People love chocolate. Three words that may not *technically* be a proven scientific fact, but are, at least in my own opinion, pretty valid for those living in today’s society. It is a line that I know I hear, and even find myself saying, quite often: someone is sad or feeling down and the response comes to “get them some chocolate and they will definitely feel so much better!” What I think people often forget is that chocolate truly does have a number of health benefits, dating back to its start and discovery and leading its way into the current society that we live in. Of the many health benefits that the consumption of chocolate has been linked to in both the past and present, I would like to briefly examine its use as a positive health benefit in the past and then relate that to my main focus on our current society, where chocolate has certainly taken the name to have medical benefits that continue to grow and become more supported through scientific evidence and research.
While discussing the past and present findings and beliefs on the medical benefits of chocolate, I also hope to draw conclusions of my own on the matter based on the evidence and research that is currently available. I think this topic is certainly one where all the facts and pieces of evidence need to be considered before a conclusion can be drawn.
Chocolate consumption has been associated with medicinal benefits for several years. In an article written by Donatella Lippi, she talks about how the evidence of cacao that was used for medicinal purposes dates far back to Mesoamerican civilizations (Lippi). Looking back to the past, there were notions presented on how chocolate refreshes and satisfies the body (Coe and Coe, p. 110). The Coes also talk about how texts dating back to the 1500’s showed how the Emperor had a process of keeping botanical plants to experiment with, having the hopes of finding some sort of medical connection among them. Eventually, cacao appeared as one of the successful ones, showing that it could cure infections, control cough, and lower fevers among other things (Coe and Coe). The Mesoamericans spoke of chocolate as if it were a “food of the Gods” (Martin, Lecture). For this reason, chocolate was often times included in traditional Mesoamerican rituals. Mayan documents, often written in Dresden Codex, showed cacao being depicted by Gods during ritual activities, including marriage and death rituals (Coe and Coe, 41). Additionally, Donatella Lippi went on to talk about
chocolate as a Mesoamerican medicine and stated that it dates back to Montezuma and his high levels of chocolate beverage consumption in the hopes that he would remain as masculine as possible (Lippi, 2017). In general, Mesoamericans certainly recognized how cacao was a medical benefit, often believing that those who consumed chocolate would be able to live longer than those who were deprived of consuming the treat (Coe and Coe).
Through the readings and lectures we have gone over in class, we have also seen how the Spaniards and Europeans believed in chocolate and its overall positive effects on mood. In The True History of Chocolate, authors Sophie and Michael Coe state that the Spaniards thought that chocolate was a “a drug, a medicine” (Coe and Coe, p. 126). This idea focused on the fact that once the Europeans brought chocolate overseas, they linked it to humoral medicine as a drug and medicine (Coe and Coe).
The link between chocolate and its effects on health started in fairly general terms; however, eventually this evolved into a long stretch of scientific studies and research that really tried to examine the specifics between chocolate and its physical and mental health benefits. In the article “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food”, Donatella Lippi opens up by talking about how “throughout history, chocolate has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments, and in recent years, multiple studies have found that chocolate can have positive health effects, providing evidence to a centuries-long established use” (Lippi, 2013). She then goes on to talk about how simply the belief of chocolate being linked to health was not enough; breaking it down to the properties of chocolate that allowed it to have positive health effects was key in understanding (Lippi, 2013). For example, dark chocolate is known to be rich in iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and flavanols (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). The flavanols are most important when it comes to the health benefits.
To open up and introduce this section, I would like to start off by proposing a question. I hope to draw some sort of conclusion on this question by the end of this blog post. Because the debate about chocolate’s actual health benefits continue to go back and forth and are still not completely determined, I think it is rather important to consider the following matters:
Is the idea that chocolate bars have positive health benefits for a person’s health really supported by actual research or is this just a bunch of hear-say with no scientific evidence to back it up? Is this claim something that people just have an idea about or is there actual proof to support its validity? What kinds of chocolate are best to consume in order to obtain these positive health benefits?
