What is Chocolate?

Chocolate is a processed sweet dairy product made from cocoa beans. Cacao or Cocoa trees are found in tropical rainforests around the equator, namely South America, and parts of Africa including Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. The yellow melon-like fruits contain 20-40 seeds in each pod, which are removed and left to ferment. This is when they dry and the husks harden. Beans can be roasted at this stage, and this changes the flavour of the chocolate. The husks are then removed, and the nibs[1] remain. These nibs are processed into liquid form, and sugar, cocoa butter, milk and chocolate liqueur are added to the mixture[2]. Many other ingredients are added to the chocolate to diversify its flavour. Types of nut, fruit (popularly raisins, but strawberries and other berries are often added), even some types of processed wheat like puffed corn or biscuit can be added to give a different texture and flavour to the end product. Chocolate is most commonly found in its milk form, but it can be easily bought in dark, white and even diet varieties!

The History of Chocolate

Chocolate has been an important part of the economy and culture in South America for hundreds of years. There is evidence as far back as the Aztecs and Mayans, of chocolate being used in religious and cultural events. A pot dated from 1400BC has been discovered with cocoa residue, and it is believed that the cocoa beans had been fermented into an alcoholic beverage which was being used as part of birth or death rites. The Aztecs believed chocolate had magical properties, and they honoured it above other beverages.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in New Honduras during his fourth voyage, he discovered cocoa beans being used as currency. In Aztec times it is thought that one bean could purchase one turkey hen![3]

Chocolate first entered European markets in 1824 when George Cadbury started selling drinking cocoa in Birmingham, UK. In Birmingham’s slums at the time, gin was almost cheaper than water, which led to serious social problems as well as deterioration of health for many people. Mr Cadbury studied the situation and wanted to present an alternative to the vile alcohol which was available. He created drinking chocolate, and purchased his cocoa beans from Ghana. In the next few decades Cadbury produced many cocoa products for sale, but the Fry brothers were the first in England to produce a chocolate bar, in 1847. It was a few years later that Cadbury opened a factory on the outskirts of the city in 1879 and started producing bars of chocolate for consumption[4][5]This factory was a turning point in British history, as Cadbury insisted that his workers live on the estate around the factory in reasonably sized houses, all with a garden. It was part of their contract that they tend their garden. Cadbury hoped that spending time outside would improve his workers’ physical health and outlook on life. The workers were provided for in their retirement, and Cadbury met with all his workers each morning for Bible devotions and prayer. Interestingly, even to this day, no sale of alcohol is allowed on that estate.

George Cadbury took the health of his workers seriously and laboured to provide them with good living conditions. Cadbury went on to increase his range of chocolate confectionary, which is still vastly popular today. The Cadbury brand has recently insisted that all their purchases of Ghanaian cocoa beans is on a fair trade basis, thus ensuring reasonable wages for the local farmer.

Ghana is the world’s second largest producer of cocoa beans[6], and cocoa is Ghana’s second largest source of export earnings. As a crop, cocoa was first introduced to Ghana by Tetteh Quarshie (1842 – 25th December 1892), a master blacksmith and a farmer. In 1870, Tetteh Quarshie travelled to the island of Fernando Po (now Bioko in Equatorial Guinea), and returned to Ghana in 1876 with a few cocoa beans, which he planted in Mampong in 1879[7], the same year in which George Cadbury opened his factory in England.


The nutritional profile of Chocolate

Dark chocolate is full of vitamins that your body needs every day. By all reports, dark chocolate is better for you than other brands: it contains less sugar, milk and other processed goods than other types of chocolate. However, even the nutritional value of dark chocolate can differ according to the brand and its exact recipe. As a guide, dark chocolate contains around 44% of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron, as well as 36% of magnesium. Iron is particularly helpful for women around their menses as they lose much during this time. It could be that craving chocolate in this period is your body’s natural way of replacing that iron! Magnesium helps your heart beat steadily, and maintains healthy functioning of your immune, nervous and muscular system, to name but a few. Dark chocolate can contain 5% of your RDA of calcium, as well as 15% of your RDA of potassium. Potassium helps regulate your body’s fluids; maintains a steady blood pressure; and helps your muscles contract, amongst other things. Chocolate also contains 3% of your RDA of Vitamin B-12 and oleic acid, which is found in mono-unsaturated fat, and is wholesome for you![8]

Chocolate and your heart

Eating dark chocolate has been medically researched in connection with many heart problems including heart disease, strokes, heart attacks and heart failures. There are some differences in scientific opinion regarding the influence and extent that eating chocolate can reduce your chances of heart problems. However, all have found that there is a reduction. Generally, persons sampled have felt less stressed after eating chocolate, and this could be due to a lack of pressure on the heart, which contributes to a reduction in heart problems.

