Web. 05 May 2017.

3 Katz DL, Doughty K, Ali A. Cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2011; 15

4 Macdonald, Ian. Boosting Brain Power – With Chocolate. Am Assoc Adv Sci. 2007. Web. 05 May 2017.

5 Field DT, Williams CM, Butler LT. Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in an acute improvement in visual and cognitive functions. Physiol Behav. 2011; 103

6 Maughan, R. J., and J. Griffin. “Caffeine Ingestion and Fluid Balance: A Review.” Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics : The Official Journal of the British Dietetic Association. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2003. Web. 05 May 2017.

7 “Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 Feb. 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.

8 Image –


9 Teter, Christian J., Sean Esteban McCabe, Kristy LaGrange, James A. Cranford, and Carol J. Boyd. Illicit Use of Specific Prescription Stimulants Among College Students: Prevalence, Motives, and Routes of Administration. Pharmacotherapy: The Journal of Human Pharmacology and Drug Therapy. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 06 Jan. 2012. Web. 05 May 2017.

10 Image – http://dougbelshaw.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/coffee_economy.png

11 Dillinger TL, Barriga P, Escarcega S, Jimenez M, Salazar Lowe D, Grivetti LE. Food of the gods: cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. J Nutr. 2000; 130

12 Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens, Maddie Oatman, Maya Dusenbery, Cristin Kearns Couzens, Wes Enzinna, Justin Elliott, and Daniel Setiawan. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” Mother Jones. N.p., Nov.-Dec. 2012. Web. 05 May 2017.

13 http://video.foxnews.com/v/1214741875001/?#sp=show-clips

14 Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. University of California Press Journals, 01 Feb. 2012. Web. 06 May 2017.

Tried and True or Fitness Fad: An Investigation into the Health and Medicinal Attributes of Chocolate

Is chocolate healthy?  While this question still pops up all over media today, it has been grappled with in every civilization in which chocolate was consumed.  Despite the overwhelming acknowledgement that candy is unhealthy for humans today, specialty chocolate bars can be found wedged between acai bowls and kale salads at the fitness food cafes Embody Fitness Gourmet and Hu Kitchen in Connecticut and Manhattan, respectively.  This investigation seeks to contextualize these contemporary healthy chocolate bars by understanding how chocolate’s health and medicinal attributes were perceived over time by the people that consumed chocolate.  In order to understand how chocolate ended up in a fitness café today, we must examine how chocolate historically has come to be viewed as healthy, and how the “healthy” chocolate of today fits into this narrative.  Ultimately, contemporary chocolate is just as susceptible as past chocolate to being shaped by cultural and societal conceptions of health.

Interior of Embody Fitness Gourmet in New Canaan, CT

Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods”

Mesoamerican civilizations not only understood cacao in cultural and religious contexts, but also recognized its applications in medicine and health.  Chemical analysis conducted on archaeological ceramics from Mesoamerica show that “chocolate has an antiquity that stretches 38 centuries back into the past, to predate even the San Lorenzo Olmecs” who lived from approximately 1500 BCE to 400 BCE (Coe & Coe, 36).  Pre-Columbian Maya documents written in hieroglyphics, such as the Dresden Codex, often depict cacao being consumed by gods in ritual activities (Coe & Coe, 41).  Furthermore, the Popol Vuh, or “Book of Counsel,” is a colonial document recorded by a Franciscan friar which contains the oldest Maya myth recorded in its entirety.  In the Popol Vuh, cacao is shown in a variety of contexts, sometimes possessing a godly quality while sometimes being shown in commonplace scenarios (Coe & Coe, 40).  Drinking cacao was part of ritual and celebratory acts, including marriage rituals and rites of death.

Mayan warrior decorated in cacao pods

Mesoamericans recognized cacao’s applications in medicine and health.  The ancient Maya believed chocolate to be very healthy, which stands as one of the many reasons royal rulers consumed vast quantities of cacao at their banquets; archaeological investigations even proved that rulers were in “better health and lived far longer than their chocolate-deprived subjects!” (Coe & Coe, 32).  Mayan warriors decorated their armor with cacao pods and would eat cacao to boost energy, perceiving themselves to be invisible and protected in battle after consuming cacao (Lecture, food of the gods).  Cacao was not only used to maintain and enhance health, but also was employed for its perceived curative properties in healing rites involving cacao.  In the 18th century manuscripts copied from ancient Mayan codices called Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams, applications of medicinal cacao are shown to treat a wide variety of afflictions, including fevers and seizures (Martin, Feb. 1 Lecture).  Additionally, cacao served as an ingredient in botanical remedies, and was often combined with pepper, honey, avocado, and other natural substances (Martin, Feb. 1 Lecture).  Cacao intervened in all facets of ancient Mesoamerican life, especially in health and medicine.


European Perception of Chocolate through Humoral Theory

The introduction of cacao from Mesoamerica into Europe necessitated contextualizing cacao within the European understanding of medicine and health.  When ships loaded with cacao beans reached the ports of Spain, the Spanish population and the populations of the other European powers “were at the mercy of a worthless and often destructive constellation of medical theories which had held the Western world in its grip for almost two millennia” (Coe & Coe, 120).  To achieve pervasive acceptance of this exotic beverage, cacao needed to be fit “into this fallacious scheme” (Coe & Coe, 120).

Pre-modern European medical understanding and practice was dominated by humoral theory, which was created by the ancient Greeks and maintained its acceptance in Western civilization until modern medicine and understanding of physiology emerged in the early 19th century.  Formulated by Hippocrates (460-377 BCE), this theory of disease and nutrition asserted that the human body consisted of four humors—black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm— which needed to be maintained in the correct combination to ensure good health (Coe & Coe, 121).  If the ratio of these humors deviated, diseases and other afflictions were expected to occur.  Galen, another ancient Greek born in approximately 130 A.D., “expanded [Hippocrates’s theory] by adding the notion of humors, diseases, and the drugs to cure disease could also be hot or cold, and moist or dry” (Coe & Coe, 121).  Under this extension of Hippocrates’s theory, phlegm was considered moist and cold while blood was considered moist and hot.

Adoption of cacao in Europe required that it be classified within humoral theory.  In 1570, King Philip II of Spain directed his Royal Physician Francisco Hernández to travel across the Atlantic to classify plants in the Americas under humoral theory.  Claiming cacao to be very nourishing, Hernández believed the cacao bean to be “temperate in nature” yet should be considered more “cold and humid” (Coe & Coe, 122).  Due to its cool nature, cacao drinks could be used to cure fevers and provide a cooling relief from hot weather.  Many of the cacao spices used by Mesoamericans, such as mecaxochitl flavoring, were considered “hot” under humoral theory.  Given that Hernández classified plants with strong odor and taste as “hot” and those with little odor or taste as “cold”, he believed the spices that Mesoamericans included in their chocolate drinks were “hot” and carried medicinal applications by “warm[ing] the stomach, perfum[ing] the breath… [and] combat[ing] poisons, alleviat[ing] intestinal pains and colics” (Coe & Coe, 122).  Ultimately, Hernández classified cacao drinks as “cold” most likely because the Aztecs considered their beverage cold, consumed the drink at room temperature or colder, and used the drink to replenish the body and avoid fatigue (Coe & Coe, 122).

Just as Galen expanded on Hippocrates’s humoral theory, so too did Juan de Cárdenas expand on Hernández’s analysis of chocolate and classification of cacao under humoral theory by publishing a treatise on New World foods in 1591.  Cárdenas details that chocolate can be unhealthy if prepared or taken improperly.  He asserts that “green” chocolate, most likely referring to unripe cacao beans, causes health symptoms such as melancholy, irregular heartbeats, and paroxysms, and can harm digestion (Coe & Coe, 123).  Conversely, Cárdenas contends that cacao can aid in digestion, be nutritious, and imbue happiness and strength if the cacao is prepared properly, including grinding and toasting, as well as is mixed with substances like atole gruel (Coe & Coe, 123).  He recognized the health and medicinal value of the substances that Mesoamericans added into chocolate, such as hueinacaztli, or ear flower, which “comforts the liver, stimulates digestion, and extirpates windiness” (Coe & Coe, 123).

Cárdenas echoed many of Hernández’s claims regarding chocolate, including that drinking chocolate is a good method for avoiding fatigue, cooling off, and replenishing the body.  However, Cárdenas did deviate from Hernández’s humoral description of cacao and chocolate.  Cárdenas believed chocolate to consist of three main parts: a “cold”, “earthy”, and “dry part; a “warm and humid” oily part; and a head-ache inducing, bitter-tasting, “hot” part (Coe & Coe, 123).  Culinary historian Maricel E. Presilla shares her opinion of Cárdenas’s treatise: “In a way Cárdenas was rationalizing his own enjoyment and acceptance of the way chocolate was made in the Americas and putting it in the scientific context of the times.  And we find that the techniques and practices he considered wise and healthy have been used from his day to the present in Latin America and Spain” (Presilla, 27).  Now that cacao was properly classified under humoral theory and considered healthy in Europe, it could be consumed by all who had access to the luxurious drink.

In essence, Europeans took cacao beans and detached the religious and cultural significance Mesoamericans had for them while fitting this new commodity into Europe’s humoral belief system as a medicine and a drug.  It was under this categorization as a medicine, a drug, and a healthful product, that chocolate travelled in Europe, “from one court to another, from noble house to noble house, from monastery to monastery” (Coe & Coe, 126).  Chocolate became a symbol of luxury, consumed by the nobility of Europe, but also appreciated for its medicinal properties.  In fact, Alphonse de Richelieu (1634-1680) is suspected to be the first person to bring chocolate to France to be consumed as a medical treatment for his spleen (Coe & Coe, 153).


Industrialization and Chocolate: The Age of Adulteration

By the mid-1900s, chocolate was converted into a solid form, becoming accessible, cheap, and enjoyed by all while firmly breaking the 28 century-old practice in which chocolate was exclusively consumed by wealthy elite (Coe & Coe, 232).  At this point in time, “no longer did [people] have to fret over whether chocolate or its flavorings were ‘hot,’ ‘cold,’ or ‘temperate,’ ‘dry’ or ‘moist’” (Coe & Coe, 234).  The perception that chocolate was healthy persisted until chocolate received more public scrutiny.  However, it was not the chocolate that was considered unhealthy, but rather the adulterants that were being added to chocolate in place of more expensive natural ingredients.  For example, “the expensive cacao butter [was] completely extracted (and sold elsewhere), then replaced with olive oil, egg yolks, or suet of veal or mutton; the resulting product goes rancid very quickly” (Coe & Coe, 243-244).  Starch became a popularly used filler in chocolate.  Methods to uncover the true recipes of chocolate being sold to the public emerged, such as the practice of adding drops of iodine solution into a mixture of melted chocolate and boiling water which would produce a blue color once the mixture was cooled (Coe & Coe, 244).

