Dating back to the Olmec civilization
starting around 1500 BCE, cacao has taken on uses in religious, cultural, and
medicinal contexts (Coe & Coe, 2013). It was featured in early colonial
documents alleviating fevers and treating fatigue. Global consumption of sugar
and chocolate skyrocketed so that it contributed to the obesity epidemic in
America. Americans now question the “healthy” snack that used to “food of the
gods” (Lippi, 2009). As our society becomes more health conscious, chocolate
consumption declines. Brands like Hershey’s and Mars are adjusting their
products, and snackers opt for vitamin-rich dark chocolate, smoothies, and
salads. For years to come in the United States, chocolate most likely will
remain integral to social events but be consumed in smaller amounts and
different contexts, such as protein shakes and bars, more frequently than
caloric snacks off the shelves at the cash register.
Although chocolate was consumed in religious rituals, social settings, and used for decorations, it was also applied to cure illnesses. The ancient Maya believed it had many benefits, including aphrodisiac qualities, which is why we gift it on Valentine’s day (Martin, Feb. 13 Lecture). Manuscripts featured chocolate in medical applications, such as the Badianus Codex of 1552 using cacao flowers to treat fatigue, the Florentine Codex of 1590 using cacao beans to treat hearts, and the Badianus Manuscript of 1552 applying cacao flowers to energize men in public office (Dillinger et al., 2000). The books of Chilam Balamand and The Ritual of the Bacabs are copies of codices and also feature cacao being used as medicine (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008). The Maya used it during ceremonies to alleviate fevers, seizures, and skin abnormalities. Their botanical remedies typically featured cacao as the main ingredient to cure such ailments.
Alphonse de Richeliu introduced the treatment to France, and it was taken on for energy, digestion, breast milk production, kidney stones, poor appetite, and other purposes (Coe & Coe). The Spanish even believed it improved conception probability and breast milk quality (Dillinger et al., 2000). Chocolate was thought to have many nutrients, so the Church banned consuming it during religious fasts unless for medicinal purposes. Chocolate was considered a cure for almost any ailment.
Chocolate consumption grew exponentially throughout the 1900s due to several innovations that allowed mass production of cheaper chocolate and enabled it to spread beyond the elite. Incomes rose and production costs fell after the Industrial Revolution. Coenraad Johannes Van Houton invented the hydraulic press, which separated cocoa solids from cocoa butter (Coe & Coe, 2013).
As shown above, the press is comprised of cylinders,
pistons, and hydraulic pipes. A piston is inserted into the small cylinder to
create pressure so liquid cocoa can move through the pipes (Coe & Coe, 2013).
As it goes through the press, the fat is squeezed out and the result is fat
free cocoa powder. Another development was conchin, a stirring process to make
chocolate smooth. These inventions allowed chocolate to change from a foamy
drink only consumed by the elite to a cheap and delicious option for all
classes. Fry & Nestle even created a solid form of chocolate, which further
increased accessibility (Coe & Coe, 2013). Mintz noted that sugar
production increased so much that it became integral to the English diet
(Mintz, 1986). By 1900, sugar constituted 20% of English calories consumed and
chocolate was a major part of their diets.
There are positive effects to chocolate. Dark chocolate has a high cocoa content and antioxidants. Harvard Health notes that dark chocolate can help athletes’ oxygen availability during competition (Tello, 2018). Americans adopted chocolate as a delicious treat but had difficulty consuming it in moderation. Today, chocolate mostly is seen as a contributor to obesity. Many favorite snacks are loaded with sugar and fat. Cacao butter is filled with saturated fat and harmful for cholesterol (Mintz, 1986). With America wrestling with an obesity epidemic, chocolate and sugar are identified as culprits.
Rather than focusing on the medicinal qualities of chocolate, society now raises concerns about high sugar content (Twitter). Low prices of huge sharing size bags lead to some consuming excessive amounts of sugar in one sitting. A bag of Hershey’s individually wrapped chocolate bars contains up to 81 grams of sugar (Google Images). The negative health effects commercial chocolate contains are gaining media attention, and people are adjusting their eating habits accordingly.