In today’s society, one thing that is essential to remember is that the link of chocolate to medical and health benefits primarily focuses on the dark chocolate variety, which contains at least sixty percent pure cacao and high levels of flavanol content, though it is noted that consumption for the purpose of health benefits should be focused on chocolate that has at least seventy percent pure cacao. Often times, this high level of flavanol content does cause the chocolate to be more bitter in taste (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). In an article written by Dr. Robert Shmerling, Faculty Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, he brings up this key point and notes that not all chocolate is the same. Dark chocolate is high in flavanol content while milk chocolate and white chocolate have much lower levels of flavanol (Shmerling, 2017). Additionally, it is important to note that “even a chocolate bar that is 70% cacao can have varying levels of flavonoid compounds, depending on how it was processed” (Storrs, 2017). Furthermore, author Carina Storrs comments that any kind of chocolate that goes through a chemical process known as “dutching” would basically lose all traces of flavonoid compounds; this frequently happens in Dutch chocolate (Storrs, 2017).
As seen in both of the figures above, “raw” chocolate decreases blood pressure and assists in the improvement of blood circulation in a person’s body. The graphic to the right lists out health benefits of dark chocolate, some of them including slowing signs of aging, reducing the risk of diabetes, and reducing stress levels. Additionally, Sophie and Michael Coe state that “dark chocolate does not cause diabetes, cavities, or acne”, which is something that people often times believe and is part of what allows people to link dark chocolate to having health benefits in general (Coe and Coe, 31). Furthermore, Sophie and Michael Coe say that there has been no direct correlation between developing heart disease and consuming chocolate (Coe and Coe, 30).
When considering the link between chocolate consumption and, specifically, brain health Dr. Robert Shmerling talks about how both short-term and long-term consumption of chocolate can be beneficial. In various completed research studies, it showed that adults who consumed dark chocolate with high flavanol content had better performances on tests of memory and reaction time (Shmerling). Studies have also found that chocolate can be a key provider of antioxidants that are beneficial for the body. Another article posted on the pros and cons of chocolate also states that “a team of researchers at Harvard Medical School found that older adults who drank two cups of liquid chocolate a day for 30 days had improved blood flow to the parts of their brain needed for memory and thinking” (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2014). It seems that chocolate’s link to brain health mainly focuses on the ability of flavonoids to improve mental function and speaking ability. It is important to note, however, that there has not been any proven scientific research that shows that chocolate consumption can prevent dementia or other diseases that bring about a “mental decline”. Dr. Owais Khawaja, a cardiology fellow at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Ohio, says that “chocolate is a good antioxidant. It has a good effect on inflammation” (Storrs, 2017). Dr. Khawaja also states that some additional benefits as a result of chocolate’s anti-inflammatory properties include that it might help to reduce the risk of cancer and dementia.
In the video attached here, we can see a listing of the top ten benefits of dark chocolate on a person’s health and well-being. The video touches on the positive effects of dark chocolate on cardiovascular health, weight loss, and lowering levels of blood pressure, to name a few. In general from sources that are widely available, it does seem that dark chocolate has links to perhaps living a healthier lifestyle. Self-medication and stress relief are two additional items that dark chocolate has a link to when it comes to levels of improvement. Score!
As seen in the figure to the right, dark chocolate is the form of chocolate that is known to have health benefits. As noted in the figure (and stated previously), the pattern appears to be that a cacao content of over at least sixty percent in a given chocolate item is most beneficial for a person’s health. Additionally, I believe it is accurate to conclude that heart health seems to be the most commonly affected aspect of a person’s health benefits from chocolate consumption.
In an article published in Harvard Women’s Health Watch, it was stated that ingredients in chocolate can be healthy, but “the high-calorie chocolate bars that contain it aren’t necessarily good for you” (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2014). The three flavonoid compounds in chocolate that are known to help improve cardiovascular functions in the body are catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidin (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2014). These flavonoid compounds assist with lowering cholesterol rates, reducing inflammation that may be present in the body, and preventing blood clots from occurring at all. Dr. Eric Ding, a scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has completed 24 studies on the effects of flavonoids in chocolate on cardiovascular risks. In his findings, it was reported that flavonoids in chocolate reduced blood pressure rates and levels of unhealthy LDL cholesterol. Additionally, rates of healthy HDL cholesterol increased, while improved levels of blood flow and and lower levels of insulin resistance were also displayed (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2014).