An 1858 comic cartoon about food adulteration featured in British “Punch”

After hearing claims of chocolate adulteration, media and governments mobilized to investigate these claims and catalyze regulation.  The Lancet, a popular British medical journal, launched a health commission to analyze foods in 1850.  After collecting samples from chocolate producers around England, the health commission discovered that 39 out of 70 samples “had been colored with red ocher from ground bricks” and that “most of the samples contained starch grains from potatoes, or from two tropical plants, Canna giganta and arrowroot” (Coe & Coe, 244).  Similar results were found in French-produced chocolate.  The findings catalyzed the British government to pass the British Food and Drug Act of 1860 as well as the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872 (Coe & Coe, 244).  While chocolate manufacturers no longer put red ocher or potato starch in their chocolate, producers continue to create new ways of lowering costs while trying keeping taste, such as through using artificial flavors and other chemicals.  In the 1900s, “in the interests of economy…the mass producers began skimping on, or even cutting out altogether, the substance that gives the quality to superior chocolates: cacao butter” (Coe & Coe, 257).


Is Chocolate Considered Healthy Today?:  Chocolate as a Gourmet Fitness Food

Today, the healthiness of chocolate is being debated every day.  Generally, mass produced chocolate, especially milk chocolate, is considered unhealthy mostly due to its high sugar content.  Dark chocolate is often considered healthy or neutral.  Coe and Coe explain, “Dark chocolate does not cause diabetes, dental caries, or acne, or produce headaches, as sometimes has been alleged” (Coe & Coe, 31).  The obesity among people who consume chocolate in large quantities is often blamed on milk chocolate as well as other unhealthy lifestyle habits.  While the cacao butter commonly found in chocolate is a saturated fat, cacao butter predominantly consists of stearic triglycerides, “which have been shown to have no effect on blood cholesterol levels” (Coe & Coe, 30).  No direct link has been shown to exist between the development of heart disease and chocolate consumption (Coe & Coe, 30).

The book Chocolate and Health: Chemistry, Nutrition and Therapy edited by Philip Wilson and Jeffrey Hurst offers a comprehensive investigation into and explanation of the health claims made about chocolate.  With experts within each field writing a section regarding chocolate claims in their area of expertise, several conclusions about the true health benefits of chocolate can be made.  Cacao contains the alkaloids theobromine and caffeine which interfere with adenosine receptors, affecting mood and alertness (Wilson & Hurst, Chapter 5).  Cocoa flavanols serve as antioxidants, lower blood pressure, and improve mental processes (Wilson & Hurst, Chapter 5).  Daily consumption of moderate amounts of flavanol-rich cacao products is associated with improved blood pressure in hypertensives and increased insulin sensitivity (Chapter 7).  Chocolate and chocolate food products can be an excellent for post-exercise nutrition by providing the “nutrients necessary to repair muscle protein, replenish glycogen, quench oxidants and elevate mood during the post-exercise recovery interval” (Wilson & Hurst, Chapter 8).

Embody Fitness Gourmet is “a fitness inspired eatery serving a diverse menu of healthy and functional foods” with three locations in Connecticut that provide customers with expensive juices, salads, and Intelligentsia coffee, among other products (Embody Fitness Gourmet Facebook Page).  Embody considers itself progressive and modern in all ways, hopping on every food, fitness, and lifestyle trend.  Embody partners with SoulCycle and offers its products through Uber Eats.  It even strives to be politically progressive and active by having unisex bathrooms labeled “everyone” and posting picture of its bathroom door on Facebook with the caption, “The weather may not make much sense, but some things are pretty clear” (Embody Fitness Gourmet).  Embody offers a wide range of premium-priced products containing superfoods, such as avocado, acai, and kale.  It is here in this health mecca that we find chocolate bars standing as the only product on the long, sleek counter in front of the iPad wielding cashier.

Hu Chocolate as the only item next to iPad wielding cashier

The chocolate is called Hu Chocolate, produced by Hu Kitchen— a similar health food company in Manhattan.  The chocolate comes in eight flavors, including almond butter and puffed quinoa, cashew butter and vanilla bean, hazelnut butter, salty, simple, crunchy mint, banana, and fig nut.  When asked if customers buy a lot of the chocolate, the cashier at Embody replied, “Yeah!  People love it, but it’s pretty pricey at $8.25 per bar.”  While these two fitness food companies are trying to offer their customers a healthy chocolate bar, their efforts reflect a concerted rejection of industrialized chocolate and a desire to be cool and trendy.

The Hu Chocolate bars demonstrate a concerted rejection of industrialized chocolate and processed food of today and of the past.  The packaging lists that it contains no gluten, no dairy, no refined sugar, no cane sugar, no sugar alcohols, no dairy, no GMOs, no emulsifiers, and no soy lecithin (hukitchen.com).  Their website explains their reasons for excluding these ingredients.  For using no refined sugar, Hu Chocolate vilifies big chocolate companies: “Most commercial chocolates are sweetened with low quality refined sugars.  These sugars always made us sluggish and tired, which made us hesitant to eat chocolate.  Hu Chocolate is sweetened with an unrefined organic coconut sugar, which never gave us a crash” (hukitchen.com).  While Hu Chocolate is using healthier ingredients than commercial chocolate companies, it supports its claims on legally-defensible anecdotal evidence, such as that coconut sugar does not give them a sugar crash.  Their slogan to “Get Back to Human” expresses their anti-industry sentiment.

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Hu Chocolate website
Hu Chocolate label exemplifying the brands hatred of industrial food


Both Embody and Hu Chocolate reject the industrialization of food and seek to retreat to more nature ways of making and using food products.  On Embody’s Facebook page, it often posts advertisements from the past to make fun of misconceptions and fads of past generations.  One post includes a “reducing diet menu” that could be supplemented with Domino sugar to lose weight.  The Embody Facebook page dismisses these advertisements immediately as “ridiculous”, instead of explaining or understanding the history of systematically-targets advertisements of sugar at women and children to help prevent fatigue and save money (Mintz, 130).  In essence, these companies reject the ingredients and processes of the modern food industry.  The Hu Chocolate advertises itself as being stone ground dark chocolate, harkening back to the Mesoamerican practice of grinding cacao using a metate and its subsequent replacement by stone mills (Coe & Coe, 115).

An 1950s advertisement Embody makes fun of on its Facebook page

To a certain extent, these companies take advantage of current fads to sell their product just as everyone from Mesoamericans to industrial chocolate manufacturers made claims about their chocolate.  Hu Chocolate claims its products are “organic/fair trade” but no information on where they source their ingredients from is available (hukitchen.com).  Furthermore, Hu Chocolate exploits the gluten-free fad by claiming on their label that there is “no gluten” in their chocolate, yet gluten is rarely found in chocolate (hukitchen.com).  Furthermore, it labels its product as “Paleo*”, referring to the paleo diet fad, but the asterisk leads the consumer to the explanation that the chocolate is labeled in this way because “some flavors are primal” (hukitchen.com).  Embody even places chocolate as the one item on its counter, knowing that chocolate is bought as an impulse purchase.  Most of all, these two companies place the chocolate products among superfoods— of course, people are going to think it’s healthy and buy it for a premium price.  Ultimately, both Embody and Hu Chocolate are focused on being relevant by keeping up with trends and fads, just like industrial chocolate and sugar companies of the past.  Additionally, examination of Hu Chocolate as a gourmet fitness product allows us to understand how we perceive the health benefits of chocolate relative to how the Mesoamericans, Baroque-era European, and industrial revolution chocolate manufacturers did.  Ultimately, contemporary chocolate is just as susceptible as past chocolate to being shaped by cultural and societal conceptions of health.

Trendy interior of Embody Fitness Gourmet

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 [1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition.         London: Thames & Hudson.

“Comic cartoon about food adulteration, 1858, from Punch.” The British Library. The                 British Library, 06 Feb. 2014. Web. 05 May 2017. < https://www.bl.uk/collection-                   items/comic- cartoon-about-food-adulteration-1858-from-punch>.

DeBra, Corinne. “Chocolate Banquet.” Hu Kitchen- Crunchy Fig Chocolate Bar – Aug. 6,               2015. N.p. 06 Aug. 2015. Web. 05 May 2017.                                                                                    <http://www.chocolatebanquet.com/2015/08/hu-kitchen-crunchy-fig-chocolate-                     bar.html>.

“Embody Fitness Gourmet.” TBT to ridiculous 1950s advertising for… Embody Fitness               Gourmet. N.p., 23 Feb. 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.                                                                               <https://www.facebook.com/embodyfg/photos/a.502839906415719.15976032.466963           940003316/1486796624686704/?type=3&theater>.

“Hu Chocolate.” Hu Kitchen. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2017.                                                                     <https://hukitchen.com/collections/chocolate&gt;.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture and the                Politics of Food. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2017. Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney. 1986 [1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.              New York: Penguin Books.

Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History            of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Wilson, Philip K., and William Jeffrey Hurst. 2015. Chocolate and health: chemistry,                      nutrition and therapy. Cambridge, UK: Royal Society of Chemistry.

Chocolate: Healthy or Health-Free?

With an overwhelming flux of information sitting at our fingertips, it has become increasingly important to be able to decipher marketing motives and assess the scientific validity of the health claims presented by news platforms, online sources, social media, and word of mouth. Chocolate, in particular, has been a frequent featured topic in the discourse surrounding health during the past two decades. Headlines, ranging from “Chocolate Can Boost Your Workout. Really.” to “Chocolate is good for you? Sure, and the Easter bunny is real, too”, highlight the competing claims between health reports. Considering chocolate’s role as a driver of mass consumption in our society, it is essential to differentiate between the medicinal properties of crude cocoa goods and the highly-processed chocolate products advertised to consumers.

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An Instagram account sharing recipes for healthy chocolate treats.

Theobroma cacao, food of the Gods, has had a longstanding association with health and medicine. Its incorporation into the customs and rituals of the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs document the myriad of medicinal properties that the substance possessed. The adoption of chocolate by the Spanish and other Europeans recognized these health-related benefits and continued the tradition of consuming chocolate for medicinal purposes among other uses (Coe and Coe, 1996). By the mid-twentieth century, however, chocolate had transitioned from a food, drug, and currency to a guilty pleasure that was beginning to be associated with health problems. Only over the past few decades have the purported benefits of chocolate resurged, this time with substantial backing from the scientific community. This led to products, such as low-fat chocolate milk and heart-healthy dark chocolate treats, flooding the market, their promises of lower blood pressure and younger-looking skin buzzing in our minds. These promises about chocolate’s healthy properties are even promoted by some of the biggest names of popular fiction. J.K. Rowling’s protagonist, Harry Potter, was offered a chocolate as a restorative measure after encountering a Dementor.

