Unlike every other kid around the block or even adults now, I was never fond of chocolates. If it's available, that was okay, and 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 favourite; it 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 hit me. Like every desi student, I carried some homemade dry snacks if I'd need some emotional & mental cushioning (I had mathris made in pure ghee to endure the cold). My roommates thought I would pack my bags and bounce back to India. I did not. Instead, I fell in love two months later with the country and found a way to stay close to India in my heart.
My Zoroastrian Iranian best friend got me chocolates most times we met. I never really understood why. I bought Indian spices at the Indian grocery store and picked up Cadbury dairy milk off the shelf one day. Now, I do not purchase chocolates off the shelf, I 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 an excellent, well-made artisanal less on sugar dark chocolates. I indulge in a nice small dark chocolate bar once a week, especially during PMS or grab a nice homemade hot chocolate drink when my girlfriends are over and binge-watch shows. I 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 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. He captured a canoe that contained cocoa beans that looked like "mysterious looking almonds" and identified it as a currency in the Mesoamerican region. Yup, I'd agree. Some well-made chocolates deserve that respect and honour. King Charles of Spain in 1528 named it "brown gold", and finally, in 1753, the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus named it Theobroma Cacao which translates to the food of the gods. Historically, people consumed it for its healing properties.
Types of chocolates & Nutritional content
There are four types of chocolates having varying levels of cocoa content.
Dark chocolates have high cocoa. They contain up to 80% cocoa solids and cocoa butter and no added sugar. It has an intense aroma, melts in the mouth with a pleasant bittersweet taste. 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 and has a combination of hazelnut, cocoa, and sugar.
It 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.
It contains cocoa butter, milk, sugar, no cocoa and has a sweet after taste.
Cocoa is the primary 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 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.
Purchase and Storage
The highest amount of flavonoids are present in 70% dark chocolate or higher. Although, keep in mind that a higher percentage of cocoa solids higher will be a bitter taste.
Always store your dark chocolate in a cool, dry area (preferably between 18 to 20-degree celsius) in a tightly sealed container or box.
Please do not refrigerate your dark chocolate as most people do. It promotes the chocolate to "bloom," a whitish coating caused by sugar rising to the surface due to excess moisture. Although, blooming of chocolates do not affect flavour, they look unappetizing.
Dark chocolates can last up to two years if stored under proper conditions.
Uses & Benefits of Chocolates
There is over 100 medical treatment of cocoa documented out of which the below three are the most common:
As an aphrodisiac
The Aztecs considered chocolates as a royal aphrodisiac and the Mayans associated chocolates with their fertility god. And today, Sarah McLachlan says, "Your love is better than chocolate," which gives it a modern twist to the chocolate and love connection.
Here are some scientific facts:
Chocolate has the chemicals phenylethylamine and serotonin. These chemicals are considered to be mood boosters and mild sexual stimulants. Eating chocolate makes you feel good, even euphoric at times. But the aphrodisiac qualities of chocolate are more about the sensual pleasure of how it melts in your mouth than as a sexual stimulus.
On cardiovascular systems
Heart diseases are associated with various risk factors such as blood pressure, 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 heart diseases and lower blood pressure. It protects the lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids from damage because of its anti-inflammatory properties. I
It 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 (less sugar) once or twice a week, but make sure you maintain a healthy lifestyle as well to prevent cardiovascular diseases and hypertension.
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 the effects of neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration. Consumption of pure flavonoid enriched chocolate possibly prevents neurons' death, 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.
Most skin moisturizers have cocoa butter as their main ingredient, but cocoa benefits extend beyond its topical use. Many studies have identified flavonoids 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. Limited studies show this effect, but there is a reason to believe skin protection is one of the many benefits of cocoa as it has antioxidant benefits.
Improve Blood Sugar Levels, and lower the risk of developing Diabetes
Daily chocolate intake doesn't sound like the best way for diabetes prevention. Still, studies have shown healthy amounts of dark chocolate rich in cacao could improve how your body metabolizes glucose.
Insulin resistance causes high blood sugar, which is a telltale sign of type 2 diabetes.
A published study in October 2017 showed flavonoids present in dark chocolate reduce oxidative stress. As per scientists, oxidative stress is the primary cause of insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is reduced by improving your body's sensitivity to it, reducing the risk of diseases such as Diabetes.
Another published study in January 2017 in a journal showed that participants who hardly consumed chocolates (not the commercially available loaded with sugar ones) had twice the risk of developing Diabetes five years down the road than participants who indulged in dark chocolate products at least once a week.
Researchers agree on the health benefits of dark chocolate. However, further studies need to be published to determine the cause and effect of chocolate consumption and Diabetes.
Dark Chocolate May increase Good Cholesterol decrease Bad Cholesterol.
Dark chocolate is known as cholesterol lower food. A handful of almonds, dark chocolate and unsweetened cocoa show a significant drop in bad cholesterol, also known as LDL (low-density lipoprotein). Bad cholesterol in high amounts can clog blood vessels of the arteries.
Cocoa butter present in dark cocoa might also play a part in increase good cholesterol, also knowns as HDL (high-density lipoprotein). Cocoa butter contains oleic acid, and it is a monounsaturated fat - the same fat found in olive oil healthy for your heart. However, it also has saturated fat, which in excess can be detrimental to your heart health. Hence when consuming chocolates, portion control is a must!
There is not one person I know who would deny 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 made with pure cocoa powder and milk for her as it's one of her favourites. She came over and said she couldn'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). Still, it does have a psychological and physiological role to play. A bar of good chocolate immediately lifts your spirits.
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 relaxes 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.
In conclusion, I'd like to add that chocolates have healing properties, but we must know to differentiate between a bar of great chocolate and commercially available ones in stores. Commercially available mass-produced chocolates do not have any health benefits apart from the sugar high it comes with. If you start consuming high amounts of commercially available chocolates, thinking it's going to prevent Diabetes, reduce cholesterol, improve your skin etc., then god bless your soul. It will more likely cause sugar dependency, weight gain and acne. Be smart about what you consume, where you buy it from, and you are good to go!
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.