Chocoholics unite! From tropical treasure to everyday treat, chocolate is making headlines as breakthroughs in medical research have put this centuries-old ingredient on everyone’s menu with some sweet results.
by Maria Pilar Paulick
Although people have a love-hate relationship with this famed ingredient, chocolate and its reputed therapeutic properties have been making media headlines. Several recent studies have cited the possible benefits of eating chocolate as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Greek researches conclude that chocolate may boost blood vessel health. Cardiologists at the Athens Medical School in Greece set out to test whether chocolate affected the function of endothelial cells in the walls of blood vessels, which are believed to be affected by oxygen damage and considered a mirror of overall cardiovascular health.
Seventeen young, healthy volunteers were given 3.5 oz. of either dark chocolate, bittersweet chocolate or faux chocolate. Another day, volunteers were switched so that scientists didn’t know what each person had eaten thus far during the study.
An ultrasound was taken of each volunteer’s arm to study the function of the endothelial cells in the arm’s main artery. These cells regulate flexibility and clot formation within the blood vessels by secreting several active substances.
Scientists found that the dark chocolate seemed to make the blood vessels more flexible, aiding in the prevention of hardening arteries, which could lead to an eventual heart attack.
During sessions where volunteers were given dark or bittersweet chocolate, vessel function was improved, whereas during placebo sessions in which faux chocolate was administered, there were no changes. According to scientists, blood vessel flexibility improved in healthy people after the consumption of dark chocolate.
Full results are inconclusive — at this time, scientists don’t know if regular intake of dark chocolate or other cocoa beverages could result in a reduction of overall cardiovascular problems. However, experts warn against using chocolate as a means to ward off heart troubles. Weight gain from excess chocolate consumption would probably cancel any apparent benefits. In other words, chocolate binges don’t equate to good health.
In another study, new research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School suggests that the consumption of a high-flavonol cocoa beverage may positively impact endothelial function and blood flow in diabetics and the elderly.
Preliminary findings mean that cocoa flavonols, compounds with antioxidant activity, may help support healthy circulation in subjects with a high risk of circulation problems due in part to endothelial dysfunction.
Scientists found that flavonol-rich cocoa might improve this dysfunction by modulating nitric oxide levels in the body. Nitric oxide is a compound that helps the body maintain healthy blood pressure levels and blood flow by helping blood vessels maintain elasticity. It also keeps platelets from clotting and clumping on blood vessel walls.
Chocolate addicts crave it, others turn to it when feeling down and even more relish chomping on it as a “just dessert.” Some claim its taste and smell entrances them, like edible velvet, and others assert it can help you unwind, lose weight or even prolong your life.
Medical research is continuously delving into chocolate and uncovering new information about its effect on the human body.
Chocolate long has been embraced as one of the most pleasurable foods on the planet. Now it might actually be good for you too — dare we hope?
Chocolate contains antioxidants, compounds that protect the body from free radicals. These free radicals are thought to accelerate the aging process and aggravate diseases. Chocolate also contains flavonoids, found in tea, red wine and some fruits and vegetables. Flavonoids are thought to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association has published studies showing that test subjects who consumed dark chocolate or cocoa as part of their daily diets, had lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and higher levels of HDL (good) cholesterol.
That doesn’t mean you should eat your own weight in M&M’s or Hershey’s Kisses every day — the recommended daily dose is about 3 oz. of plain chocolate. Keep in mind, that’s a snack, not a stack.
Chocolate has other benefits — it has Vitamin E, which can reduce the risk of stroke. It could even reduce high blood pressure in some cases. It’s also a mood elevator, and not just because it tastes good. Chocolate’s chemical components have the same effect on the brain as falling in love.