More than anything, however, these alluring chocolate products swarm us with questions.

  1. To what extent are the health benefits of chocolate substantiated by scientific research or are they simply marketing ploys?
  2. How do the production processes increase or compromise the nutritional value of the chocolate?

Tracing the health accounts involving chocolate from the Mesoamerican civilizations, through European transformation, to present-day scientific literature emphasizes many health benefits, and more notably, reinforces the importance of moderation, a value too intentionally veiled by a market that profits from a population driven to excess.

Cacao in Mesoamerican Medical Practices

Chocolate’s reputed medical prospects can be traced back to ancient times, long predating the use of scientific research to verify the product’s proposed health benefits. The early civilizations of the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs valued cacao as a source of energy, strength, fertility, and restoration. Aztec sources, in particular, have been extremely useful in helping us better understand the role that cacao played in ancient remedies. The Florentine Codex, complied by Bernardino de Sahagun, presents extensive details about the dietary, health, and medical practices of the Aztecs, as well as many other aspects of their lives and culture (Dillinger et al., 2000). The document noted the use of cacao to treat stomach and intestinal problems, fatigue and fevers. Accounts also described the stimulant and aphrodisiac effects of chocolate as well as the use of cacao as an additive to make other medicines more palatable. One clear example of the medicinal use of cacao during ancient times is the prescription for childhood diarrhea, which required five cacao beans to be ground and served as a beverage to the sick child (Dillinger et al., 2000). Particularly important to recognize is the emphasis of cacao consumption in moderation. Sahagun’s informants made a clear distinction between the benefits conferred by moderate consumption of cacao and the side effects of excessive cacao intake (Dillinger et al., 2000).

“[Green cacao] makes one drunk, takes effect on one, makes one dizzy, confuses one, makes one sick, deranges one. When an ordinary amount is drunk, it gladdens one, refreshes one, consoles one, invigorates one. Thus it is said: ‘I take cacao. I wet my lips. I refresh myself’” (Sahagun 1590, Part 12: 119-120) (Dillinger et al., 2000)

These words of caution demonstrate that overconsumption of the even the purest form of cacao—clearly unsweetened and unprocessed, unlike most popular chocolate products today—is unhealthy and leads to undesired side effects. Therefore, documents detailing Mesoamerican medical practices highlight the widespread use of cacao as a treatment and additive for various ailments; these records, however, also caution against excessive consumption of this natural product, a lesson that must be recognized and practiced in our society today.

Chocolate Integration into European Medicine
Advertisement for milk chocolate includes that the product is physician recommended and helps with intestinal problems.

The incorporation of chocolate into European culture and practices involved the hybridization of the product in many different respects. One such hybridization required crossing the medical barrier. The Spanish stripped away much of the spiritual significance that the Mesoamericans associated with chocolate; instead, they promoted chocolate as a drug with medical purposes. Their intent was to integrate chocolate into their humoral system, which they used to understand health and medicine (Coe and Coe, 1996). Thus, chocolate became popular in Europe first as a drug and treatment. Anecdotes about the effects of chocolate quickly spread, peaking the interest of physicians and other intellectuals in the health effects of these products. In addition to treating ailments, much to the same effect as the Mesoamericans had described, chocolate was often prescribed to European sailors and people traveling long distances as a form of sustenance during their voyages. Chocolate was recommended for three main reasons: to help individuals gain weight, to stimulate the nervous system, and to improve digestion (Dillinger et al., 2000).

William Hughes, who authored a book including information on all the ways to make chocolate, advocated for the use of chocolate in a medical capacity. “It is the most wholesome and most excellent drink that is yet found out. . . it is good alone to make up a breakfast, needing no other food, either bread or drink, is beneficial to the body, and without exception, may be drunk by people of all ages, young as well as old, of what sex or what constitution so ever and is very good for women with childe, nourishing the embryo, and preventing fainting fits, which some breeding women are subject unto: it helpeth nature to concoct phlegme and superfluous moisture in the stomack; it voideth the excrements by urine and sweat abundantly, and breedeth store of very good blood, thereby supplying the expence of spirits, it expels gravel, and keepth the body fat and plump, and also preserveth the countenance fresh and fair: it strengthens the vitals, and is good against fevers, cattarrhs, asthmaes, and consumptions of all sorts” (Dillinger et al., 2000). Hughes was simply one among many who praised the use of chocolate as a healing and restorative substance, its benefits affecting many levels of human health, spanning the developmental stage and beyond adulthood. Prescribers, however, were guarded against excessive consumption of chocolate, even for medical purposes.

“[Chocolate] produces good Effects, when used moderately, it also … [produces] bad ones when taken to Excess, or mix’t with too many sharp Drugs…because its exalted Principles cause too great a Rarefaction in the Humours” (Paoletti, and Paoletti, 2012)

This recurring emphasis on moderation demonstrates that even though chocolate has been considered a healthy substance for thousands of years, it has never been a product intended for excessive indulgence.

The Science Underlying Chocolate Health Claims

European manuscripts from the seventh century to the twentieth century described over one hundred medicinal uses of chocolate, corroborating what the Aztecs had known and practiced with chocolate. During the twentieth century however, chocolate garnered an unfavorable reputation following the split of dietetics from medicine (Watson et al., 2013). The support for the purported medical benefits of chocolate offered by oral tradition and anecdotal evidence was no longer sufficient to convince the public. Therefore, during the late 1900s, experimentally derived biomedical evidence came to the forefront of our discussions about chocolate and became the basis of many marketing campaigns. Finally, the effects of chocolate documented by the Mesoamericans and by Europeans centuries earlier could be explained by biochemical properties and mechanisms elucidated by modern science.

There are more than 200 compounds in cocoa that could potentially be playing a role in the relationship between cocoa consumption and health outcomes. However, these substances may only be present at a negligible concentration in finished chocolate products or may have low bioavailability in humans; therefore, not all the different substances in cocoa produce meaningful benefits for people (Paoletti, and Paoletti, 2012). Most of the health benefits conferred by chocolate consumption are due to cocoa’s high polyphenol content. In addition to cocoa, polyphenols and flavonoids can be found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, red wine, and other plant-based sources (“Heart-Health Benefits of Chocolate Unveiled”). Flavonoids, which are a polyphenolic compound, constitute approximately twenty percent of cocoa, making cocoa a rich source of antioxidants (Crichton et al., 2016). For Americans, chocolate serves as their third highest daily source of antioxidants (Latif 2003). As shown by the table below, when compared to other sources of these compounds, chocolate contains a much higher flavonoids content as well as higher antioxidant activity (Steinberg et al., 2003). Antioxidants mount important defenses against free radicals that can accumulate as a result of normal bodily processes. The buildup of free radicals and increase in oxidation can lead to damage to the body and subsequent health complications; for example, increased oxidation can lead to plaque formation on artery walls (“Heart-Health Benefits of Chocolate Unveiled”).

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Table from Steinberg et al. 2013 shows high flavonoid content and antioxidant power of chocolate compared to other sources of these compounds.

The most significant association between chocolate and a disease outcome has been the correlation between increased chocolate consumption and a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). Dr. Eric Ding at the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed 24 different studies along with a team of researchers to examine the effects of cocoa flavonoids on risk for cardiovascular disease. They found that “flavonoids reduced blood pressure and unhealthy LDL cholesterol, increased healthy HDL cholesterol, improved blood flow, and lowered insulin resistance” (“Chocolate: Pros and cons of this sweet treat”). Despite these positive effects, it is unclear whether cocoa consumption can actually prevent a heart attack or if it simply mitigates factors that contribute to one.

Dark Chocolate Facts

In addition to heart health, studies investigating the effects of cocoa consumption have also observed antidiabetic effects (by increasing nitric oxide bioavailability to ameliorate insulin resistance), anti-stress effects (through the release of serotonin), anti-obese effects, anti-inflammatory effects and anti-tumor effects (Latif 2013). Studies tracing the effects of cocoa in the brain noted an increase in cerebral blood flow, as well as improved information processing and memory after a high dose of flavonoids for an eight-week period (Crichton et al., 2016). While these positive correlations in many different domains of human health are promising, much more research is required to better understand the mechanisms by which cocoa achieves these effects as well as to better anticipate long-term effects.

Misconceptions in the Market: What You Read vs. What You Eat

After decades of bearing the brunt of chocolate’s bad reputation, chocolate companies boomed as the increasing scientific evidence of chocolate’s health benefits gave producers new angles from which they could draw in consumers. New products, such as heart healthy dark chocolate treats, flooded markets and old products, such as chocolate milk, returned to stores, this time with a scientific stamp of approval.

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Over-eager customers are enticed by buzzwords, such as “heart healthy,” on chocolate products, not realizing that understanding the nutritional value of advertised chocolate products requires not only knowledge of the science behind effects of cocoa but also insight into the production processes that transform cocoa into the final product advertised on shelves. Firstly, it is important to differentiate between the types of chocolate. Dark chocolate contains a much higher amount of flavonoids that milk chocolate (Latif 2013). Products like milk chocolate have a much lower cocoa amount and instead contain many additives, such as sugar, fat, milk, and other ingredients that diminish the potential positive effects cocoa consumption can have on human health (“Chocolate: Pros and cons of this sweet treat”). Secondly, purchasing chocolate with high cocoa content, such as dark chocolate, does not necessarily mean that the final product contains a high concentration of polyphenols because of the significant effect that processing has on the nutritional value of chocolate (Paoletti, and Paoletti 2012). Cacao beans initially have a very strong bitter taste due to the high amount of polyphenols present in the raw fruit; this taste can be so potent that cacao beans can be inedible. Thus, the post-harvest processes of fermenting, roasting, alkalizing, sweetening and others are intended to diminish the original flavor. The consequence of this extensive processing is a loss in the antioxidant power of chocolate. “As much as 90% of the flavonoids may be lost due to cocoa processing” (Latif 2013).

Therefore, even though the two products advertised above emphasize the science-substantiated health benefits of chocolate, the processing significantly lowers the nutritional value of the final products. Companies tangentially brand the science behind their processed chocolate products, even though their products are hugely different from the raw cocoa used in studies. “The average dose of flavonoids in the studies Dr. Ding reviewed was 400 milligrams a day. ‘The problem is, that’s about the equivalent of eight bars of dark chocolate or 30 bars of milk chocolate,” he says. “When you eat these actual chocolate bars, all the calories and sugar come with them.’” (“Chocolate: Pros and cons of this sweet treat”). Today, even with backing from modern science, the recommended consumption of chocolate is still a moderate portion, typically around one ounce a few times a week (Heart-Health Benefits of Chocolate Unveiled”).

