What is chocolate?

Chocolate is a fermented, processed, and sweetened food obtained from the bitter-tasting seeds of the cacao or cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao). [1]

Production of chocolate from cocoa beans - Cocoa beans or pods are plucked from the cocoa tree. These pods are then opened to release the cocoa beans or seeds. These seeds are extremely bitter to taste. Therefore, they are fermented so as to remove the bitterness. The fermented seeds are then dried for a period of a week.

These dried fermented seeds are then roasted, powdered, and melted. This forms chocolate liquor. Cocoa liquor is then pressed to separate cocoa butter and cocoa powder. Cocoa butter is used for the manufacture of processed chocolate through the addition of milk, milk solids, and sugar. [2] [3]

There are two types of chocolate

White chocolate - This has a high composition of cocoa butter. It does not contain any cocoa solids, due to which it possesses a characteristic ivory colour. It is sweet to taste due to the presence of milk solids and sugar. [4]

Dark chocolate - This possesses a high percentage of cocoa solids. It is extremely dark in colour. The amount of cocoa butter varies. Dark chocolate is extremely bitter to taste, and does not contain any sugar, milk, or milk solids. [5]

Commercially produced milk chocolate contains a combination of both white chocolate and dark chocolate.

Dark Chocolate - The Next Superfood

"Superfoods" are defined as those foods which possess extremely high nutritional benefits, and contain numerous disease-fighting properties.

Nutritionists have labeled dark chocolate as the next "superfood" as it is extremely rich in antioxidants, flavonoids, and polyphenols, which help in neutralizing the effects of free radicals produced in the body, as well as warding off disease such as cancer and autoimmune disorders.

Research studies have shown that dark chocolate as well as cocoa powder possess greater antioxidant activity and contain more flavonols (30.1 milligrams of flavonols per gram of chocolate) and polyphenols (1000 milligrams of polyphenols per serving of chocolate) than various other fruits such as acai, blueberry, cranberry, pomegranate, etc. [6]

However, it has been observed that subjecting chocolate to heat treatment destroys the nutritional benefits present in it. Also, the calorie count and amount of fat content present in chocolate is much greater than fruits. Therefore, dark chocolate is a "superfood" that needs to be consumed in moderation. [7] [8]

Therapeutic Benefits of Chocolate

Chocolate is a rich source of the alkaloid theobromine (2-10% theobromine in unprocessed chocolate) [9], which provides the following therapeutic benefits -

1. Diuretic properties - Theobromine acts a diuretic. This acts as effective therapy in cases of fluid accumulation in tissues (oedema) or removal of excess water and salts from the body through urination or in the reduction of high blood pressure due to increased water content of the fluid connective tissues. [10]

2. Vasodilation - Theobromine helps in the increased dilation of blood vessels. This helps improve blood flow, and thereby contributes to the reduction of blood pressure. [11]

3. Improving cardiac functioning - Theobromine has been known for its properties for improving the functioning of the heart. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states that theobromine can be used for treating various cardiac problems such as arteriosclerosis, vascular disorders, angina, hypertension, etc. [12]

4. Fighting against tooth decay - Theobromine has been found to be extremely effective in fighting tooth decay, by acting against those micro-organisms which cause oral cavities. [13]

5. Muscle relaxation - Theobromine possesses relaxant properties. It induces relaxation of the smooth muscles of the cardiac tissues. [14]

Other therapeutic benefits of chocolate - [15]

1. Anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties - Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants such as flavonoids and polyphenols. These compounds display anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties by inhibiting excessive and uncontrolled cell division and reducing inflammation by neutralizing the production of free radicals respectively. [15]

2. Prevention of heart disease - Chocolate is a rich source of nutrients such as iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, etc. All these elements play a key role in the prevention of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD).

3. Reduction of food cravings - Dark chocolate is bitter to taste, and also possesses a sizable calorie count and fat content. Therefore, consumption of dark chocolate has been found to reduce cravings for various sweet, salty, and oily foods.

4. Anti-depressant properties - Consumption of chocolates enhances the production of endorphins. The production of these neurotransmitters results in an individual experiencing a feeling of positivity, thereby acting against depression.

Chocolates are also a rich source of serotonin, another neurotransmitter which possesses anti-depressant properties.

5. Improving memory - Consumption of hot chocolate has a positive effect on the functioning of the brain and memory enhancement by improving neurovascular coupling (response of blood flow to brain activity) in the white matter of the brain as well as cognitive functioning.

This positive effect of chocolate consumption on the functioning of the brain may also play a role in the prevention of brain degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Therapeutic Research Studies on Chocolate

1. Research shows that consumption of plain dark chocolate without addition of milk and/or milk solids displays a significant increase in the total antioxidant activity and antioxidant capacity of blood plasma as well as an increase in the (-)epicatechin content of blood plasma. It may, therefore, be implied that the presence of milk and/or milk solids may interfere in the antioxidant activity of dark chocolate. [16]

2. Chocolate has been found to be a source of flavonoids present in tea such as catechin. Even though tea contains a greater quantity of catechin than chocolate, the antioxidant activity of catechin as sourced from chocolate has been found to be four times greater as sourced from tea. [17]

3. Consumption of dark chocolate by healthy subjects results in increased insulin sensitivity. This helps in the detection of sharp variations in blood sugar levels due to improper nutrition. [18]

4. In elderly individuals, dark chocolate has been found to exert a decrease in blood pressure due to the presence of flavonols which possess antioxidant activity and provide vascular protection to blood vessels. [18]

5. Contrary to popular belief, research shows that consumption of chocolate does not display any negative effect on Acne vulgaris, or even the composition and excretory output of sebaceous secretion from the skin. Therefore, it cannot be proved that consumption of chocolate has an adverse effect on acne. [19]

6. Cocoa powder and dark chocolate have a positive effect on the reduction of LDL cholesterol and the increase of HDL cholesterol, thus reducing the risk of developing cardiovascular disorders. [20]

7. Fatty acids and polyphenols present in chocolate have been found to inhibit peroxidation of lipids by modifying the composition of fatty acids present in LDL, and therefore, increasing its resistance against oxidative damage. [21]


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chocolate
[2] http://www.sfu.ca/geog351fall03/groups-webpages/gp8/prod/prod.html
[3] http://www.icco.org/about-cocoa/processing-cocoa.html
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_chocolate
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Types_of_chocolate#Classification
[6] http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20110207/is-chocolate-the-next-super-food
[7] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/8306796/Chocolate-is-the-new-super-food.html
[8] http://www.superfoodsrx.com/superfoods/dark-chocolate/
[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theobromine#Sources
[10] http://www.houseofnutrition.com/theobromine.html
[11] http://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB01412
[12] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theobromine#Therapeutic_uses
[13] http://theodent.com/pdf/17_insight_ct1204.pdf
[14] http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/southfacts_theo.htm
[15] http://www.sanjeevkapoor.com/Choose-Chocolate-Therapeutic-Buzz.aspx
[16] http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v424/n6952/abs/4241013a.html
[17] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673699022679
[18] http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/81/3/611.short
[19] http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=350738
[20] http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/74/5/596.short
[21] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0891584904004551

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