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Hi everybody! It’s Carol, the dietitian, and today we’re going to talk about chocolate. After all, we just observed Valentine’s Day, which is one of the biggest days to both give and receive chocolate.
Chocolate is made from the fruit of the cacao tree, which is native to Central and South America and where we get the word cocoa. The cacao tree’s fruit contain about 40 cacao beans. The beans are dried and roasted to create what we know as cocoa beans, which makes all chocolate foods that we love so much.
The chocolate of today is not like the chocolate in the past. Chocolate can be traced back to the ancient Mayans in Mexico as early as 450 B.C. They consumed their chocolate from drinks and combined it with chili, honey or water. It was thought to be quite bitter because they didn’t have the sugar we have now, so it was quite unlike today’s chocolate drinks. What we enjoy today would have to wait hundreds of years until the Europeans discovered chocolate. The Aztecs believed that cacao was given to them by their gods. Not only did they drink it as a spiced chocolate beverage, but they actually used the cacao beans as currency to buy food and other goods. According to history the mighty Aztec ruler, Montezuma, drank gallons of chocolate each day for energy and as an aphrodisiac.
Chocolate first arrived in Europe through Spain. Most people believe Christopher Columbus brought the cacao beans to Spain after he discovered the Americas in the early 15th century. It became popular very quickly and spread throughout Europe. In 1729 the first cocoa grinder was made in England and was followed by the invention of a cocoa press by a Dutch chemist. Some chocolate will indicate that it is Dutch pressed – using the same pressing process from the 1700s.
In 1874 a British chocolatier made the first known chocolate bar molded from paste, sugar, chocolate liqueur and cocoa butter, and about a year later powdered milk was added to form what we now know as milk chocolate. The powdered milk used was developed by Henri Nestlé, which is how Nestlé entered the chocolate business.
Due technological advances with machines and processing, chocolate soon transitioned from primarily a drink to a food. Besides Nestlé, some of the earliest chocolatiers were Lindt, which is a swiss-based company, Cadbury and Hershey.
The percent of chocolate in a product doesn’t tell you anything about the taste or quality of the product. Rather it indicates how much of the chocolate solids are in the product. The flavor and quality of the different chocolates you eat are determined by how the beans are fermented, how long they’re roasted, how they’re ground and how they’re mixed, whether they are mixed milk, sugar and other additives. There’s so many different types of chocolate nowadays, so it’s really a matter of taste.
Are there any health benefits from chocolate? Most research focuses on dark chocolate because of the high cocoa content. A three and a half ounce bar of dark chocolate contains:
Keep in mind that a three and a half ounce bar of chocolate also has about 600 calories as well as fat. It’s best to consume it in moderation and for enjoyment as opposed a health benefit.
Chocolate contains a small amount of caffeine, though not close to what you find in a cup of coffee, but some people find that some chocolate does keep them awake at night.
I’ve read a lot about people eating dark chocolate because of the antioxidant properties. The research looks pretty promising, but there are no definitive studies that eating a certain amount of dark chocolate every day is really beneficial.
Lowering Risk of Heart Disease and Increasing Brain Function
Studies are also looking at dark chocolate for lowering risk of heart disease and improving brain function; however, no definitive studies have proven that if you have a piece of chocolate every day your brain functions better.
My best advice is to find the chocolate you like and eat it in moderation. I recently found a dark chocolate flavored with chili. I’m not a fan of spicy things, but I have had this before and it’s delicious. You can also find them with sea salt or other flavors.
You want to store chocolate in a cool, dark place because it will melt. If you store it in a warm area you might find a little whitish-gray covering on it when you open it later. That’s called a bloom; it’s the fat that rises to the surface. It might look unappetizing, but it is safe to eat.
My first thought is always chocolate desserts, chocolate candy bars and hot chocolate drinks, but chocolate and cocoa powder are used in cuisines throughout the world. You can find it in entrees, sauces, salad dressings, beer and of course desserts and chocolate drinks. Chocolates are used in many savory dishes like mole sauce that’s found in many Mexican dishes. It’s also found in Texas chili; the chocolate rounds out some of the very sharp, spicy flavors.
You can dip foods in chocolate. We’ve probably all been to events where there is a chocolate fountain. You can dip fruits, pretzels, crackers and potato chips – one of my favorites.
You can bake with chocolate by adding it to breads and swirling it into a cheesecake. You can even have it as part of a cocktail – a chocotini.
Thanks for listening, stay healthy out there, and by all means enjoy some chocolate!
Carol Valle is the dietician at Carroll Lutheran Village. She has been working at CLV since 2018.