Tracing the perceived health benefits of chocolate over the centuries demonstrates that the purported healthy effects of cocoa consumption have always been recognized and substantiated by a powerful medium, whether it be oral tradition of the Aztecs, the anecdotal evidence of Europeans, or the biochemical research of modern societies. More importantly, analyzing the reception of chocolate by different peoples and cultures reveals the emphasis on moderation that has persisted. In a society with chocolate companies that profit from excessive indulgence, it has become crucial for individuals to be careful about the quality and quantity of chocolate they consume.

Works Cited

“Chocolate: Pros and cons of this sweet treat.” Harvard Health Publications. Harvard University, n.d. Web. 01 May 2017.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

Crichton, Georgina E., et al. “Chocolate Intake Is Associated with Better Cognitive Function: The Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study.” Appetite, vol. 100, 2016, pp. 126–132.

Dillinger, T L, et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 130, no. 8S Suppl, 2000, pp. 2057S–72S.

“Heart-Health Benefits of Chocolate Unveiled | Cleveland Clinic: Health Library.” Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic, n.d. Web. 01 May 2017.

Latif, R. “Chocolate/Cocoa and Human Health: a Review.” The Netherlands Journal of Medicine, vol. 71, no. 2, 2013, pp. 63–8.

Paoletti, and Paoletti, Rodolfo. Chocolate and Health. Milan, Springer, 2012.

Steinberg, et al. “Cocoa and Chocolate Flavonoids: Implications for Cardiovascular Health.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, vol. 103, no. 2, 2003, pp. 215–223.

Watson, Ronald Ross; Preedy, Victor R.; Zibadi, Sherma. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Vol. 7, Totowa, NJ, Humana Press, 2013.

Image Sources

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Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2017. <http://333oee3bik6e1t8q4y139009mcg.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/CACAO_DarkChocolateFacts.png&gt;.

Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2017.<www.behance.net/gallery/6533023/Hersheys-Special-Dark- Chocolate-Kisses-Campaign>.

Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2017.  <www.adnatomy.files.wordpress.  com/2013/03/my-after-22workhorse22.png>.

Chocolate: Medicine’s Gateway into Society

Chocolate has elicited interest as a possible medicine across time for early Mesoamericans to Renaissance Europeans to modern Americans. Renaissance Europeans, desperate for medical solutions, attempted to fit chocolate into their rudimentary medical theory and touted it as a cure for a wide array of maladies. A medicinal framing of chocolate facilitated its journey to Europe where it expanded its influence into culture. Despite continued debate, chocolate’s medical potential opened a gateway that allowed chocolate to enter and become largely accepted in European society. This interest and debate continues with a modern resurgence of interest in chocolate as medicine. Today researchers investigate the health benefits of chocolate while health bloggers proliferate their own sometimes exaggerated perspectives.

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Chocolate held spiritual and monetary value for the Mayan and Aztec peoples of Mesoamerica. However, it also fit into their medical theory. Mesoamericans believed disease and illness was born from imbalances of hot and cold. The Florentine Codex of 1590, created by a Spanish priest, noted that Mesoamericans drank chocolate to ease stomach pain and cure infections. It also played a role in treating diarrhea, fevers, and coughs (Dillinger, et al).

Europeans had a framework for understanding illness that traces back to the ancient Greek “Humoral Theory of Disease and Nutrition.” This theory holds that the body contains four humors– wet, dry, hot and cold. Like the Mesoamericans, they believed ill health stemmed from imbalance. In 130 AD Galen advanced the idea that disease could be treated by applying the opposite humor (a hot disease can be cured with a cold medicine, and so on). Europeans like Franciso Hernandez worked to fit chocolate into the medical theory of humors. Hernandez decided that chocolate should be classified as a “cold” drug (Coe & Coe, 122).

The medical potential of chocolate was appealing to Europeans, who were routinely affected by infections, diseases, and plagues for which they had no effective cure. In addition, a medical use provided a convenient rationale for drinking chocolate, for Christian Europeans were suspicious of substances like chocolate, coffee and tea that might  “upset moral behaviors” because of their “amorous properties and exciting effects” (Lippi). As a result, chocolate entered Europe cloaked as medicine that fit into the humoral theory of disease. However, like many other “drugs” such as coffee and tea, its role transformed into one of recreation. (Coe & Coe, 126). Doctors in each country debated its virtues and drawbacks while chocolate continued to develop a cultural role.

Chocolate began its European journeys in the Spanish court in the 17th century.  Marie de Villars, wife of the French ambassador to Spain, provides evidence that the elite believed in the health benefits of chocolate. De Villars writes “I observe my chocolate diet, to which I believe I owe my health…” (Coe & Coe).  Chocolate transformed into a drink that conveyed elite status and became common in the Spanish court. Chocolate likely entered Italy, France and England as medicine as well. Bonaventure d’ Argonne wrote that “…the Cardinal of Lyon was the first in France to use this drug… he uses it to moderate the vapors of his spleen” (Coe & Coe, 152). Chocolate became popular in French court while physicians continued to debate its medical properties. When chocolate arrived in England, a newspaper advertisement from 1659 claims that chocolate “cures and preserves the body of many diseases” (165). In England, chocolate expanded its cultural role beyond just the elite, as it was served to commoners in coffee houses. However, the popular chocolate drink, which was mixed with sugar, arose medical suspicions. Martin Lister wrote that after taking chocolate, “your Stomach is faint, craving and feels hollow and empty… it wears it [the gut] out.” Dr. Henry Stubbes felt that chocolate on its own was healthy, but the added sugar was not (170).

sugar-485045_960_720Like Henry Stubbes, modern people also do not view chocolate as healthy because it is associated with sugar, and awareness of sugar’s negative health impacts has grown in recent years. In the 2016 Huffington Post article “Sugar is Not Only a Drug, but a Poison Too” author David Samadi explains that “Too much sugar is harmful to the body and promotes inflammation and disease” and “sugar consumption is also a ma
jor risk factor for the development of other health conditions such as obesity and heart disease.”

Read more here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-david-samadi/sugar-is-not-only-a-drug-but-a-poison-too_b_8918630.html

The popular food blogger known as “The Food Babe” criticizes our modern chocolate for additives beyond just sugar. She shares concerns about the negative health impacts of corn syrup, trans fats, and artificial flavors and preservatives.

urlSee The Food Babe’s perspective here: http://foodbabe.com/2012/10/31/getting-conned-cheap-toxic-chocolate/

With negative attention like this in the media, it is easy to see why chocolate is perceived as unhealthy. However, modern medical researchers have renewed interest in the health benefits of chocolate as a stand alone ingredient, unadulterated by sugar and additives.

In 2011, researchers studied the heart health of 4970 participants aged 25-93 and recorded their chocolate intake. They found that participants who consumed chocolate had a decreased risk for coronary heart disease (Djousse, et al). Another 2011 study assessed other studies of chocolate and heart health. These researchers found that five out of seven studies showed chocolate to correlate with heart health. The most significant finding was that chocolate was associated with a 37% reduction in heart disease (Buitrago-Lopez, et al).

Read the studies here:



Medical research has revealed benefits beyond heart health as well. In 2013, a study revealed that polyphenols in chocolate correlate to positive mood. Participants who consumed chocolate reported an increase in calmness and contentment (Pase, et al).

Read the study here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23364814

Health bloggers and news sites often pick up on these research studies and present them for the average reader. However, their articles often simplify or exaggerate the health benefits of chocolate, and fail to clearly explain the meaning of recent research.

Check out these examples:




These articles sound encouraging, but Harvard Women’s Health Watch reminds us to remain skeptical because “while some observational studies have linked chocolate consumption to reductions in heart disease and dementia, they don’t establish a cause-and-effect relationship” (Is Chocolate Really a Health Food?). Further research is needed to confirm that the antioxidants in chocolate are truly protecting us against disease.

See the article here: http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthy-eating/is-chocolate-really-a-health-food

Chocolate originally crossed the ocean to Europe as medicine, allowing it to overcome Christian suspicions around the moral permissibility of such an “exciting” drink. In Spain, Italy and France chocolate became a recreational drink for the elite and in England it expanded its reach to the common people. Chocolate’s recreational role eclipsed its medicinal and chocolate became commonplace in Western culture as a dessert; however, the debate over chocolate’s medical value never disappeared. Today we are witnessing a rebirth of curiosity in chocolate as medicine, as modern researchers aim to use scientific method to confirm what we all hope– that chocolate is more than just a delicious treat, but a healthy one too!

Work Cited

Buitrago-Lopez, et al. “Chocolate Consumption and Cardiometabolic Disorders: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.). U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

Dillinger, et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” American Society for Nutritional Sciences. 2000. Web.

Djousse, et al. “Chocolate Consumption Is Inversely Associated with Prevalent Coronary Heart Disease: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Family Heart Study.” Clinical Nutrition. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

“Is Chocolate Really a Health Food?” Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School, Sept. 2015. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

Lippi, Donatella. Nutrients. May 2013. Web.

Pase, et al. “Cocoa Polyphenols Enhance Positive Mood States but Not Cognitive Performance: A Randomized, Placebo-controlled Trial.” Journal of Psychopharmacology. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

Sophie D. Coe & Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 1996.

One Man’s Treat, Another Man’s “Temporary Heaven”

For many, chocolate is a delightful treat for the occasional indulgence, but for Buster it is his every day meditation. Chocolate is the favorite part of his day because with one bite Buster says he is put into his “temporary heaven”. He also noted that “if there is no chocolate in heaven, [he] will not be happy.” When asked about his first experience with chocolate he remembers going to the store and sticking a penny into a gum machine and getting a gum ball with speckles. If you got a gum ball with speckles you got to trade it in for a nickel to purchase a small candy bar. Little Buster had the time of his life choosing that Snickers bar and sharing it with his grandmother. It is experiences like this that show the true relationship that people can have with food. One brand of chocolate can bring forth a multitude of emotions and memories.

When Buster was a child, one Snickers cost only one nickel. 
The store Buster visited had one cent, speckled gum balls that you could trade in for a Nickel to buy  a candy bar. 


While interviewing Buster, I discovered that some of his memories of chocolate brought tears to his eyes. His “darling sweetheart Cheryl” and he would only argue about how she spoiled her two daughters, unless he came home with a Hershey’s Symphony chocolate bar. That was  the one treat “she wouldn’t share with her kids”. Sadly, Cherly passed away before they could get married, but this memory they shared with chocolate still lives on with Buster today. Chocolate is a truly amazing part of our world because one combination of flavors can hold the dearest memories in peoples’ hearts.