OKAY SO, WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS ACTUALLY MEAN?
After researching and seeing the scientific evidence that is available regarding chocolate and its effects on health, it is definitely shown that consuming the right kind of chocolate with the proper characteristics can have positive health benefits for a consumer. As with anything, intake moderation is definitely significant and rates of consumption should be exercised with caution. Monitoring levels of sugar intake (i.e. selecting chocolate bars with lower levels of sugar added) is certainly important in order to limit any adverse health effects from taking place on the body. Additionally, people should proceed with caution when depending on chocolate (of the dark variety, of course!) to lower health risks. The public should recognize that researchers have been able to confirm that chocolate does have short-term benefits on heart health and other health issues but, for example, as stated by Dr. Eric Ding, “the jury is still out in terms of actual direct heart attack prevention” (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2014).
THE FINAL VERDICT…
So, what do I think as a result of all of this? I do believe that chocolate can have positive health effects on the body. It is important to limit intake (eating ten chocolate bars a day is still not a good idea, sorry!) and mainly consuming dark chocolate is best due to the fact that it contains the highest percentages of pure cacao. Additionally, choosing chocolate bars that are also low in sugar and fats is very important, as these two things can actually cause adverse health effects as I am sure we all know.
Some scientists have recommended that the best way to get the health advantages of the flavonoids in chocolate without consuming all the negative elements as well is to purchase chocolate products that are more concentrated, such as cocoa supplements.
If consumed properly, and in moderate levels, chocolate, specifically dark chocolate, does have positive health effects on a person’s health including the improvement of cardiovascular health, decreased levels of stress, and more. I know I will definitely continue eating chocolate – it is just time that I make the switch over to dark chocolate more often.
“Chocolate: Pros and Cons of This Sweet Treat – Harvard Health.” Harvard Health Blog,
Harvard Women’s Health Watch, Feb. 2014. Web.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames
and Hudson, 2013. Print.
“Dark Chocolate.” The Nutrition Source, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food.” Nutrients, 5 May
2013, pp. 1573-1584., doi: 10.3390/nu5051573. Web.
Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food”. Lecture 7: Modern Day
Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods”. Harvard University, AAAS
E-119. Cambridge, MA. Lecture.
Schmerling, Robert H. “Your Brain on Chocolate.” Harvard Health Publishing. 16 Aug.
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.
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).
Like 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.”
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 step into Cambridge Naturals, a community natural health store in Cambridge, MA, and the market for organic, fair-trade, vegan, bean-to-bar, local, non-gmo, paleo, environmentally friendly and ethically sourced chocolate products is on full display. A meeting with the store’s manager & grocery lead adds another term to the list of qualities their consumer base is looking for when they step into the store – functional chocolate. This trend shows a probable correlation between what customers are willing to spend on chocolate that makes health claims, based on the way the cacao is processed and additional ingredients added that are promoted to provide nutritional benefits. The functional chocolate trend begs the question – are these health claims regarding various methods of cacao processing and healthful additives substantiated by scientific research, or are they merely a marketing gimmick? This article will analyze recent research on the health benefits of chocolate as a functional food, look at fermentation and processing differences from a nutrient perspective, and consider additional benefits of medicinal additives to chocolate in order to best answer this question.
How are functional foods different from healthy foods?
In a study published in the Academic Food Journal/Akademik (2014) that looked at the development of functional chocolate, the differences between health foods and functional foods were defined as the following:
“Functional foods are a new category of products that promise consumers improvements in targeted physiological functions” (Albak, Fatma, & Tekin, 2014, p. 19).
Whereas, “conventional ‘healthy’ foods are typically presented as types of foods contributing to a healthy diet, e.g. low-fat products, high-fibre products, or vegetables, without emphasizing the role of any single product” (Albak, Fatma, & Tekin, 2014, p. 19).
Functional foods share these characteristics:
Health benefits that can be linked to a specific product
Well-defined physiological effects are directly connected with particular components in the specific product
Scientific evidence about health effects that is used to develop specific functional products
There is novelty for the consumer with the promised benefits
Modern technology is often needed to manufacture the functional foods due to specific components being added, modified or removed (Albak, et al., 2014).
