Who doesn’t love a little chocolate?

In the western culture, our love affair with chocolate began only a few hundred years ago. That’s a relatively short time compared to the its history in Brazil and the Amazon. Theobroma Cacao is a very powerful food living up to its ancient name as ‘the food of the gods’.  On the average, we Americans each indulge in about 12 pounds of chocolate yearly – hopefully not all at once.  That stretches out about 100 pounds of chocolate being consumed a second – whew – and that’s just Americans who rank 4th in consumption of chocolate worldwide. The Swiss currently hold the honor of being first for individual consumption of chocolate at about 22 lbs per individual. 

The history of chocolate in five paragraphs

Use of the cacao tree dates back at least 5,000 years to Brazil and the Amazon and images of the cacao pods were carved into Mayan stone temples dating back to as early as 300 C.E.  A symbol of fertility, vitality and life, the Mayans revered and used cacao extensively.  By 600 C.E. the Mayans had expanded their way of life and were actively cultivating crops of cacao from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Pacific Coast.

The Mayans mixed cocoa with peppers, cornmeal and other foods to create a strong drink that was used for religious ceremonies and a wide variety of medicinal purposes. This wasn’t the sweet confection we are so familiar with now, rather this was a very bitter and thick “bitter water” or xocoatl – which we derived the word chocolate from. The Mayans brewed xocoatl to treat everything from an upset stomach, low energy and libido, lowering fevers, expectorating phlegm, treating blood in the stools and diarrhea. It was also used to regulate sleep – by either encouraging it or prohibiting – a dynamic little trait of chocolate. Woman used it to treat patterns of deficiency including anemia, infertility and decreased breast milk production.

By 1200 C.E. the Aztecs had conquered the Mayan culture, along with it they had taken on a love for cocoa. Montezuma seemed obsessed with drinking chocolate, believing it to be a powerful aphrodisiac and enlightening drink. Rumor has it he would drink up to 50 golden goblets of chocolate a day, throwing away every goblet after drinking from it – wee bit of decadence there – likely there is some myth there too. Either way, the pods of the cacao bean soon became of form of currency and a basis for the Aztec culture.

Skip forward to 1492, Columbus returns to Spain from the Americas and presents a handful of cocoa beans to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella – apparently they were less than impressed, preferring to delve into gold, they disregarded the beans.  In 1528, chocolate finally makes it back to Spain again. This time Cortès presents it to King Charles V who pays more than a passing interest in cocoa. Charles provides Cortès with supplies and monies necessary to fund his new plantations in South America. Cortès, who disliked the bitter drink, sets about trying to find a way to make chocolatl more palatable to his own tastes. He begins blending cocoa with sugar and spices such as vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon. Voila! The resultant confections became a treasured, decadent treat enjoyed by the Spanish nobles who would hoard them for nearly 100 years before sharing the secret with the rest of the world.

Jump ahead again to the age of the Three Musketeers – the men, not the candy bar. Chocolate had made its way to France in 1615, when Ann of Austria brought chocolate to the French court as a part of her dowry for her marriage to Louis XIII. Chocolate’s image as an aphrodisiac soon gave rise to chocolate’s popularity in France. By 1657, chocolate had finally found its way to Great Britain and then to Vienna, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. An interesting piece of trivia – chocolate would have arrived in Great Britain as early as the 1560’s if the British had chosen to really investigate the stores of the Spanish ships bound for Spain they were capturing and sinking. They just kept burning all the seeds carried as cargo believing it was just sheep dung – ah, snap. 

The dark side of chocolate – bringing ethics into practice.

Before we move forward to the nutrition and benefits of chocolate we need to bear in mind that chocolate’s history and present production isn’t all sweet. In fact it is very ugly and still is rife with exploitation. As we know, the western conquering and colonization caused great harm to environments and cultures in the quest for money and control. Even today we know that chocolate is an industry that still employs slave labor and pillages cultures and environments. Like any other food, making informed choices is wise.  Choose fair trade and sustainably sourced chocolates like Divine, DAGOBA, Green & Black and Endangered Species chocolates.  These companies are also free of GMO’s, additives and use organic sugars. The better our choices the better our planet and health. For a current list of ethical companies click here.