The favorite treat of Buster’s sweetheart. Hershey’s Symphony is milk chocolate filled with almonds and toffee chips. 


The nutritional value of chocolate and the healthy amount of chocolate people should consume daily has been debated over the years. Though chocolate is not labeled as a health food is has been proven to have benefits to people’s health. The Mayo Clinic states, “Chocolate and its main ingredient, cocoa, appear to reduce risk factors for heart disease (Zeratsky)”. Zeratsky goes into more detail to explain that,  “flavanols in cocoa beans have antioxidant effects that reduce cell damage implicated in heart disease,” and “Flavanols — which are more prevalent in dark chocolate than in milk chocolate — also help lower blood pressure and improve vascular function.” It is these benefits of chocolate that avid chocolate eaters attribute as an “excuse” for their chocolate addictions. When Buster was asked if chocolate was healthy in a day-to-day diet, he answered, “yes most, and if it’s not I don’t care!” Buster eats chocolate every day and loves to journey into his favorite section of the candy aisle at Food Lion. The nutritional benefits of chocolate exist and though too much can cause weight gain and other health risks, a daily dose of chocolate certainly does not hurt with Buster being a true example.

Some people’s favorite part of chocolate is the delicious taste, but for Buster it is the benefit of meditation. With one piece of chocolate, he is able to “take [his] mind off [his] problems temporarily”. Chocolate has been proven to alleviate stress of many types. In 2009, a study found that the “consumption of 40 grams of dark chocolate per day for two weeks decreased urinary  cortisol (an indicator of physiological stress levels) in participants with chronic stress (Osdoba, 242)”. Another study of chocolate consumption showed, “just three days of dark chocolate consumption resulted in decrease levels of psychological street captured by self-reported anxiety and depression (Osdoba, 242)”. The chocolate Buster uses to meditate is Hershey’s special dark chocolate with almonds nuggets. Chocolate is a perfect tool for meditation because not only is meditating helpful in reliving stress, but the combination of chocolate is only added to the major benefits of the stress relief.


One nugget can be the perfect amount of chocolate for a short and relaxing meditation. 


Even today, Chocolate labels can be seen with the Pope on them. This is one example of a chocolate covered Oreo with the Pope on the packaging. 

Chocolate consumption can make people happy and feel good; that’s just one of the major benefits of it. For Buster, chocolate makes him “feel like [he is] enjoying one of the better aspects of life”. Buster even recalled from the Food Channel, that the Pope for years he was the only one to consume most of the chocolate. In fact, “in the 18th-century Italy, chocolate was the preferred drink of the Cardinals and they even had it brought in while they were electing a new Pope (Belardo)”. Though this was a special treat for the Cardinals, “chocolate was also rumored to have disguised a poison that killed Pope Clement XIV in 1774 (Belardo)”. In most cases, chocolate was always a great pleasure for the Pope and it was one “of the better aspects of life”. Historically, chocolate was only consumed by the elites at first because it was considered a high treat only for the best to consume. Chocolate is massed produced today and massed consumed, but the quality and enjoyment of it still remains in high status of many chocolate lovers’ lives.

While interviewing Buster, there was no doubt that he truly loved chocolate. He rated his favorite chocolate bar the Snickers a 10 out of 10; with all other chocolate bars having a score of 9 out of 10. Chocolate has helped in his favorite past time as well. Buster is an avid golfer and he finds the Snickers Bars to be a good source of energy on the golf course. “you eat them at the turn and have energy on the backside” while playing a round of golf. The only part of chocolate he does not like is when “you leave them in your golf bag too long in the summer time it melts and its hard to eat”. As one can easily see, Buster is dedicated to his chocolate consumption regularly and the only down fall is he craves it all the time.

Funny images like these are made by people to show the feelings of people who crave chocolate and must have it immediately.

Chocolate cravings are very common for many people, and there is science behind why people crave this delicious delight. The Journal of Nutrition cites that, “chocolate is the most frequently craved food in North America (Yanovski)”. There are ingredients in chocolate that explain why this is true.  Several “studies describe psychoactive substances in chocolate, including theobromine (a weak central nervous system stimulant), anandamide (an endogenous cannabinoid), phenylethylamine (an amphetamine-like compound) and caffeine (Yanovski)”. Though the content of these substances is very low in chocolate it can still affect craving slightly. Chocolate cravings can also occur when the body is going through hormonal changes, for example women on their menstrual cycle (Yanovski). Cravings of chocolate are not people simply wanting their favorite treat, the science behind it shows that chocolate cravings are real and can happen to anyone. Simply watching a chocolate commercial can spark the cravings for many, but for Buster’s case he craves chocolate all the time.

1169124_1358297761063_full.jpgPreferences for the time when people eat chocolate can vary among consumers. Most would argue that people eat chocolate generally as a dessert after meals. While others enjoy chocolate as a snack, usually as an impulse buy at the cash register. Buster noted that he enjoyed eating chocolate after meals because the flavor lasts longer in his mouth. Much to everyone’s disappoint though, too much chocolate can be very bad for you all at once. One story Buster shared with me was how he made a record of eating eleven chocolate milkshakes in one day. Needless to say, he did get quite sick for a moment. Chocolate can be healthy for you and the amount you eat can all depend on when you eat it, but be sure you eat just the right amount to enjoy chocolate at its best.

Some of the greatest aspects of chocolate can be hidden behind the ingredients and packing. Food is a delight and basic necessity for living, and the most powerful part of it is that it has the power to bring people together. Chocolate is able to bring people together to form friendships that may not have happened without the bond of chocolate.Though Buster and I share a work place (and he had to pass my desk to get to his working space), we did not become great friends until he stumbled upon my chocolate textbook on my desk. I found him reading the cover and telling me how fascinated he is with chocolate and how much he absolutely loves eating it. From that day forward, several times a week he would leave chocolate on my desk or hand me some chocolate nuggets from his pockets. Sometimes we even end up exchanging chocolate bars. We now share a unique friendship bonded by our love of chocolate and the enjoyment of consuming the amazing taste of it.


Belardo, Carolyn. “Chocolate-history.” Drexel University. N.p., n.d. Web.
“Blots Gumballs – 850 Count.” Blots Berry Gumballs. N.p., n.d. Web.
“Candyrageous » Blog Archive » Hershey’s Symphony.” Candyrageous RSS. N.p., n.d. Web.
“Chocolate Milkshake.” Recipes Hubs. N.p., n.d. Web.
“Hershey®’s Extra Dark and Hershey®’s Special Dark® Dark Chocolate Review.” The WiC Project Faith Free Giveaways Product Reviews Recipes. N.p., 24 Feb. 2010. Web.
“Made At RGU.” : Smart Food Swaps & Alternatives To Chocolate! N.p., 11 Mar. 2016. Web.
Osdoba, Katie E., Traci Mann, Joseph P. Redden, and Zata Vickers. “Using Food to Reduce Stress: Effects of Choosing Meal Components and Preparing a Meal.” Food Quality and Preference 39 (2015): 241-50. Web.
“Pope Francis Chocolate and Treats.” Zazzle. N.p., n.d. Web.
“Snickers®.” Snickers®. N.p., n.d. Web.
Yanovski, Susan. “Journal of Nutrition.” Sugar and Fat: Cravings and Aversions. N.p., 2003. Web.
Zeratsky, Katherine, R.D., L.D. “Can Chocolate Be Good For My Health?” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, 06 Dec. 2014. Web.

Unwilling to see past the pleasure: How one woman’s positive memories and continued fondness for chocolate make it difficult for her to consider chocolate production


On Sunday, May 1st 2016 I interviewed a woman by the name of Martina about her memories of, experiences with, preferences for, and decisions regarding chocolate. I didn’t ask very many questions, but we spoke for a little over an hour as she provided rich descriptions and recollections in her answers. Over the course of the interview it became apparent that Martina has an almost uniformly positive mental association with chocolate. This is a particularly strong association as she engages with chocolate on a daily basis. Indeed, it is this powerful link of chocolate to pleasure and happiness for Martina that had prevented or at least dissuaded her from considering any negative aspects of chocolate production and trade.



When asked about her first chocolate-related memory, Martina spoke about the chocolate egg that she received on Easter when she was very young.

“When I was about 6 or so I got this enormous chocolate egg from the Easter bunny. It must have been about 6 by 3 inches. It was this beautiful egg that had coconut cream on the inside, chocolate enrobing the coconut, and then my name written in cursive on the outside of the egg. I wanted to eat it right away, but I also wanted to look at it because it had my name and was so beautiful. So I ended up setting it aside and went with my family to the UU church. When we returned, my dog had eaten it. I was heartbroken. But it is still this wonderful memory of having this beautiful chocolate creation that was mine.”

Dog with chocolate egg
Dog and a chocolate egg – much like the egg that Martina’s dog ate

Martina also commented on her favorite treats at the time and the sweets on which she would spend her allowance money, showing that she valued chocolate highly at an early age.

“I always loved chocolate. I would always spend allowance money on food, especially chocolate. And it was so foreign to me that best friend growing up didn’t like it! I still don’t understand it… Anyway, I remember often spending my money on Mallow Cups. They looked like Reese’s peanut butter cups but with marshmallow instead of peanut butter inside. I don’t remember if there were jokes or tokens on the cardboard cards under the mallow cups, but there was also some sort of additional incentive to buying them. I remember that kids collected them. When I was older and had more allowance money, I would go spend all of it on English Toffee at John Wanamaker’s department store – I think I was able to purchase a quarter pound or so. That toffee with milk chocolate and almonds on outside – so good.”

Some other memories that Martina readily recalls revolve around chocolate in different forms:

“I really didn’t have a preference when it came to chocolate – I loved eating it any which way. One of the first things I learned how to cook was a batch of chocolate meringues – delicious. I also really liked chocolate ice cream. I would always love going over to my friend Samantha’s house because her father worked for Breyers and they always had great chocolate ice cream. But one of my most memorable childhood experiences was eating a 10 gallon container of chocolate, chocolate chip ice cream with my four brothers. My dad had been driving behind an ice cream truck on his way back from work, when the tub of ice cream fell off. This was before they had fancy ice cream flavors in grocery stores, so this was some sort of specialty flavor that you could only get in ice cream parlors.”

From these memories it is clear that throughout Martina’s childhood she developed an extremely strong relationship with chocolate and still has these very fond recollections of her experience with friends, family, and chocolate. As she put it: “thinking about it now, it seems like most of my favorite memories and stories deal with chocolate.” This observation is telling, as Martina has formed strong positive associations with chocolate due to her enjoyable memories with the good.



Martina’s fond experiences with chocolate are not only in the past, in fact they happen on a daily basis. When I asked Martina when she had last consumed chocolate and about how regularly she consumes it, she responded “about an hour ago” and “I would say that in a month, there is only a day or two that I go without eating chocolate.”