Demand for Functional Foods
The market for functional foods exists in large part due to the rising popularity of healthier products by consumers (Albak, et al., 2014). One contributor to interest in healthy products is their use as a remedy to detrimental lifestyle factors that can contribute to unyielding high levels of inflammation in the body (Jain, Parag, Pandey, & Shukla, 2015). In the book, Inflammation and Lifestyle (2015), the connection between diet and inflammation is emphasized.
“Our diet is one of the leading sources of these chronic illnesses, and changing the diet is the key to prevention and cure. A number of dietary factors, including fiber-rich foods, whole grains, fruits (especially berries), omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidant vitamins (e.g., C and E), and certain trace minerals (e.g., zinc), have been documented to reduce blood concentrations of inflammatory markers. The best way to correct and eliminate inflammation is to improve comprehensive lifestyle and dietary changes rather than taking pharmaceutical drugs, the latter of which can cause unintended harm in the form of damaging side effects” (Jain, et al., 2015, p. 143).
The authors provide this graphic to illustrate what an anti-inflammatory diet pyramid looks like in terms of specific food groups. Note that dark chocolate is positioned on the top of the pyramid.
An introduction to the benefits of superfoods and their role in an anti-inflammatory diet are explained in the publication. “An anti-inflammatory diet is one that is low in processed foods and high in fresh fruits and vegetables, seeds, sprouts, nuts and superfoods. Maca, spirulina, purple corn, wheatgrass, coconut butter and raw chocolate are a few of the health promoting superfoods that are gaining international interest” (Jain, et al., 2015, p. 144). The inclusion of “raw chocolate” in the category of superfoods versus “chocolate” warrants further examination and will be explored later in this article, but the position remains clear that evidence supports the protective benefits of chocolate as a part of a healthy diet.
Chocolate as a Functional Food
Under the category of functional foods as previously defined, chocolate, as will be further described, fulfills all the requisite characteristics. Even though the term functional food is relatively recent, the practice of consuming chocolate for its specific health benefits is centuries old. “Chocolate has been consumed as confection, aphrodisiac, and folk medicine for many years before science proved its potential health benefiting effects. Main compounds of cocoa and chocolate which contribute to human health are polyphenols that act as antioxidants and have potential anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, antihepatotoxic, antibacterial, antiviral, antiallergenic, and anticarcinogenic properties” (Ackar, Djurdjica, Lendić, Valek,… & Nedić, 2013, p. 1). The studied physiological effects of chocolate include “reported health benefits of cocoa and dark chocolate particularly focus on cardiovascular diseases (but also showing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects), including increased blood flow at the brachial artery and the left descending coronary artery, decreased blood pressure, decreased platelet aggregation and increased HDL cholesterol” (Bordiga, et al., 2015, p. 840). Numerous research discoveries have shed light on the complex nature of how these protective benefits of cacao are reduced or encouraged by different methods of sourcing, processing and consuming chocolate (Jalil, & Ismail, 2008).
Polyphenols are found in many food sources including, “vegetables and fruits, green and black tea, red wine, coffee, chocolate, olives, and some herbs and spices, as well as nuts and algae” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). However, “chocolate is one of the most polyphenol-rich foods along with tea and wine” where, “results [have] indicated that dark chocolate exhibited the highest polyphenol content” (Jalil, & Ismail, 2008, p. 2194). In unfermented cacao beans, there are three main groups of polyphenols, “flavan-3-ols or catechins, anthocyanins, and proanthocyanidins” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). Differences in cacao genetics or varieties and country of origin show varying levels of polyphenols by up to 4-fold (Jalil, & Ismail, 2008). “Criollo cultivars contained higher levels of procyanidins than Forastero and Trinitario beans. In addition, crop season and country of origin have impact on polyphenols in cocoa beans” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). Findings regarding polyphenol level by country of origin are contentious but include, “highest phenolic content was in Malaysian beans followed by Sulawesian, Ghanian and Côte d’Ivore” (Jalil, & Ismail, 2008, p. 2201) and “cocoa beans and processed products from Ecuador showed the highest levels of anthocyanins, followed by Nigeria and Cameroon” (Bordiga, et al., 2015, p. 840). Due to additional factors besides country of origin and genetic variation influencing the polyphenols in cacao, inclusion of the effects of processing cacao on flavor and polyphenol content is important to understand health claims made regarding the finished product, chocolate.