Consumption of chocolate is now falling in America because of trends toward being healthier and losing weight. Diet brands are raking in dollars as consumers opt for more nutritious options with less sugar. Salad chains, Weight Watchers, and workout classes such as Barry’s Boot Camp and Soul Cycle have become popular. Chocolate consumption drops. The average American ate 12.6 lbs of chocolate in 2007 but only 9.5 lbs in 2015 (Wong, 2016). Healthier brands like Atkins and Kind are selling better than Hershey’s and forcing companies to adjust to their audiences. A recent Skinny Pop commercial depicts the new trend:
The commercial ends with a child remarking, “It’s all real, that’s pretty cool” regarding the three ingredients in Skinny Pop (popcorn, sunflower oil, salt). The next generation is being raised to be more health conscious and to consume natural ingredients rather than sugar and saturated fat.
The consumption decline is shown by dominant brands diversifying as they lose market share. More than 50% of confectionary market share was controlled by only five brands: Hershey’s, Mars, Nestle, Craft, and Ferrero (Coe & Coe, 2013). Hershey’s recently acquired amplify snack brands, which owns Skinny Pop, in a $1.6 billion deal (Global News Wire, 2017). Hershey’s is even beginning to produce meat bars, as their former best sellers are no longer sailing off shelves. Hershey’s isn’t the only old dominant brand struggling. Mars invested in Kind Bars, which features health conscious mottos on their labels (Global news Wire, 2017). Chocolate brands adjust their products and tailor to a changing audience, which will alter how chocolate is consumed.
Not only are Americans consuming less chocolate, but when they do it is in different contexts. Fitness spots such as Equinox still sell chocolate but offer bars that are gluten, dairy, sugar alcohol, and trans fat free.
Chocolate is featured in low sugar bars and protein shakes more frequently than in caloric foamy drinks. The turn in society towards healthier lifestyles, less sugar consumption, and increased fitness has caused vendor diversification and is changing the way chocolate is consumed.
Despite chocolate and cacao’s widespread medicinal uses in the past, it has been demoted to a sugary dessert in America. As people fight the obesity crisis, consumers practice self-control and grab alternative foods off the shelves. Brands with “skinny” in the name have grown in number: skinny pop, skinny cow, and halo top with the number of calories in huge print. Advertisements featuring natural ingredients, such as the Skinny Pop commercial, are successful. The chocolate market may never be the same—Hershey’s with the famous brown sealed chocolate bar now is selling popcorn and even meat bars (yuck). Not only has chocolate consumption declined, but the way the population consume it has changed because it is being revamped into healthier foods and not just sweet desserts.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael
D. Coe. 2013 . The True History of
Chocolate. 3rd edition. London:
Thames & Hudson.
Dillinger, Teresa, et al. “Food of the
Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of
Chocolate.” Oxford Academic The Journal of Nutrition, Oxford
University Press, 1 Aug. 2000, academic.oup.com/jn/article/130/8/2057S/4686320.
Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Edgar
Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona
Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. 13 Feb. 2017. Lecture.
Mintz, Sidney. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.Popcorn, SkinnyPop. “SkinnyPop | Simple Tastes Better.” YouTube, YouTube, 10 Aug. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iCta8t7BmU.
We see the articles pop up from time to time – chocolate is the new cure for every health affliction. It lowers this, supports that and treats everything else. This concept of using chocolate to heal isn’t novel. The origins of it’s healing properties date back to Mesoamerica and have evolved over the subsequent centuries. But as chocolate became consumed by the masses thanks to producers who brought chocolate to the masses, the negative effects of consuming the confection have been talked about just as much as the positive effects. Ultimately, is chocolate an elixir or a poison?