When I gave an involuntary “wow” in surprise, Martina responded:

“I know it sounds excessive, but I normally eat chocolate in moderation. I am able to do so because I find a small amount so satisfying. I really like that about chocolate. But if I am going to indulge in something that I know is not great for me, it is likely going to be a chocolate dessert. When I go to a dinner or some sort of social gathering, people often expect me to bring a chocolate dessert because they know how much I like it.”

Martina said that the chocolate that she consumes now is different from the types of chocolate that she consumed as a kid. She doesn’t like candy bars and now prefers “chocolate in more of a darker and purer form.” These “darker and purer” chocolates that she consumes on a daily basis are either Dove’s Silky Smooth Promises or Hershey’s Bliss (images shown below). When I asked why she came to like these chocolates and if she had seen them advertised she responded that she really liked the smoothness and taste of the chocolates, but really wasn’t exposed to much chocolate advertising at all.

Perhaps ironically, not being exposed to chocolate advertising could actually be beneficial to Martina’s positive image of chocolate. This is because she is not encountering the overtly sexualized language and imagery that is often used to sell chocolate products.  This link between chocolate and sex was especially pushed in advertisements for luxury chocolates (Robertson, 2009). This tactic was most popular during the first three-fourths of the twentieth century, but it remains in use to this day (Robertson, 2009).



In addition to liking the flavor of these dark chocolates, Martina also states that she enjoys the health benefits that they provide: “I know that dark chocolate is good for me, so it is sorta like a health food. I mean that in terms of eating a couple pieces of dark chocolate every day. Not a big slice of chocolate cake with ice cream.”

This association that Martina makes between “moderate” chocolate consumption and good health is quite common. Yet, claims of chocolate’s health food properties are mostly misleading, if not inaccurate. Unprocessed cocoa powder does contain flavanol compounds that have been shown to have beneficial antioxidant and cardiovascular benefits (Fisher and Hollenberg, 2005). However, most chocolate undergoes extensive processing and does not retain these health benefits (Hollenberg and Fisher, 2007). Dutch processing, which treats cocoa with alkali to neutralize its acidity, is one process that robs cocoa of many of its beneficial flavanols (“Heart-Health”, 2012).

But even then, the health benefits derived from consuming flavanol-rich chocolate are likely exaggerated as well. Dr. Norman Hollenberg, a radiologist at Harvard Medical School and Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, greatly exaggerates the amount of cocoa consumed by the Kuna, an indigenous population of Panama. He attributes their good vascular health to drinking “at least 5 cups of cocoa with extraordinarily high flavanol-content each day” and drinking this almost exclusively (Hollenberg and Fisher, 2007). In fact, anthropologists have not found cocoa beverage consumption to be this extensive or this exclusive. The Kuna consume many different types of drinks and have a multitude of different commercial beverages available to them (Howe, 2012). Additionally, the claim that the coastal Kuna exclusively consume flavanol-rich chocolate is likely inaccurate. The availability of commercially-produced chocolate and its use in the preparation of chocolate drinks means that the amount of flavanol consumption is less than what Hollenberg makes it out to be (Howe, 2012). Thus, it is unlikely that their excellent vascular health is due to massive, exclusive consumption of favanol-rich chocolate.

Thus, Martina is enjoying chocolate on a daily basis, and believing that the chocolate that she is eating is healthy for her. Although the health benefits that she thinks her Dove and Hershey chocolates contain are doubtful, the repeated pleasurable experience of consuming the chocolate and the added psychological boost of doing something to improve her health, further reinforce an aura of positivity around chocolate.



Even experiences that might have caused Martina to think about the production of chocolate and possible negative aspects, were overtaken by positive associations. She recalled her experience of seeing a cacao farm for the first time and thinking about the production of chocolate:

“I was on my honeymoon in St. Lucia and I saw a cacao plantation and thought it was very interesting. I hadn’t thought about the growing process before and where chocolate came from.”

The cacao plantation interests her but the joy and love associated with the honeymoon is the predominant sentiment that comes through when she describes the experience. She does not mention labor conditions or ecological considerations. I then asked Martina if she knew why she hadn’t thought about the production of chocolate before and if she currently has any concerns when making chocolate purchasing decisions.

“Hmmmm I am not really sure. I guess I just feel so far removed from the production of it that I hadn’t really considered the growing process. And I don’t really have any social or biological considerations in mind when I buy chocolate….. even though I probably should. I try to be conscious of what I eat. I get local vegetables, grass-fed meat (and little of it), cage-free eggs. I have done some reading about food health and environmental costs of food production, but I don’t think about it as much with chocolate. I think it might be because I can’t get locally-sourced chocolate. I feel like I don’t have as much control over what types I can get. And with the amount that I eat, I don’t think about if it is sustainably harvested on a daily basis. But I do appreciate getting that information when it is available.”

I found this response by Martina fascinating because it shows that she is normally a conscious consumer. She is invested in learning about where her food comes from and the impact of buying and eating certain products. She then acts on this information and buys in a manner consistent with her beliefs. It is then especially interesting that her careful purchasing of food items does not extend to chocolate. She suggests that this may be because of a lack of information – without having good knowledge about what types of chocolates are best for the environment and best for the farm workers, it is difficult to make a good choice.

I then asked her if she buys chocolate other than the Dove and Hershey individually wrapped chocolates, and she responded:

“When I buy for other people I am buying a nice chocolate. A good quality chocolate. It can be a little overwhelming even because there are such vast arrays. So sometimes I go by pretty packaging haha. Well, as long as there is something interesting about it – single source, or sustainably harvested, or fair trade. For example, I bought a range of chocolates (both in brand and chocolate percentage) to give to my brother for his birthday so that he could sample the different types. Some were single source, others were fair trade.”

It seems from this response that, for Martina, labels like “free trade” and “single source” are terms that add intrigue and a sense of high quality, rather than terms that could indicate the farming conditions, good pay, or positive social impact. Rather than mention buying fair trade as a way to, for example, combat the mistreatment of children working small plots of in West Africa, it is something that adds to the packaging and makes the bar an “interesting” purchase (Berlan 2013). Child slavery is a serious issue in some places, with evidence of children not being paid, often missing school, and some being made to do strenuous, dangerous work (Berlan, 2013; Off, 2008; Ryan, 2011). This is just one of many ethical considerations, but her inability to grapple with these types of issues stems from her ingrained positive relationship with chocolate and lack of good alternatives.

For Martina, deeply thinking about the chocolate that she consumes would mean questioning the fond memories that she has and the continual joy that she receives from consuming it daily. It would also mean changing her purchasing habits (as she has done with her vegetables, dairy, fruit, and meat). In fact, it is precisely because she acts on these environmental and health considerations when it comes to other foods that investigating chocolate would lead to an unfavorable outcome for her.

She makes the important point that getting good information about the production of chocolate is difficult, and there are few companies that have that knowledge and are transparent with it. Restricting herself to only buying from companies that share this knowledge publicly would greatly constrain her purchasing options and significantly increase the price she pays for chocolate. Her awareness that it would be nearly impossible to pivot her chocolate consumption to a different, more transparent brand at the levels that she consumes it, prevents her from engaging with the ethical side of chocolate production.



Martina’s experience is probably not that different from that of many people in the U.S.. Chocolate is ubiquitous in the United States and this prevalence has led many of us to develop a love for it. I doubt any member of “Chocolate and the Politics of Food” would support companies and operations that involve exploitative practices. But without access to good information about the nature of production of our favorite chocolates, what options do we have? It is certainly easier to switch to sustainable and ethical products in areas of life where they are readily accessible, than to give up a product you love.



Berlan, Amanda. “Social sustainability in agriculture: An anthropological perspective on child labour in cocoa production in Ghana.” The Journal of Development Studies 49.8 (2013): 1088-1100.

Fisher, Naomi DL, and Norman K. Hollenberg. “Flavanols for cardiovascular health: the science behind the sweetness.” Journal of hypertension 23.8 (2005): 1453-1459.

“Heart-Health Benefits of Chocolate.” Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic, Jan. 2012. Web. 01 May 2016. <http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/heart/prevention/nutrition/food-choices/benefits-of-chocolate&gt;.

Hollenberg, Norman K., and Naomi DL Fisher. “Is it the dark in dark chocolate?.” Circulation 116.21 (2007): 2360-2362.

Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica 12.1 (2012): 43.

Off, Carol. Bitter chocolate: Investigating the dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet. Vintage Canada, 2010.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.

Ryan, Orla. Chocolate nations: Living and dying for cocoa in West Africa. Zed books, 2011.


Chocolate consumption patterns in the United States and India through time

I recently interviewed a couple regarding the role of chocolate in their lives and how this has changed through time. During this interview, we discussed how their interaction with and consumption of chocolate changed significantly after they emigrated from India to America in the late 1980s. When they immigrated to America, their perception of chocolate and its relation to status and health shifted based on price and accessibility. This shift can be used to explain and predict perception of chocolate in the United States and India, depending on its quality, labor ethics and environmental sustainability. When examining this couple’s experience in the 1980s, a large discrepancy in consumption is apparent. However, analyzing their experience along with the modern industry suggests that consumption patterns in the United States and India may actually be converging.

After chocolate was introduced to Europe, it failed to gain traction of the same intensity in other parts of the world. Chocolate didn’t become popular in India, Southeast Asia or the Far East with the exception of the Philippines (a Spanish possession until 1898) (Coe&Coe 177). Many Jesuit missionaries and Portuguese businessmen in the Philippines drank chocolate drinks during this time and people in the region today still do (Coe & Coe 178). While chocolate wasn’t a popular item in India, production of chocolate in India actually existed well before either the man or woman I interviewed was born. In 1906-1907, there was an Indian Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition at Calcutta. In this exhibition, Indian chocolates made by companies like Soyaji Chocolate Manufacturing Company Ltd. were exhibited along with milk and milk powder (Ray 24). Therefore, Indian chocolate companies did exist, yet their products were not very accessible to the public.

When the people I interviewed were growing up in India in the 1960s and 1970s, they had limited access to chocolate. I was surprised to hear that the woman had not tried chocolate until she was around 18 years old and the man when he was around 10 years old. Although she didn’t consume chocolate as a child, she would eat toffee candies, which were called chocolate. This misnomer indicates that knowledge of and desire for chocolate were not barriers to consumption, rather availability was. One of the major concepts that we covered in class was a significant disparity in consumption of chocolate across the world. This interview highlights this difference in amount of chocolate consumed across the world, as children growing up in the United States have most likely tried chocolate at a younger age.