Marc Huot, Corporate Pastry Chef and Master Chocolatier for Qzina Specialty Foods adds, “Dark chocolate contains potassium, iron, vitamin D, E, B6, folic acid, phosphorous, magnesium and mono unsaturated fat, which is known to be the healthiest type of general fat. So [it can be said] that chocolate is good for your skin, bones, teeth, eyes [and] cholesterol [levels]. It contains serotonin, which is an anti-depressant and gives you [a] ‘feel good’ sensation. It is also said chocolate can cure heartache, but that might be pushing it a little bit.”
Cocoa contains iron, B vitamins and magnesium — all essential for the human body function and which have been shown to reduce the uncomfortable effects of PMS.
By no means does this give people license to convert to the all-chocolate-all-the-time diet — keep in mind that most chocolate contains sugar, fat and caffeine. As always, moderation is key.
It has been a long journey for the seeds of the cacao tree. No longer just food for the privileged few, chocolate still is conquering the world as scientists continue to unearth its darkest and best health-enhancing secrets.
Conquered by Cacao
The journey from seed to sweet has been a long one. The sweet secret of the cacao tree was discovered about 2,000 years ago in the rainforests of Central America. Before chocolate was the melt-in-your-mouth treat we recognize today, it was consumed as a drink.
The first cultures to make a bitter chocolatey brew out of ground cacao seeds were the Maya and Aztec people. Mayans transplanted cacao trees found deep in the rainforest to their own backyards where they harvested, fermented, roasted and ground the seeds into a paste. The paste was mixed with water, chile peppers, cornmeal and spices to make a spicy, frothy drink that was served at important religious events, presented as a tribute to the gods and reserved for royalty.
Once the Aztecs came onto the scene, they traded with the Maya for cacao, which they also used as currency. The Aztecs also imbibed the spicy drink, but more than just kings could share it. Primary rulers, priests, decorated soldiers and honored merchants all could all take a swig of this sacred brew.
Later, Spanish conquistadors took the mysterious seeds to Spain, where delicious recipes were developed. They created a new recipe for the drink, adding sugar, cinnamon and cardamom. Another twist? They served it hot!
After being introduced in Spain, chocolate slowly started to conquer the rest of Europe and spread to all corners of the world. As a result, millions of recipes and uses have been created for this unique ingredient — everything from Mexican mole spooned over chicken to shampoo.
Marc Huot, Corporate Pasty Chef and Master Chocolatier for Qzina Specialty Foods notes, “The most unique way to use chocolate that I have heard of is a chocolate wrap in spa treatments. They wrap you up in a mixture of chocolate or cocoa and seaweed. Talk about aromatherapy! Anything from ground spices to essential oils, to freeze dried fruit powder” can be added to chocolate. “Your imagination is the limit.”
Today, chocolate remains one of the most favored flavors in the world, used in everything — bonbons, cookies, cakes, candy bars, hot fudge — the rich, creamy options seem endless for chocolate connoisseurs.
Huot notes that various textures that can be acquired through inclusions. “By adding ingredients that have a different texture, but no humidity, like Rice Krispies, nuts [and] caramel morsels, different textures can also be achieved by adding liquid or fat to the chocolate itself, like cream, vegetable oils or butter.”
At the recent International Baking Industry Exposition in Las Vegas, Nestle Branded Ingredients showcased a variety of melt-in-your-mouth inclusions, ranging from Toll House Morsels — chunks, white chocolate, milk chocolate, peanut, and more — to candy inclusions and toppings — Butterfinger pieces and fine grind, Crunchy Crunch pieces, Buncha Crunch and more — guaranteed to make baked goods pop with gooey, crunchy or chewy chocolatey goodness.
Chocolate has become a key ingredient in everything from confections to medicine. Once this decadent ingredient was mass-produced in the mid-1800s, it became “everyman’s” treat, no longer available just for the rich and elite’s chocolate coffers.
For centuries, people believed that drinking or eating chocolate instilled health, passion and faith into those who drank it — almost like a chocolate-flavored fountain of youth. Chocolate took on an almost magical allure and still is revered as an icon of romance and decadence to this day.