Chocolate was ingrained in almost every part of the lives of Mesoamericans. Among many of the uses for cacao, there were a variety of medicinal applications. Cacao was believed to help digestion, aid in inflammation, boost energy and was used as an anesthetic. Application of medicinal cacao used for afflictions found in Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams include 50 ways of curing and healing to address skin eruptions, fevers, and seizures. Remedies were a combination of cacao and other botanical ingredients, like avocado, that are considered to be “superfoods” in modern society. (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods” 75-76) Traditional Aztec healers cured many ailments that we consider to be commonplace today with various forms of chocolate. For example, a stomachache for an Aztec would be treated with pure, unmixed chocolate (Grivetti and Shapiro 100), which seemed as commonplace in their society as it might be to reach for Pepto Bismol in our society today.
When the Spanish began noticing the powers of cacao after landing in Mesoamerica, they began adopting it for their own healing uses. They noticed that it boosted energy and saw that Mesoamerican warriors who consumed cacao were made stronger. (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods'” 58) The Anonymous Conqueror said in his description of Tenochtitlan in 1556 that, “this drink [cacao] is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.” (Coe, and Coe, 86-88)
It’s clear that the Spanish saw that cacao was prized by Mesoamericans for a variety of reasons. They began using cacao for their own healing purposes such as improved probability of conception, quality of breast milk, reversing the effects of exhaustion, impotence, vision-quest hangovers, mental illness, fevers, poison, skin eruptions, lung problems, agitation, diarrhea, indigestion, and flatulence. (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods'” 76) Like the Mesoamericans, they used chocolate as a cure-all, further supporting the belief in chocolate’s healing and medicinal powers.
In the 1500’s when cacao made it’s way to Spain, Francisco Hernández & Dr. Juan de Cárdenas began working on incorporating adapting the use of cacao as medicine from
Mesoamerican into “civilized” frameworks. “An apothecary based on Humoral Medicine subscribes that cacao contains healing properties encompassing 3 & perhaps all 4 elements – air (fat), fire (bitter), earth (thick) & maybe water (sweet) – to yield a neutral temperament leaning ‘wet-cool’, thus making it acceptable.” (“A Concise History of Chocolate”) Fifty years later, we saw the first of many flags that will come in the following centuries about whether chocolate is healthy or harmful when Dr. Santiago Valverde Turices published the first guide on chocolate, Un Discurso de Chocolate, in 1624. (“A Concise History of Chocolate”) Almost 400 years later, we still debate this question.
MODERN-DAY PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION
As time progressed, chocolate became more industrialized. Coenraad Johannes Van Houten manufactured cocoa powder in Holland in 1828, followed by Joseph Fry manufacturing of first chocolate bars for consumption in 1847. (Martin, “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal” 42, 44) Chocolate got a bad rap as a “poison” not long after when some companies began tampering with chocolate by mixing in inedible ingredients (like crushed red brick) in order to decrease costs. In the mid-1800’s, consumers’ distrust for processed foods, like chocolate, brought new meaning to the “poison” label. The British government was inspired to pass a number of food adulteration acts to make such practices illegal and to reassure consumers that their food was pure. (Martin, “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal” 18) This distrust of corrupt or poisoned foods, while mostly forgotten after corporations became more committed to ensuring the quality of their products, still endures in our modern society, especially with chocolate and candy consumption.
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Ingredients
Ingredients for Homemade Peanut Butter Cups
While food adulteration has subsided over the subsequent decades, companies have used other tactics to decrease chocolate production costs. Chocolate is rarely seen mass-produced in a simple and pure form. Big Chocolate, such as Mars and Hershey, use additives and have created offerings that use minimal chocolate, relying on the addition of cheaper ingredients to defray costs. Compare the ingredients in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup versus a recipe for a homemade version of the treat in the above. The mass-produced cup includes chemicals and ingredients not usually – if ever – found in a kitchen. When you compare the botanical ingredients Mesoamericans used to mix with cacao and the ingredients that Big Chocolate uses in their production, it’s staggering to see the progression of chocolate product ingredients.
DOES CHOCOLATE HEAL OR HURT?