In the limited chocolate market that existed, Cadbury had almost a complete monopoly. In fact, the only brand that this couple remembers seeing growing up was Cadbury, a British company. Cadbury began operating in India in 1948, using imported chocolate. This early introduction of Cadbury influenced the market of chocolate in India, also creating a strong brand recognition. Even today, it has above 65-70% of the market share in Indian chocolate, with a slew of popular products including Cadbury Dairy Milk and Perk.

The fact that Cadbury, a British company, had, and still has, such a large share of the market, is reflective of India’s earlier colonial ties to Britain. Although cacao production in India isn’t significant on a global scale, there is substantial production of sugar cane, which is essential for chocolate products. Sugar itself also has colonial ties. Following the abolition of slavery, Britain brought Indian workers to grow sugar, a highly labor intensive crop, in the British West Indies (Mintz 70). With this trend, we see a dichotomy between consumption and production emerge. It is particularly interesting to note that the type of sugar often consumed by people in producing regions was unrefined, not white sugar (which was processed and consumed elsewhere) (Mintz xxi-xxii). This was also reflected in my interview. The couple say that they prefer brown sugar to white sugar in terms of taste and usage (as jaggery) in cooking. This varied consumption of sugar across the globe corresponds to different chocolate consumption patterns, particularly between India and United States in the 1980s, as seen in this interview.

Due to a lack of accessibility, consumption of chocolate remained low in the 1960 and 1970s. For this couple, these factors, as well as a higher cost, meant that chocolate was often considered a luxury item- one that was a symbol of higher economic status. Moving to America, this perception changed. The couple encountered a wide array of different brands of chocolate and chocolate products- ones that I also recognize today- including Hershey’s bars, Snickers, Kit Kat etc. Chocolate was available in multiple forms, all at a low cost. This shift in chocolate consumption from the wealthy to the masses mirrors consumption patterns in Europe after chocolate was introduced. Sophie & Michael Coe, in their book, The True History of Chocolate, write that for over 28 centuries, chocolate was considered a drink for the elite, yet it eventually became a solid food for all. Following the French Revolution, the Church lost legitimacy and authority, dismantling much of the aristocracy’s credence in Catholic Europe. This social upset, coupled with the Industrial Revolution, which greatly lowered the costs associated with producing chocolate, meant that chocolate became a cheap food that all social classes could consume (Coe & Coe 235-236).

Following this shift in accessibility and price, this couple began consuming chocolate in much larger quantities than they did in India. For them, chocolate was no longer a symbol of status, it was commonplace. Although, they both began to consume additional chocolate, it is interesting to note that they did so at varying levels. The woman consumes more chocolate than the man does, and when he does consume chocolate, he mostly does so when she purchases it. This variation in chocolate consumption fits with the gendered advertising of most chocolate companies.

Women are the primary consumers and buyers of chocolate and often the target audience of advertisements. Chocolate companies have a long history of trying to appeal to women. For example, Rowntree chocolate in the early 1900s marketed its products towards women in a number of ways. For certain products, they used the image of a “high society woman” who is rich, in the hopes that women either identify with the image or aspire to achieve it (Robertson 26). In advertisements, there is generally a strong connection between class and chocolate. Companies projected an image of chocolate as a status symbol, even encouraging people to serve their guests chocolate drinks (Robertson 26). This image similar to the perception that the couple had when living in India. Additionally, products like Black Magic and Dairy Box, while mass produced at lower cost still had some luxury appeal (Robertson 29). This marketing strategy attempts to appeal to contradictory perceptions of chocolate in the same product. More recently, the industry has separated these perceptions in a diversified market. In advertising and branding, women are often the subject of messages and are almost always the intended audience.

In the United States, we are starting to see a return of chocolate as almost an economic status symbol (which it was for this couple when they were living in India) with products labeled as Fair Trade or Organic Certified. These products, which claim to either be more beneficial for farmers or the environment (or both) command a higher market price. Therefore, in the United States, there has been a diversification of chocolate- both cheaper “junk” chocolate and expensive “ethical” chocolate exist in tandem. This trend is also emerging in India, although the chocolate industry overall is much larger in the United States than India. A relatively new bean to bar India based company, Mason & Co serves as a case study for this phenomenon. The company currently works directly with three farms and claims that money goes directly to these farmers not intermediaries. They want to involve farmers and work with them to improve farming practices and taste since they typically don’t have a stake in chocolate post-harvest (for example, through the fermentation and drying process) All three farms are IMO Organic Certified and India Organic Certified and one is also USDA Organic Certified. The farms also grow the cacao trees along with coconut trees, nutmeg and pepper. Therefore, the type of image the company puts forth is one of environmental sustainability. With the current crop growing conditions, the company is avoiding monoculture and is instead pursuing an ecologically diverse farm. Organic foods indicate no pesticide, which is seen as better for the environment and is also associated with consumer health. On their website, Mason & Co tout cacao as a “superfood” that is rendered unhealthy by the addition of milk, sugar and “compound” (similar to vegetable fat and replaces cocoa butter) in typical Indian chocolates. The company attempts to offer an alternative to this type of chocolate that is both better for the environment and consumer health. As mentioned above, these types of certifications often come at a higher price. For example, a 70g 70% sea salt dark chocolate bar, pictured below costs Rs 295. For comparison, a 60g Cadbury Dairy Milk bar costs Rs 65.

Mason &amp; Co Chocolate

While this specific company does not have Fair Trade certification, it is possible that they may in the future or other bean to bar companies will. Ndongo Samba Sylla writes, in his book, The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich, that India has 56 Fair Trade Certifications (as of 2009), primarily for products like cotton and tea, items he describes as “exotic oddities” for the region (Sylla 217). Therefore, chocolate, similarly not an item that is exported in large numbers from India, may also be a product associated with Fair Trade certification on a large scale in the future. Since this type of chocolate is more expensive and the targeted consumers are generally wealthier, it is seen as almost a status of economic wealth. Therefore, the same perception of chocolate as a status symbol that this couple experienced, still exists in India, through a different type of product.

Alongside the development of bean to bar companies like this, cheaper chocolate is also becoming increasingly available in India. Recently Cadbury has introduced very low prices for certain products. They are selling at Rs 5 for Cadbury Dairy Milk, Rs 7 for Perk and Rs 6 for Five Star, in an attempt to reach a broader base of people. In this way, in both the United States and India, there is a diversified market for chocolate. On one end of the spectrum, cheap products attempt to appeal to large number of people and on the other, “ethical” and expensive chocolate aims to appeal to a certain, wealthier cohort of consumers. While this couple associated chocolate with wealth in India and upon moving to America, began to perceive it as ordinary, as time has progressed a different trend is emerging. In both countries, chocolate is contradictorily coming to be associated as both an expensive and cheap item through a diversification of products.

This contradictory nature of chocolate does not exist solely for wealth; it extends to and is often tied to perceptions of health as well. Now that this couple has been consuming chocolate for several years, they view chocolate as more of a “junk food.” Throughout history, chocolate has been described as both healthy and unhealthy. Chocolate drinks were widely consumed among the Maya and the Aztec, often seen as a stimulant with several significant health benefits. However, one myth also warns against consumption of cacao. In the myth, an elder says that “those foods will bring death” and a goddess says that “this is what has burdened you” in reference to chocolate. (Coe & Coe 79-80). The introduction of chocolate to Europe also came with health questions and remedies. Cocoa powder was seen as a meal replacement for children (Martin). In 1591, Juan de Cárdenas wrote that “green” chocolate would hurt digestion and cause melancholy, paroxysms and irregular heartbeats but that roasted cacao is sustaining and aids digestion (Coe & Coe 124) Today, chocolate is mainly paired along with other high sugar foods as an unhealthy food option. However, recent studies have tried to advocate for increased consumption of cacao. One study, in particular, led by Dr. Norman Hollenberg, looked at the Kuna people (indigenous to Panama) who had very low blood pressure levels and attributed this to their consumption of chocolate drinks (Howe). Although this study has been criticized, especially in its portrayal of the Kuna people and their diets (Howe), it speaks to contradictory perceptions of chocolate as being both healthy and unhealthy in today’s society. Today, in general, cheaper chocolate is perceived to be unhealthy and more expensive chocolate is perceived as healthier. As mentioned above, companies like Mason & Co claim that their products are all-natural healthy alternatives to the typical chocolate products on the market. Therefore, perceptions of health and wealth are linked, each existing in contradictory forms.

When this couple immigrated to America from India around 30 years ago, their perception of chocolate changed from a status of economic wealth to a cheap, junk food. Today, in the United States, chocolate that is expensive and healthy as well as chocolate that is considered unhealthy and cheap exist concurrently. The same phenomenon is also appearing in India as well, albeit on a smaller scale since the chocolate market is smaller in India than in the United States. When this couple immigrated, perceptions of chocolate were very different in the United States and India, but an analysis of the market today suggests that chocolate’s role may be converging in the two countries.


Works Cited


Academic Sources:

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. Print.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.’

Sylla, Ndongo Samba., and David Clément. Leye. The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Athens: Ohio UP, 2014. Print.

Ray, Utsa. Culinary Culture in Colonial India: A Cosmopolitan Platter and the Middle-class. Delhi: Cambridge UP, 2015. Print. (https://books.google.com/books?id=fDXJBAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false)

“Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12.1 (2012): 43-52. Web.

Martin, Carla. Lecture 5, Slide 43


Multimedia Sources:

“Top 10 Most Popular Chocolate Brands in India – Listz.” Listz. 2014. Web. 04 May 2016. <http://listz.in/top-10-chocolate-brands-in-india.html&gt;.

“Organic Chocolate.” Mason CO Craftsmen of Chocolate. Web. 04 May 2016. <http://www.masonchocolate.com/&gt;.

“Chocolate Industry in India with Special Reference to Cadbury.” Chocolate Industry in India with Special Reference to Cadbury. Web. 04 May 2016. <http://www.slideshare.net/payalgupta96343405/chocolate-industry-in-india-with-special-reference-to-cadbury&gt;.

“Funds Drop State Securities From Portfolio.” India News, Latest News Headlines, BSE Live, NSE Live, Stock Markets Live, Financial News, Business News & Market Analysis on Indian Economy. Web. 04 May 2016. <http://www.business-standard.com/article/specials/funds-drop-state-securities-from-portfolio-199101501061_1.html&gt;.

“18,000 Products to Shop from.” Best Online Grocery Store in India. Save Big on Grocery Shopping. Web. 04 May 2016. <http://www.bigbasket.com/pb/cadbury/chocolate/&gt;.

“Mason & Co. 70% Sea Salt Dark Organic Exotic Artisanal Chocolate Bar – 70 Grams.” : Amazon.in: Grocery & Gourmet Foods. Web. 04 May 2016. <http://www.amazon.in/Mason-Co-Organic-Artisanal-Chocolate/dp/B011E9G99Q/ref=sr_1_1?s=grocery&gt;.

