Unlike every other kid around the block or even adults now, I was never fond of chocolates. If it’s available that was okay, if it’s not I’d never sought it. I’d enjoy the occasional Nestle Milky Bar, Cadbury 5 star, or Dairy Milk/Crackle back in the 90s once a while if mum sent me to the nearby supermarket. I’d buy chocolates with the remaining money if any or for my mum because Cadbury 5 star was her favorite; still is.
Fast forward to 2015, I moved to Philadelphia, America to pursue my Master’s degree at 23 for the first time leaving the comforts of a loving family, warm home, and the concept of domestic help. The initial few weeks were an emotional struggle to wrap my head and life around the transformation that I was hit with. Like every desi student, I carried some homemade dry snacks in case I’d need some emotional & mental cushioning (I was handed mathris made in pure ghee to endure the cold). It did not help and my roommates were convinced, I would pack my bags and bounce back to India. I did not. Instead, I fell in love with the country within two months and found a way to stay close to India in my heart.
My Zorastrian Iranian best friend got me chocolates most times we met. Never really understood why until one day in the States I was buying Indian spices at the Indian grocery store and picked up Cadbury dairy milk. Now, I am not the kind to buy chocolates off the shelf, still don’t but that day I did. I came back to my rented apartment and post-dinner while watching Scandal (an American TV series) I ate that chocolate in bed - not the whole bar, but a couple of squares. It hit home. That warm comforting feeling of being around your loved ones, your family, your birthplace, childhood was all rolled into one and that brought a smile to my face. This was the ROYCE of feelings.
I have evolved from the good ol' Dairy Milk to a nice well-made artisanal less on sugar dark chocolates. I indulge in a nice small block once a week; especially during PMS or grab a nice homemade hot chocolate drink when my girlfriends are over and binge-watch shows. Still never buy it though, like all good things the Universe sends chocolates too at my doorstep when I least expect it and require it.
History of Chocolates
Chocolate is termed as the “Food of the Gods” and the use of cocoa began with the Maya (the first people of South America to cultivate cocoa plants). For them, chocolate was a hot drink prepared with cocoa, cinnamon, and sometimes pepper and presented to Emperor Moctezuma II by the Aztecs. Christopher Columbus (yes, the same man who discovered America and colonized it) encountered it in 1502 and captured a canoe which contained cocoa beans that looked like “mysterious looking almonds” to him and identified it as a currency in the Mesoamerican region. Yup, I’d agree. Some well-made chocolates deserve that respect and honor. King Charles of Spain in 1528 named it “brown gold” and finally in 1753 the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus named it Theobroma Cacao which literally translates to the food of the gods. Historically, it was consumed for its healing properties.
Types of chocolates & Nutritional content
There are four types of chocolates
Contains up to 80% cocoa bean solids and cocoa butter. It has an intense aroma, melts in the mouth with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste. The quality of this chocolate depends on the amount of cocoa present. Most health benefits of chocolates are associated with the consumption of dark chocolate.
It is brown in color and has a combination of hazelnut, cocoa, and sugar.
Contains cocoa butter, sugar, milk powder, lecithin, cocoa (about 20% to 25%). It has an intensely sweet aroma with a bright appearance and sweet bitter after taste.
White chocolateContains cocoa butter, milk, sugar, no cocoa and has a sweet after taste.
Cocoa is the basic ingredient of chocolate, with a significant amount of fat (40 - 50% as cocoa butter with 33% oleic acids, 25% palmitic acid, 33% stearic acid). Cocoa beans are one of the best sources of dietary polyphenols and flavonoids are the most abundant form. Flavonoids fight off free radicals and hence are known to be anti-inflammatory and protective in nature.
Uses & Benefits of Chocolates
Over 100 medical treatment of cocoa have been documented out of which the below three are the most common:
On cardiovascular systems
Cardiovascular diseases are associated with various risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, cholesterol (hyperlipidemia). One of the major contributing factors towards these bodily imbalances is diet and lifestyle; which comprises lack of healthy nutritious food, lack of exercise, and movement. Observational studies show flavonoids found in chocolates may reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases as it protects the lipids, proteins and nucleic acids from damage and has anti-inflammatory properties. This does not mean you start snacking on a bar of chocolate every day. You can include a homemade hot chocolate drink or a small dark chocolate snack (low on sugar) once or twice a week, but make sure you maintain a healthy lifestyle as well.
Stimulation of the nervous system:
Flavonoids in cocoa have demonstrated positive effects and protection from neurodegeneration, neuroinflammation, and optimal functioning of neural pathways. Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease are effects of neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration. Consumption of pure flavonoid enriched chocolate possibly prevents the death of neurons thereby keeping the nervous system healthy. Cocoa also increases cerebral blood flow which can be neuroprotective and support the formation of long-term memory. It enhances cognitive function.
SkincareMost skin moisturizers have cocoa butter as their main ingredient but the benefits of cocoa actually extend beyond its topical use. A lot of studies have identified flavonoids found in cocoa as a protective agent for the skin against harmful UV rays. Consumption of 12 weeks of high flavanol cocoa (not commercially available chocolate) increases dermal blood flow and oxygen to the skin-enhancing protection. There are limited studies showcasing this effect, but there is a reason to believe skin protection is one of the many benefits of cocoa.
There is not one person I know who would deny a good cocoa when feeling low. My best friend who is moving to Guatemala at the end of the month visited me last week and I had prepared a hot cocoa drink for her as it’s one of her favorites. She came over and said she can’t consume it as she had had fish for dinner (hot chocolate milk and fish do not sit well). She waited two hours to have the drink; that is the power of a good hot chocolate drink. It’s like the first embrace of a mother to her child. You wait and when the wait is over you know it was worth it.
- Cocoa is rich in minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, copper, iron, zinc, and magnesium. Low levels of magnesium are known to cause PMS symptoms, maybe that's why during PMS we crave chocolates (which does not mean supplementing chocolates instead of magnesium) but it does have a psychological and physiological role to play. A bar of good chocolate immediately lifts your spirits up.
- Not just for women, consuming dark chocolates has shown to alleviate feelings of low moods, irritability, and anxiety in men as well, as it is a feel-good factor in our day-to-day lives. It does not mean it treats clinical symptoms but helps uplift the mood.
- It helps calm and relax your mind after a long stressful day, or just a little square post dinner or lunch to close the door of any more food cravings. You do not need studies proving these, as we know within ourselves that it feels good.
Authored by: Padmaja Rai
About the Author: Padmaja is a healthcare consultant and avid fitness enthusiast. She holds a masters' in bio-innovation and rare diseases from University of Pennsylvania. She is a firm believer in ancient Indian holistic healing.