Processing cacao beans (namely the stages of fermentation and drying), and roasting in the chocolate making process greatly affect polyphenol content of the finished product (Ackar, et al., 2013; Bordiga, et al., 2015). “Due to these factors, the ratio and types of these components found in cocoa beans are unlikely to be the same as those found in the finished products” (Bordiga, et al., 2015, p. 841). For functional chocolate enthusiasts driving market trends, the balance between healthy and protective benefits of polyphenols and the effects on their levels through processing are of particular interest. “All these processes are needed to develop characteristic cocoa aroma. Polyphenols give astringent and bitter aroma to cocoa and contribute to reduced perception of “cocoa flavour” by sensory panel. However, nowadays processes are conducted in such manner to preserve as much polyphenol as possible with maintaining satisfactory aroma” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). The debate about the purpose of chocolate is hereby noted between the sensory experience – the aroma development, especially in the roasting stages, versus consumption for health effects with less regard to smell, taste and gustatory pleasure.
The search for a sweet spot between these poles is a lucrative area for producers and retail establishments. As described earlier, development of functional food into specific products uses scientific evidence about health effects, where modern technology is often needed to manufacture those products, in order to observe targeted physiological effects or functions (Albak, et al., 2014).
“Generally, as cocoa beans were further processed, the levels of anthocyanins and flavan-3-ols decreased. The largest observed losses of phenolics occurred during roasting. A progressive decreasing trend in polyphenol concentration was observed in the other processed samples as well. Despite the original content of polyphenols in raw cocoa beans, technological processes imply a significant impact on cocoa quality, confirming the need of specific optimisation to obtain high value chocolate” (Bordiga, et al., 2015, p. 840).
In order to preserve antioxidant quality through dark-chocolate products with “high flavonoid contents…these chocolates are produced by controlling bean selection, fermentation, and reduced heat and alkalization treatments” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2201). Although one of the most detrimental effects of processing on polyphenol and antioxidant levels is alkalization (or dutching) of cocoa powder (Ackar, et al., 2013; Jalil, et al., 2008), even the fermentation process significantly reduces flavonoid levels by up to 90% (Jalil, et al., 2008). However, in the search for the sweet spot between flavor and health benefits, fermentation presents a way to reduce bitter compounds due to the presence of flavonoids and polyphenols (Jalil, et al., 2008) and enhance flavor before roasting or further processing like alkalization. For example, some “manufacturers tend to remove [flavonoids] in large quantities to enhance taste quality… the manufacturers tend to prefer Ghanian cocoa beans, which are well-fermented and flavorful than that of Dominican or Indonesian beans, which are considered as less fermented and have low quality cocoa flavor” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2203). In Crafack’s study (2013), besides genetic flavor potentials of cacao beans, fermentation is cited as the most important factor influencing cocoa’s flavor potential.
“A properly conducted fermentation process is considered a prerequisite for the production of high quality chocolates since inadequately fermented cocoa beans will fail to produce cocoa specific aroma compounds during subsequent processing” (Crafack, Petersen, Eskildsen, Petersen, Heimdal, & Nielsen, 2013, p. 1).
In a later study by Crafack (2014), microorganism differences between fermentation practices are shown to produce variations in cacao flavor profiles. “Despite the importance of a properly conducted fermentation process, poor post-harvest practices, in combination with the unpredictable spontaneous nature of the fermentations, often results in sub-optimal flavour development…A microbial fermentation process therefore seems essential for developing the full complexity of compounds which characterises cocoa aroma. In conclusion, the results of the present study show that the volatile aroma profile of chocolate can be influenced using starter cultures” (Crafack, 2014, p. 1). Further research that builds on Crafack’s findings was published by Kadow (2015), explaining the role of multiple factors in the country of origin that characterize the fermentation process.