Image: “70% Sea Salt.” Mason CO Craftsmen of Chocolate. Web. 04 May 2016. <http://www.masonchocolate.com/product/70-sea-salt/&gt;.

Chocolate: Guiltless Health Food You Can Indulge In?

When one thinks of a chocolate, the words “sinful” and “indulgent” often pop into mind. For most people, chocolate and chocolatey desserts are considered beloved treats that must be enjoyed in moderation. Over the last few decades, however, chocolate has increasingly taken on a new characterization – “health food”. Studies linking chocolate consumption to improved cardiovascular health, better memory, and more youthful appearance have been frequently cited by health blogs, sensationalist news sources, and corporations alike. The complexities and caveats in these studies are distilled into one simple message to be pitched to consumers: “consumption of chocolate is good for you”.

The idea that the indulgent treat can offer positive health benefits is so tantalizing that one cannot hope but wish for this claim to be true. Yet when one examines the legitimacy of popular claims regarding the health benefits of chocolate against the actual conclusions drawn from the studies conducted, there is an apparent disconnect between science and media. There is indeed a large body of credible literature on the concentration of antioxidants in chocolate, as well as the health benefits of said antioxidants. But these studies emphasize moderation, high concentration of chocolate liquor, and warn of the counteractive nature of milk and sugar in chocolate. Often, these specifics are glossed over such that only a sliver of selective information reaches the consumer. Where science may find substantive evidence of correlation, media cites evidence of causation. Ultimately this problematic as flawed information is disseminated to eager consumers.

History of Chocolate’s Health Benefits

The belief in that chocolate has medicinal qualities has existed long into antiquity, back when chocolate was first cultivated and consumed in Mesoamerica. Montezuma, famed Aztec emperor, was thought to have a chocolate concoction as an aphrodisiac. In the Badianus Manuscript (1552), a Mexican medicinal textbook of disease and treatments, cocoa derivatives were frequently prescribed used to treat “angina, constipation, tartar-related dental problems, dysentery, dyspepsia, indigestion, fatigue, gout and hemorrhoids” (qtd. in Lippi, 1575). In Europe, cacao was configured into the humoral and allopathic tradition of Hippocratic medicine (Coe and Coe, 121).


The above image is a snippet of an ad for milk chocolate from the 1700s, whereby chocolate was advertised as a cure for various ailments.

In retrospect, these early claims of chocolate seem archaic and misguided. However, it is interesting to note how long the history of chocolate as a health food extends back. Chocolate has not only been a source of great gastronomical intrigue, but was also a medicinal mystery.

Health Benefits of Chocolate

While the early health claims described above are unsubstantiated by modern medicine, currently, there is a growing body of literature on how consumption of chocolate is linked with a variety of health benefits. The most notable of these is the relationship between chocolate consumption and reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Cocoa is identified to contain a wealth of flavonoids, a group of plant metabolites linked to many positive house effects. Regular dietary intake of flavonoids via plant-derived foods and beverages greatly reduce coronary heart disease and stroke, as supported by a large body of epidemiological research published by the American Heart Association (Corti et. al, 1433). The main flavonoid found in cacao is flavan-3-ols and their oligomeric derivatives (Steinberg, et. al, 215).


Graph from Steinberg et al. J Am Diet Assoc 103: 215-23. These graphs illustrate the flavonoid and antioxidant capacity (ORAC) of chocolate, as compared to other high flavonoid foods.

Research on the health benefits of chocolate have centered on this relationship between antioxidant concentration and reduced cardiovascular health. The findings are numerous and often produced astoundingly significant results. The Zutphen Elder Study used data of 470 elderly men surveyed over 15 years and found that the “Compared with the lowest tertile of cocoa intake, the adjusted relative risk for men in the highest tertile was [50%] for cardiovascular mortality and [53%] for all-cause mortality” (Buijsse et. al, 411). The NHLBI Family Heart Study used cross-sectional data on 2217 participants, and found that consumption of the antioxidant-rich cocoa two or more times a week reduced risk of calcified plaque in arteries by 32% (Djoussé et. al, 38).

It should be noted that all of the large studies are observational studies whereby researchers surveyed participants on chocolate intake and health. Surveyed responses are generally less reliable than randomized studies as it is possible a variety of confounding factors like participants’ eating habits, could have contributed to the observed effect. It would take a randomized study whereby certain groups would be administered cacao to intake against a control group to prove causation. Nevertheless, observations studies provide important insights into the relationship between chocolate consumption and improved cardiovascular health. The fact that the large body of literature on the topic are in agreement above the positive relationship between cocoa and reduced risk of CVD is compelling.

Beyond the cardiovascular health benefits of ingestion of chocolate, chocolate is becoming an increasingly popular concept in beauty and skin-care products. Many cosmetic companies tout the hydrating and rejuvenating qualities of cocoa butter for the skin as well as highlight the antioxidants to be gained from ingesting chocolate as described above. There is a growing number of studies on these claims as well. Heinrich et. al’s 2006 study assigned 2 groups of women to consume either high flavanol (326 mg/d) or low flavanol (27 mg/d) cocoa powder. They found that flavanols did indeed contribute to photoprotection as participants in the high flavanol group showed a significant decrease of skin roughness after an evaluation of the skin in week 12 of the experiment (Heinrich et. al, 1566).

But Just How Healthy is Chocolate?

Chocolate as a food product comes in many different varieties and intensities. The vast majority of the studies only confirm the benefits of dark chocolate (over 70% intensity).


The image above is a close-up of a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar. The main ingredients are sugar and milk.

Serafini et al. (2003) compared the health benefits of dark and milk chocolate varieties, made from the same batch of cacao beans. Their findings that plain, dark chocolate resulted in an increase in total antioxidant capacity and epicatechin (another dietary flavonoid) is much in line with the results delineated above. However, the increase is significantly reduced when consumed with milk, as is the case with milk chocolate. This suggests that milk negates the potential health benefits, as it may interfere with absorption of antioxidants in vivo. The studies highlight that chocolate’s benefits are primarily derived from the flavanols in pure cacao liquor and not from any extraneous ingredients. Thus, a common misconception is that all chocolates have the same health benefits.

Problematic Portrayal of Chocolate as a Health Food

From the handful of studies highlighted in my discussion, it is clear that each study is different and the conclusions drawn are specific, complex, and nuanced. For example, the Zutphen Elder Study is focused specifically on elderly men of mostly Caucasian descent (given the demographics of the study). Heinrich et. al’s study exclusively recruited female participants. It would be an overstatement to derive from even this collection of studies that “consumption of chocolate is good for cardiovascular health / skin care”, as there are many other confounding factors. Yet this phenomenon of distilling research into marketable advertising is all too prominent. The following are prime examples of how research is capitalized and distilled into a marketable, and often misguiding form.


An ad for Xocai, a “healthy chocolate” brand that sells chocolates, weight loss supplements, and beauty products.

The pamphlet above distills the health benefits of chocolate in a misleading way. The vague references to flavanols and “various studies”, the use of buzzwords, and bare-boned description of nuanced research exemplify how certain corporations capitalize on the characterization of chocolate as a health food. The emphasis is on highlighting a long list of vague, beneficial claims that is marketable to your average consumer. The bold font of each of the 15 bullet point leads consumers to believe that Xocai/chocolate 1. Promotes cardiovascular health, 2. Supports health glucose level…etc. When the reality is that only certain quantities and types of chocolate are correlated with said benefits. This trend of overstating cacao’s health benefits is especially prevalent in the beauty industry.


Description from the website: “Too Faced Co-Founder and Creative Director Jerrod Blandino was inspired to combine the power of antioxidant-rich cocoa powder and makeup while having a chocolate facial and learning about the benefits of cocoa at a Hawaiian spa.”


Amala Rejuvenate Cocoa Bean Advanced Firming Complex ($248): Uses certified organic, fair trade cacao beans. The packaging of the Amala Firm Complex above prominently features the cacao bean, despite the fact that Cacao is not even in the top 10 ingredients.

The eyeshadow palette and rejuvenating masks above both highlight the relationship between cacao and health and elasticity of skin, when neither products feature cacao as the primary ingredient. The alignment of the beauty product with cacao effectively allows the company to capitalize on the reputation cacao has as a health product.


When it comes to chocolate as a health food and a health product, it’s important to recognize when and how the line between science and marketing is blurred. In conducting research on this topic, I found my sources to be polarized between research papers published in established medical journals, and sensationalized health blogs with strategic product placements. What is problematic about how cacao increasingly touted as a “health-food” is not so much the legitimacy and magnitude of the health benefits of cacao, but the blanket advertising of the chocolate as guilt-free health product.

Works Cited

Buijsse B, Feskens EM, Kok FJ, Kromhout D. Cocoa Intake, Blood Pressure, and Cardiovascular Mortality: The Zutphen Elderly Study. Arch Intern Med. 2006;166(4):411-417. doi:10.1001/archinte.166.4.411.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Corti, R., A. J. Flammer, N. K. Hollenberg, and T. F. Luscher. “Cocoa and Cardiovascular Health.” Circulation 119.10 (2009): 1433-441. Web.

Djoussé, Luc, Paul N. Hopkins, Donna K. Arnett, James S. Pankow, Ingrid Borecki, Kari E. North, and R. Curtis Ellison. “Chocolate Consumption Is Inversely Associated with Calcified Atherosclerotic Plaque in the Coronary Arteries: The NHLBI Family Heart Study.” Clinical Nutrition 30.1 (2011): 38-43. Web.

Francene M Steinberg, Monica M Bearden, Carl L Keen, Cocoa and chocolate flavonoids: Implications for cardiovascular health, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 103, Issue 2, February 2003, Pages 215-223

Heinrich, Ulrike, Karin Neukam, Hagen Tronnier, Helmut Sies, and Wilhelm Stahl. “Long-Term Ingestion of High Flavanol Cocoa Provides Photoprotection against UV-Induced Erythema and Improves Skin Condition in Women.” American Society for Nutrition (2006). Web. 4 May 2016.

Lippi D. Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food. Nutrients. 2013;5(5):1573-1584. doi:10.3390/nu5051573.

Serafini, Mauro, Rossana Bugianesi, Giuseppe Maiani, Silvia Valtuena, Simone De Santis, and Alan Crozier. “Plasma Antioxidants from Chocolate.” Nature 424.6952 (2003): 1013. Web.

Steinberg FM, Bearden MM, Keen CL: Cocoa and chocolate flavonoids: implications for cardiovascular health. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003, 103 (2): 215-223. 10.1053/jada.2003.50028.