Cocoa has blood thinning properties, like aspirin, which could improve the flow of blood through your heart. It also has inflammation fighting properties. Thus, studies have shown that those who ate dark chocolate regularly had a third of the risk of heart failure, 30% lower risk of heart attack and strokes[9], and lowered blood pressure. Dark chocolate has also been seen to reduce cholesterol problems[10].

Chocolate and your brain

Cocoa contains flavanols, which are a type of polyphenol and have been shown in the past to boost the performance of the brain and heart. They are commonly found in cocoa, tea, berries and wine[11]. One study showed that after consuming dark chocolate rich in flavanols, there was increased blood flow to the brain for 2-3 hours[12]. This improved concentration, performance and alertness. In another study, it was found that after consuming dark chocolate, candidates performed better at counting tasks[13]. Maybe it’s a good thing if our children snack on chocolate before doing their numeracy homework!

Dark chocolate, as mentioned before, has blood thinning properties, and studies have shown an increased flow of blood to the retina after consumption. This leads to improved vision, which would also contribute to better learning and brain function[14]. It’s no wonder that a survey conducted in 23 countries by Franz H. Messerli, M.D., found that the more chocolate consumed in a country, the higher the number of Nobel prize winners!

Chocolate and cancer

Dark chocolate contains antioxidants which are molecules implicated in reducing cancer. The type of antioxidant in dark chocolate is flavonoids, which have been seen to increase the UV protection in your skin[15]. This reduces the risk of skin cancer later in life. Dark skin has a natural sun protection factor (SPF) of 13, and light skin contains little to none of SPF. However, none of these facts mitigate the need for added UV protection when exposed to the powerful sunshine.

Chocolate and coughing

Dark chocolate contains theobromine, which has been shown to reduce coughing fits. It is thought that theobromine works with the part of the brain which stimulates the need to cough. The trigger comes through the vagus nerve, and theobromine is thought to relax this nerve, reducing the stimulant to cough[16].

Theobromine also has been shown to harden tooth enamel, thus improving dental hygiene[17]!

Chocolate and diet

This is interesting. Dark chocolate has been found to reduce the body’s cravings for sweet, unhealthy food. It is thought that this is due to a higher salt content and its ability to ‘fill you up’ more than milk or white chocolate. A little dark chocolate can go a long way and help reduce your waistline while satisfying your craving for sweet fatty food[18]!

Chocolate and diarrhoea

In South American and European cultures, chocolate was recommended by physicians as treatment for diarrhoea. This child killer can be stopped in its tracks by the flavonoids in dark chocolate. These antioxidants bind to a protein which acts in the small intestines to limit diarrhoea[19].

Chocolate and diabetes

Diabetes is a significant concern globally and is a growing problem in many developing countries, as more and more increase in affluence and sedentary lifestyles. However, dark chocolate can help! Dark chocolate has been found to increase the sensitivity of insulin in the body, which reduces the risk of diabetes! One study found the insulin resistance fall by 50%[20]: again it is the action of the flavonoids working in our favour!

[1] Peeled and crumbled parts of cocoa beans.

[2] Chocolate Lovers,
retrieved 9 September 2013, at 21.26

[3] Smithsonian, 
retrieved 7 September 2013, at 21.03

[4] Cadbury, 
retrieved 8 September 2013, at 20.22    

[5] Cadbury, 
retrieved 8 September 2013, at 20.22    

[6] After Côte d’Ivoire.

[7] Wikipedia, 
retrieved 16 September 2013, at 20.34

[8] Fitday, 
retrieved 9 September 2013, at 21.07

[9] Women’s Health, 
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[10] Huffpost Healthy Living, 
retrieved 8 September 2013, at 20.21

[11] Forbes,  retrieved 8 September 2013, at 20.21

[12] Women’s Health, 
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[13] Huffpost Healthy Living, 
retrieved 8 September 2013, at 20.21

[14] Huffpost Healthy Living, 
retrieved 8 September 2013, at 20.21

[15] Huffpost Healthy Living, 
retrieved 8 September 2013, at 20.21

[16] Women’s Health, 
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[17] Fitday, 
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[18] Women’s Health, 
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[19] Women’s Health, 
retrieved 8 September 2013, at 20.15

[20] Women’s Health, 
retrieved 8 September 2013, at 20.15