“During this in most cases spontaneous fermentation of the fruit pulp surrounding the seeds, the pulp is degraded by yeasts and bacteria. This degradation results in heat and organic acid formation. Heat effect and tissue acidification are the key parameters guiding flavour precursor formation. Accordingly, not microorganisms themselves but exclusively their metabolites are necessary for successful fermentation” (Kadow, Niemenak, Rohn, and Lieberei, 2015, p. 357).
This study aimed to further the development of standardization and mechanization of cocoa fermentation for the benefit of cacao production quality purposes. On the ranges of heat tested from fermenting heaps of cacao beans, 30 °C to a maximum of 50 °C was obtained after 24 h of fermentation at the inner part of the heap (Jespersen, Nielsen, Hønholt, and Jakobsen, 2005).
Finally, as an interesting note about polyphenol changes in cacao during fermentation, although “unripe and ripe cacao pods contain solely (−)-epicatechin and (+)-catechin. During fermentation, levels of both of these compounds were reduced, but (−)-catechin was formed due to heat-induced epimerization” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). These findings warrant more studies on the changes that happen during cacao fermentation, where although certain protective antioxidant levels decrease, other chemical compounds are formed due to the process of heat due to microorganism metabolites and acidification to the bean tissue.
After fermentation, the beans are dried to reduce water content for safe transport and storage of the cacao before further processing by chocolate manufactures. “During drying, additional loss of polyphenol occurs, mainly due to nonenzymatic browning reactions” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2) where “high temperatures and prolonged processing times will decrease the amount of catechins” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p.2203). The dried cacao is then shipped to the chocolate manufacturer where roasting is often performed. The roasting and generally the further processing of cacao degrades the levels of polyphenols by triggering the oxidation process (Ackar, et al., 2013; Bordiga, et al., 2015).
Conching is a process of agitation of chocolate mass at temperatures above 50 °C that is used to refine both the cocoa solids and sugar crystals to change the taste, smell, flavor, texture (mouthfeel) and viscosity of chocolate (Chocolate Alchemy, 2016; Di Mattia, Martuscelli, Sacchetti, Beheydt, Mastrocola, & Pittia, 2014) Different procedures for conching exist, including Long Time Conching (LTC) and Short Time Conching (STC). A study by Di Mattia (2014) done on these two conching processes and the implications for bioactive compounds and antioxidant activity found interesting results. The publication stressed the importance of time/temperature combinations as process parameters “to modulate and increase the functional properties of some foods” (Di Mattia, et al., 2014, pp.367-368). In the study, STC consisted of “a dry step at 90 °C for 6 h and then a wet step at 60°C for 1h,” while LTC involved, “a dry step at 60°C for 6 h and a then wet step at the same conditions (60 °C, 6 h)” (Di Mattia, et al., 2014, p. 368). The results of the analysis on phenolic content, antioxidant values defined as radical scavenging properties showed, “that the conching process, and the LTC in particular, determined an improvement of the antiradical and reducing properties of chocolate” (Di Mattia, et al., 2014, p.372). Recommendation for further studies was suggested to “optimize the conching process for the modulation of the functional properties,” (Di Mattia, et al., 2014, p.372) but the results remain in favor of longer time and lower temperature processing to preserve health benefits in chocolate during the conching phase.
From the perspective of chocolate makers, assessing combinations of ingredients/additives that can either help or hinder protective compounds in chocolate – including polyphenols and bioavailability, is important. Jalil, & Ismail’s review (2008), considered, “both bioavailability and antioxidant status [important] in determining the relationship between cocoa flavonoids and health benefits” (Jalil, et al., 2008, pp. 2194-2195). Studies focused on epicatechin from chocolate found the polyphenols, “rapidly absorbed by humans, with plasma levels detected after 30min of oral digestion, peaking after 2-3 h and returning to baseline after 6–8 h. In addition, cumulative effect in high daily doses was recorded” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). Interestingly, an argument for the benefits of chocolate’s sweetened and rich composition – if cocoa butter and some type of sweetener is used in processing – is explained where the “presence of sugars and oils generally increases bioavailability of polyphenols, while proteins, on the other hand, decrease it” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). Milk chocolate lovers may be disappointed to find that, “milk proteins reduce bioavailability of epicatechin in chocolate confectionary…[with] reported inhibition of in vivo antioxidant activity of chocolate by addition of milk either during manufacturing process or during ingestion” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2).