It’s clear based on many early texts that chocolate in its purest cacao form was believed (without scientific conclusion) that it had healing and strengthening properties. The wide adoption of chocolate as a health elixir during the 1500’s and before leads us to believe that the primitive results that Mesoamericans and Spanish explorers saw when using cacao did cure their ailments.
Modern researchers, such as those at Harvard, claim that “ingredients in cocoa can be healthy, but the high-calorie chocolate bars that contain it aren’t necessarily good for you.” The flavonoids found in chocolate “have beneficial effects on heart disease risks, as well as on blood flow to the brain. Chocolate is the candy that’s made by adding sugar, milk, and other ingredients to cocoa powder. Those ingredients also add fat and sugar, which counteract some of cacao’s health benefits.” (Chocolate: Pros and Cons of This Sweet Treat, Harvard Health Publications) It seems that chocolate in it’s simplest form and in moderation does, in fact, have positive health benefits. The modern research on the food would seem to support the positive response that Mesoamericans saw when they used cacao as a health supplement.
“Chocolate: Pros and Cons of This Sweet Treat.” Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. 86-88. Print.
“A Concise History of Chocolate.” The C-Spot. The C-Spot, 1 Mar. 2017. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Grivetti, Louis, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 100. Print.
“Homemade Peanut Butter Cups.” Taste of Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods”.” 01 Feb. 2017. Lecture.
Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” 9 Mar. 2017. Lecture.
From frothy Mesoamerican ceremonial beverage to widespread currency system to sugary candy bars consumed by millions daily, chocolate has taken many forms since its discovery thousands of years ago. Its current uses and perception by Western society have been largely influenced by the first Europeans to encounter chocolate in the late 16th century. The use of chocolate as a medicinal and luxury item by the early Europeans is largely the reason why chocolate is still viewed as an insubstantial food item linked with holidays and romance in Western society today.
Europeans were first introduced to cacao sometime in the decade following Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, and began paying attention to it after noticing how highly the native Mesoamericans regarded the beans. Explorer Ferdinand Columbus says of the Mayans, “They seemed to hold those almonds [cacao beans] at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship with their goods, I observed that whenever any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe 109). Explorer Hernán Cortez planted a vast plantation of twenty thousand cacao trees, recognizing their value as currency (Presilla 23-24). The colonizing Spanish who settled in the New World first scoffed at the odd, bitter-tasting beverage that the natives held so dear, but soon grew fonder of the substance. They altered the traditional Mesoamerican recipe of cold, frothy chocolate powder mixed with water and spices by adding sugar and drinking it hot rather than cold (Coe 114-115). This Europeanized form of the beverage was introduced to the Spanish court, where it became a fashionable drink among nobility. Due to cacao’s exoticness and to the high labor intensity required to prepare the cacao for consumption, chocolate remained a beverage for the upper classes only. Intricate porcelain teacups and saucers were specifically designed for the consumption of chocolate so that ladies of the Spanish court would be able to drink the beverage without spilling on themselves (Coe 131). A new cooking utensil, the molinillo, was invented for the sole purpose of frothing chocolate beverages, and special chocolate pots were crafted (Presilla 26). An aura of luxury and exclusivity was built up around the consumption of chocolate among the first Europeans to experience it (Presilla 25). This exclusivity was in stark contrast to chocolate consumption among several Mesoamerican cultures that came before them, or to the South Americans of the same time period, who often mixed chocolate with ground maize, water, and spices, and drank it as a nutrient-providing meal (Presilla 28-30). The Europeans largely ignored this use of chocolate and regarded it only as a sweet treat. Thus, when chocolate was finally introduced to the European working class, it did not occur to European chocolate companies to serve it as anything other than a sugary beverage.
Since modern Western culture is largely influenced by early Europe, chocolate has continued to be regarded as a dessert and not as something of nutritional value. An example of this is in Dove chocolate advertising.