The nutritional benefits of chocolate

There is no doubt that chocolate is a powerful food, but chocolate’s nutritional profile will vary depending upon what the cocoa is mixed with. The FDA recognizes true chocolate as a mix of cocoa bean fat and sugar. Milk chocolate can derive up to 20% of its fat from milk. Here’s a quick overview.

Unsweetened chocolate –  A 3 1/2 oz serving provides 500 calories, 12.5 grams of protein, 0 cholesterol (zip, zilch) and 52 grams of fat, and 29 grams of carbohydrates.

Semisweet chocolate – A 3 1/2 oz serving provides 475 calories, 4.2 grams of protein, 30 grams of fat, and 53 milligrams of flavonoids.

Milk chocolate – A 3 1/2 oz serving provides about 530 calories, 7.5 grams of protein, 23 grams of cholesterol, 29 grams of fat and nearly 60 grams of carbohydrates – most of that as sugar.

The darker and more bitter the chocolate the higher the medicinal value. Once sugar and fillers are added to chocolate the quicker we move away from the healthy highlights of the cacao bean’s nature.

What makes chocolate so special? Here are a few highlights.

Fabulous flavonoids – Flavonoids are what give plants their coloring. The more color a plant has the more antioxidant or free radical fighting power it has. Cocoa beans are stars in the flavonoid world. 3 oz of dark semi sweet chocolate contains 170 milligrams of flavonoids. An apple boasts 106 milligrams and cup of hot chocolate only holds about 30 milligrams. Dark chocolate contains nearly 4 times the amount of antioxidants found in black tea, claims one study done by the National Institute of Public Health and Environment of the Netherlands. It also soars above red wine for phenols.

Chocolate contains ‘happy fat’ and protects against cholesterol – Cocoa butter, the satiating, delish part of chocolate is a saturated fat. It is interesting to note that the saturated fat in chocolate does not raise blood cholesterol levels, unlike the fats from dairy and meat products.  Flavonoids play an important role in protecting against cholesterol build up too, so chocolate can play an important role here – but not in the form of your average confection. Many studies are done where participants are taking pure, unsweetened cocoa powder and/or small amounts of dark chocolate. If you are addicted to super sweet chocolate, start weaning out the sweet and embracing the bitter. Read more on flavonoids.

Bitter flavor – The bitter flavor enters the Fire organs – the Heart, Pericardium, Triple Warmer, Small Intestines. In Asian (Chinese) medicine terms, these organs relate to relationships. The Fire organs help us interact with others, helping us maintain healthy and rewarding relationships when in balance. When out of balance, we lack appropriate boundaries–we may be too open or too closed off. 

Aphrodisiac nature – Chocolate has a long history as an aphrodisiac. Researchers believe this is due in part to phenylethylamine (PEA). PEA is a neurotransmitter that releases endorphins, once released these neurotransmitters give us a feeling of euphoria. Likely, this is where some of chocolate’s addictive nature may come from. We feel more relaxed, yet stimulated, calm and happy. However, chocolates heavy in sugar may also create an addiction to the blood sugar bump and can lead to accumulation of damp and phlegm in the body. 

Chocolate is good for the Heart and Blood – Flavonoids in chocolate help to keep blood from clotting. The effects are quite similar to low doses of aspirin. Blood coagulation can lead to serious illness including stroke, embolism and heart attacks. In Chinese medicine we say that chocolate enters the Heart and helps to move the Blood. This relates to both chocolates euphoric nature and its ability to move the Blood which releases constraints – ahhhhh…

Creating a healthy relationship to chocolate

As with any food we sometimes need to address how we relate to the food.  Do we have healthy boundaries? Enjoying it from time to time or are we trapped in an addictive relationship with it?  It’s not uncommon to hear clients and friends say that they cannot live without chocolate – which is an exaggeration – no one dies from not eating chocolate.  These types of statements are representative of thought processes where we have given a food or idea a tremendous amount of power in our being.  If indulgence in chocolate is actually causing health issues, then perhaps chocolate needs to be cut out of your diet for time until you reestablish appropriate boundaries.  If you do choose to eat chocolate – eat it as you should with any food – slowly, with joy and gratitude.  Taste the chocolate, savor it.  Then energy created in our body by eating with guilt or lack of consciousness can have serious repercussions on the body.  This rule applies to any food, but we should take extra caution with such a rich and decadent food.

Here’s to eating well!