Additional health properties of cacao found especially in dark chocolate, apart from polyphenols, may have a role to play in reports of chocolate cravings and their use as functional food. Theses beneficial components include “methylxanthines, namely caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2197) “peptides, and minerals” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2200). “Theobromine is a psychoactive compound without diuretic effects” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2198). “Cocoa is also rich in proteins. Cocoa peptides are generally responsible for the flavour precursor formation” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2199). Lastly, “minerals are one of the important components in cocoa and cocoa products. Cocoa and cocoa products contained relatively higher amount of magnesium compared to black tea, red wine, and apples” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2200).
A well supported rule of thumb for finding high antioxidant capacity functional chocolate is to look for the percentage of non-fat cocoa solids (NFCS) in chocolate products to determine total phenolic content (Jalil, et al., 2008; Vinson, & Motisi, 2015) “Dark chocolates contain the highest NFCS among the different types of chocolates” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2204) However, due to percentages of cocoa solids on on chocolate labels including polyphenol-free cocoa butter, the accuracy of this measure is not always correct and can lead to overestimating polyphenol content in certain types of chocolate (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2204). That said, a recent study by Vinson and Motisi (2015), performed on commercial chocolate bars found “a significant and linear relationship between label % cocoa solids and the antioxidant assays as well as the sum of the monomers.” From which they concluded that, “consumers can thus rationally choose chocolate bars based on % cocoa solids on the label” (Vinson, & Motisi, 2015, p. 526).
Additions to Functional Chocolate
In health food stores like Cambridge Naturals and Deborah’s Natural Gourmet in Concord, MA, the presence of functional chocolate with additional health boosting ingredients is prevalent. The validity of these claims to improve focus, enhance libido and energy, and other desirable improved physiological functions, based on herbs, powders and additional superfoods mixed with cacao, is intriguing. A study by Albak and Tekin (2014), found that mixing aniseed, ginger, and cinnamon into the dark chocolate mix before conching, “increased the total polyphenol content while they decreased the melting properties of dark chocolate after conching” (Albak, et al., 2014, p. 19).
Other resources that further elucidate specific findings on these superfoods, herbs and spices include:
Afolabi Clement Akinmoladun, Mary, Tolulope Olaleye, and Ebenezer Olatunde Farombi. “Cardiotoxicity and Cardioprotective Effects of African Medicinal Plants.” Toxicological Survey of African Medicinal Plants (2014): 395. This publication includes information on gingko, turmeric among other additives to functional chocolate and how protective vascular effects are formed.
Some consideration for the popularity of raw chocolate, which is used as the base of many functional chocolate products, deserves attention. As explained, there are many reasons chocolate can be considered a functional food, especially due to specific health promoting compounds like polyphenols and flavonoids, peptides, theobromine and minerals present in cacao and in chocolate. Unfortunately, overwhelming scientific evidence points to the detrimental effects on these compounds from processing, especially by heat. “Flavanols largely disappear once the cocoa bean is heated, fermented and processed into chocolate. In other words, making chocolate destroys the very ingredient that is supposed to make it healthy” (Crowe, 2015). Raw chocolate, by the standards of raw foodism, means that food is not supposed to be heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit in order to preserve enzymes. This seems tricky to prove especially when chocolate makers receive cocoa beans from various countries of origin where fermenting and drying practices are not under their direct supervision. Some companies remedy this issue with bean-to-bar practices that ensure they have seen and approved the process that cacao beans undergo before shipment to the company’s own processing facilities, where low temperature winnowing, grinding and conching is under their complete control. The bean-to-bar method (See Taza’s Bean-to-Bar and Direct Trade process) also provides assurance that cacao is ethically (sometimes for organic and wild-crafted cacao if so desired) sourced. These initiatives often promote more sustainable and better processed cacao, which means higher quality cacao for both the farmer, manufacturer and consumer. For these reasons, the popularity of raw cacao seems to fit into the development of functional foods where the consumer is able to enjoy a sometimes more bitter, medicinal tasting chocolate in the anticipation of a powerful physiological boost and a clearer conscience due to sourcing methods.