The inside of the chocolate wrappers contain often contain messages telling consumers to indulge in the delicious chocolate and give themselves a treat, such as in this image. This chocolate wrapper conveys the message to consumers that Dove recognizes the frivolousness of chocolate consumption, but endorses it anyway because it brings joy. Dove does not even try to make chocolate sound healthy, but instead capitalizes on its deliciousness. This current perception of chocolate is very close to and stems from the early European perception of chocolate as a tempting luxury item that should be eaten sparingly.
Chocolate had a second purpose in its early days of discovery by the Europeans. Not only was it viewed as an elite product, but it was also praised for its medicinal properties. The Spanish colonists noticed the stimulant properties of chocolate and believed it to be an aphrodisiac (Coe 29). The Spanish physician Francisco Hernandez was sent to the New World by the Spanish king Phillip II to study undiscovered plants in Mesoamerica and document them. He classified chocolate according to the traditional Galenic medicinal method and called it “cold and dry,” thus making chocolate suitable for treating illnesses such as fevers, stomachaches, dysentery, and constipation (Dillinger et al). The medicinal properties of chocolate were touted across Europe, and in the 16th and 17th centuries, “medical complaints treated with chocolate/cacao have included anemia, poor appetite, mental fatigue, poor breast milk production, consumption/ tuberculosis, fever, gout, kidney stones, reduced longevity and poor sexual appetite/ low virility” (Dillinger et al). As such, chocolate was carefully consumed in small quantities; one seventeenth-century noblewoman remarks, “I observe my chocolate diet, to which I believe I owe my health. I do not use it crazily or without precaution” (Coe 136). Physicians often recommended that chocolate be drunk in small quantities with precaution (Coe 123-172). Chocolate was treated almost like a miracle drug in early Europe.
The early European view that chocolate has medicinal properties has also continued to have influence on Western perception of chocolate. Coe points out that it is fairly common for products to start out as medicinal items and then eventually be used recreationally. The most famous example of this is Coca-Cola, which was initially used medicinally but became a wildly popular beverage (Coe 126). Chocolate underwent a similar transformation. It was believed to be healthy in small doses, as we can see from this 1935 Hershey’s advertisement.
Here, Hershey is telling us that eating chocolate makes one healthy. Although chocolate started to be consumed more for its taste than for its health benefits, the rumor that chocolate was an aphrodisiac stuck around and furthered its recreational usage. This has caused Western society to link certain types of chocolate with romance and sex. Valentine’s Day and wedding anniversaries are often celebrated with a box of chocolates. The message that chocolate is sexually stimulating still makes its way into our advertising. For example, the advertisement below for Aero chocolate features an attractive half-dressed man who talks about chocolate in terms of sexual puns, such as when he remarks, “And that, ladies, makes the pleasure even more intense.”
Another advertisement for 1848 chocolate features a woman closing her eyes and making excited noises interspersed with footage of cacao being processed into chocolate.
In both advertisements, the companies are pushing the idea that eating chocolate is linked with sexual arousal and that making chocolate can make one sexier. Clearly, chocolate and sex are still linked in popular culture, and this stems from early European optimism that chocolate was a medicine and aphrodisiac.
In conclusion, chocolate has had many roles in many different cultures, but its current usage in Western society is largely influenced by early European chocolate customs. These customs will continue to influence Western chocolate consumption for years to come.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
Digital Image. More of the Chocolate, Less of the Sexuality. Accessed March 10, 2017. https://chocolateclass.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/dove-wrapper.jpg.
Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escarcega, Martha Jimenez, Diana Salazar Lowe, and Louis E. Grivetti. “Food of the gods: cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate.” Journal of Nutrition 130, no. 8 (August 2000): 057S-2072S. Accessed March 10, 2017. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S.long.
Hershey Company. Digital Image. The History of Hershey Advertising. Accessed March 10, 2017. http://imgc.allpostersimages.com/images/P-488-488-90/17/1721/HP13D00Z/posters/hershey-s-syrup.jpg.
Kmclan80. “Jason Lewis Looking HOT in new Aero Bubbles ad”. Filmed [April 2007]. YouTube video, 00:31. Posted [April 2007]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Brz8jjXuKyg.
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’.
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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.
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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.