The Bitter Sweet Side of Chocolate

My partner wined me and dined me for Valentine’s Day and gave me a beautiful box of chocolates. Should I be happy eating all those succulent morsels? - Bittersweet.

Dear Bittersweet,

You are one of many in the love me/hate me world of chocolate. The Aztecs and Mayans prized the ground beans of the cacao tree for their mystical and medicinal properties. Both civilizations drank a thick, cold, unsweetened drink, which had various spices, including hot chili peppers added. Sugar was unknown to them. The word chocolate actually derives from the Aztec word, xocalatl, which means bitter water. The cacao bean was ground into a paste and mixed with spices, vanilla and a small amount of honey. The cacao plant’s botanical name, Theobroma cacao, literally means, “food of the gods.”

When Cortes conquered the Aztecs in the 1500’s, he introduced cocoa to the Europeans, who used it to treat anemia, fever, gout, hemorrhoids, heart problems, digestion and depression. It was the Spaniards who discovered that sugar cut the bitterness of cocoa, and began mixing sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon with it. The Spanish kept chocolate as their secret for almost a century until the Spanish princess Maria Theresa gave her fiancé, Louis the XIV, an engagement gift of chocolate in 1643. Louis and his court in Versailles embraced and manufactured the new treat, which was felt to inspire erotic pleasure. Louis is said to have made love to his wife twice a day even at age seventy two, inspiring the belief that chocolate was a powerful aphrodisiac. It would take another fifty years before chocolate found its way to Switzerland and Austria. The British are credited with the discovery of mixing milk with chocolate rather than water.

When cacao beans are ground, the resulting paste is approximately half cocoa butter, a natural vegetable fat that is stable at room temperature, but melts at body temperature. The cocoa butter is removed early in the refining process of cocoa powder. It is later added to make chocolate. The fats in cocoa butter are either good fats, which lower cholesterol, or neutral fats, which have no effect on cholesterol. It is the milk fat and butter which are added to chocolate which cause the fat problems.

Sweet encouragement

You can thank your sweetie, and relish your indulgence as long as your chocolates are at least 70% cocoa. Dark chocolate, which is sometimes called bitter sweet or semisweet, tends to have the highest percentage. Always look at the label and get the chocolate with the highest percentage that is most palatable for you.

Modern science however is finding that there is a scientific, chemical basis to many of the original benefits ascribed to chocolate. Potential heart-health benefits are attributed, in part, to chocolate’s flavonoids, the same type of phytochemicals found in tea and red wine. Tests have shown that the flavonoids in chocolate are particularly potent antioxidants. Chocolate also contains some plant sterols, B vitamins, magnesium, copper, potassium, and other heart-healthy substances.

Commercial chocolates and cocoas are typically processed (roasted and alkalinized) in ways that destroy much of their phytochemical nutrients; they also often contain milk, milk fat and lots of sugar. White chocolate contains no flavonoids at all. It is a mixture of fat and sugar. There is also some evidence that milk may interfere with the absorption of flavonoids. Plus, an ounce of chocolate contains about 135 to 150 calories, which can wipe out any health benefits if you gain weight.

Healthy Heart

Chocolate may benefit the heart in several ways. One study showed that drinking a fat free cocoa beverage had a blood thinning aspirin-like effect. Cocoa has also been shown to have an ability to relax and dilate blood vessels, allowing better blood flow. The benefits continue only as long as the beverage intake continues. There is also some evidence that cocoa drinks may be of benefit in affecting cholesterol levels and lowering blood pressure. Forget the cocoa flavanoid pills. There is no scientific evidence behind their claims.

In the Mood

Science is catching up with women, who already are aware that chocolate enhances their mood. Chocolate contains many different compounds that improve mood and alleviate anxiety. Mood elevators like serotonin, endorphins and phenylethylamine are all found in chocolate. It also contains the stimulants caffeine and theobromine, and the amphetamine-like compounds tyramine and phenylethylamine.

The best advice is “all things in moderation.” Balance your desired caloric intake with the benefits derived from the sweet morsel of dark chocolate. Tasting the sweetness of your honey’s lips may be an excellent substitute.


This article was written for the March 2008 'Ntouch News.