In the case of Yes Cacao, their Karma MellOwl botanical chocolate bar contains 41% cacao butter, and 59% botanicals which results in a deliciously complex, albeit golden colored bar due to the cocoa butter and turmeric content. Non-fat cacao solids which provide the main anti-inflammatory benefits of cacao are missing, but are replaced with other superfoods, spices and adaptogenic herbs like lucuma, maca, yacon, lion’s mane mushrooms, gingko, turmeric, pine pollen, cinnamon, bacopa, and gynostemma. The creators of the bars deem them functional medicine, as they combine cacao solids and sundried cane juice as a base for superfood and medicinal enhancements. In this video, Justin Frank Polgar recommends that Yes Cacao bars are eaten daily as a staple enhancement for ideal human functionality.
Other raw chocolate companies that are focus on functional chocolate using additional superfoods, spices and herbs include:
Trends in functional foods heading in the direction of ‘naturally healthy’
From the perspective of growers, producers and consumers who want a high quality, healthful and good tasting chocolate product, the scientific findings that support the ideal balance between flavor and preservation of health promoting properties of cacao, are significant. The ideal way to conserve protective, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits warrants consideration with the changes in polyphenol content during processing of cacao from raw bean, through fermentation to roasting, conching and mixing with other ingredients. Raw chocolate seems a good way to navigate this balance. Meanwhile, mass produced commercial chocolate companies or “big chocolate” continue to move their products in the direction of high quality premium chocolate and adopting new manufacturing processes in order to preserve cacao’s protective effects. The overarching trend uniting premium, natural and healthful ingredients is referred to in the food industry as naturally healthy foods. “This idea of using food to manage health may, in part, help explain growing consumer interest in fresh, natural and organic products”(Gagliardi, 2015). The melding of healthy, natural and functional foods to chocolate production reflects consumer preferences and industry recognition of the role diet plays on health and provides insights into the future of food. For now, medicinally enhanced, raw, naturally healthy, and functional chocolate seems light years ahead of other natural foods on the market today.
Author’s Note: While researching and writing this article the author happily consumed a great deal of functional, raw and medicinal chocolate and can attest to the powerful effects that far surpass conventional and even ‘premium chocolates’.
Ackar, Djurdjica, Kristina Valek Lendić, Marina Valek, Drago Šubarić, Borislav Miličević, Jurislav Babić, and Ilija Nedić. “Cocoa polyphenols: can we consider cocoa and chocolate as potential functional food?.” Journal of chemistry 2013 (2013).
Albak, Fatma, and Ali Rıza Tekin. “Development of Functional Chocolate with Spices and Lemon Peel Powder by using Response Surface Method: Development of Functional Chocolate.” Academic Food Journal/Akademik GIDA 12, no. 2 (2014).
Afolabi Clement Akinmoladun, Mary, Tolulope Olaleye, and Ebenezer Olatunde Farombi. “Cardiotoxicity and Cardioprotective Effects of African Medicinal Plants.” Toxicological Survey of African Medicinal Plants (2014): 395.
Bordiga, Matteo, Monica Locatelli, Fabiano Travaglia, Jean Daniel Coïsson, Giuseppe Mazza, and Marco Arlorio. “Evaluation of the effect of processing on cocoa polyphenols: antiradical activity, anthocyanins and procyanidins profiling from raw beans to chocolate.” International Journal of Food Science & Technology 50, no. 3 (2015): 840-848..
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Jain, Parag, Ravindra Pandey, and Shiv Shankar Shukla. “Inflammation and Lifestyle.” Inflammation: Natural Resources and Its Applications. Springer India, 2015. 143-152.
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Zhang, Dapeng, and Lambert Motilal. “Origin, Dispersal, and Current Global Distribution of Cacao Genetic Diversity.” In Cacao Diseases, pp. 3-31. Springer International Publishing, 2016.