The health effects of chocolate are the possible positive and negative effects on health of eating chocolate.
Unconstrained consumption of large quantities of any energy-rich food, such as chocolate, without a corresponding increase in activity, increases the risk of obesity. Raw chocolate is high in cocoa butter, a fat removed during chocolate refining, then added back in varying proportions during manufacturing. Manufacturers may add other fats, sugars, and powdered milk as well.
Although considerable research has been conducted to evaluate the potential health benefits of consuming chocolate, there are insufficient studies to confirm any effect and no medical or regulatory authority has approved any health claim.
Theobroma cacao, the cacao tree, produces seeds containing flavanols. The seeds have been used to make beverages for some 2000 years in Aztec, Olmec, and Maya civilizations in central and south America. The drinks were ascribed a wide variety of curative and stimulant properties, unsupported by experimental evidence. In the 19th century, chocolate as a solid was invented, and milk and sugar were added to create milk chocolate, high in fat and sugar. Doubtful research, sometimes funded by the chocolate industry, has at times made suggestions of possible health benefits for these products.
Overall evidence is insufficient to determine the relationship between chocolate consumption and acne. One preliminary study concluded that in males who are prone to acne, eating chocolate increases the severity of acne. Various studies point not to chocolate, but to the high glycemic nature of certain foods, like sugar, corn syrup, and other simple carbohydrates, as potential causes of acne, along with other possible dietary factors.
Food, including chocolate, is not typically viewed as addictive. Some people, however, may want or crave chocolate, leading to a self-described term, chocoholic.
It has been claimed that chocolate is an aphrodisiac, but there are no rigorous studies to prove this effect. There is no clear evidence that stimulants like phenylethylamine found in chocolate increase PEA in the brain.
Reviews support a short-term effect of lowering blood pressure by consuming cocoa products, but there is no evidence of long-term cardiovascular health benefit.While daily consumption of cocoa flavanols (minimum dose of 200 mg) appears to benefit platelet and vascular function, there is no good evidence to support an effect on heart attacks or strokes.
Chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine, both mild stimulants.
The effect of chocolate on body weight is unclear. A concern is that excessive consumption of chocolate may promote high calorie intake and weight gain, a risk factor for many diseases, including cardiovascular disease. As a consequence, consuming large quantities of dark chocolate in an attempt to protect against cardiovascular disease is likely to add excessive calories and induce weight gain.
Although research suggests that even low levels of lead in the body may be harmful to children, it is unlikely that chocolate consumption in small amounts causes lead poisoning. Some studies have shown that lead may bind to cocoa shells and contamination may occur during the manufacturing process. One study showed the mean lead level in milk chocolate candy bars was 0.027 µg lead per gram of candy; another study found that some chocolate purchased at U.S. supermarketscontained up to 0.965 µg per gram, close to the international (voluntary) standard limit for lead in cocoa powder or beans, which is 1 µg of lead per gram. In 2006, the U.S. FDA lowered by one-fifth the amount of lead permissible in candy, but compliance is only voluntary. Studies concluded that “children, who are big consumers of chocolates, may be at risk of exceeding the daily limit of lead; whereas one 10 g cube of dark chocolate may contain as much as 20% of the daily lead oral limit. Moreover chocolate may not be the only source of lead in their nutrition” and “chocolate might be a significant source of Cd and Pb ingestion, particularly for children.”
Chocolate contains polyphenols, especially flavan-3-ols (catechins) and flavonoids which are under study for their potential effects in the body. The following table shows the content of phenolics, flavonoids and theobromine in three different types of chocolate.
|Type of chocolate||Total phenolics (mg/100g)||Flavonoids (mg/100g)||Theobromine (mg/100g)|
In sufficient amounts, the theobromine found in chocolate is toxic to animals such as cats, dogs, horses, parrots, and small rodents because they are unable to metabolisethe chemical effectively. If animals are fed chocolate, the theobromine may remain in the circulation for up to 20 hours, possibly causing epileptic seizures, heart attacks, internal bleeding, and eventually death. Medical treatment performed by a veterinarian involves inducing vomiting within two hours of ingestion and administration of benzodiazepines or barbiturates for seizures, antiarrhythmics for heart arrhythmias, and fluid diuresis.
A typical 20-kilogram (44 lb) dog will normally experience great intestinal distress after eating less than 240 grams (8.5 oz) of dark chocolate, but will not necessarily experience bradycardia or tachycardia unless it eats at least a half a kilogram (1.1 lb) of milk chocolate. Dark chocolate has 2 to 5 times more theobromine and thus is more dangerous to dogs. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, approximately 1.3 grams of baker’s chocolate per kilogram of a dog’s body weight (0.02 oz/lb) is sufficient to cause symptoms of toxicity. For example, a typical 25-gram (0.88 oz) baker’s chocolate bar would be enough to bring about symptoms in a 20-kilogram (44 lb) dog. Of course, baking chocolate is rarely consumed directly due to its unpleasant taste, but other dark chocolates’ canine toxicities may be extrapolated based on this figure. Given access, dogs frequently consume chocolate at toxic levels because they like the taste of chocolate products and are capable of finding and eating quantities much larger than typical human servings. There are reports that mulch made from cacao bean shells is dangerous to dogs and livestock.
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Organic chocolate is chocolate which has been certified organic. As of 2016, it was a growing sector in the global chocolate industry. Organic chocolate is a socially-desirable product for some consumers. Major brands, such as The Hershey Company, have begun to produce organic chocolate.
Many, if not most, producers of organic chocolate source their ingredients from certified fair trade cocoa farms and cooperatives. Organic chocolate comes in many varieties, including milk chocolate, white chocolate, and dark chocolate. Major brands of organic chocolate include Britain-based Green & Black’s, Hershey-owned Dagoba Chocolate, and Equal Exchange. Less-known retailers include Taza Chocolate, Pacari Chocolate, and Sacred Chocolate, a brand noted for producing raw chocolate.
The Seattle based chocolate maker Theo Chocolate was one of the first companies that were “fair-trade certified” and produced Organic Chocolate. In 2006 Theo Chocolate began their production of organic chocolate, there were no solid guidelines for the manufacturing and they had to get the process and ingredients in the correct measurements. The main ingredient in chocolate, cocoa is going to be found close to the equator and the majority of it is grown in Western Africa. The organic cocoa, the main ingredient in organic chocolate, is sent to the chocolate factor where they arrive in burlap sacks. The cocoa beans are then thoroughly cleaned and foreign objects are removed until just the beans remain. The manufacturer makes sure to use all organic ingredients to ensure that the final product is truly organic.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Organic chocolate.|
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Theobroma cacao, also called the cacao tree and the cocoa tree, is a small (4–8 m (13–26 ft) tall) evergreen tree in the family Malvaceae, native to the deep tropical regions of the Americas. Its seeds, cocoa beans, are used to make chocolate liquor, cocoa solids, cocoa butter and chocolate.
Leaves are alternate, entire, unlobed, 10–40 cm (3.9–15.7 in) long and 5–20 cm (2.0–7.9 in) broad.
The flowers are produced in clusters directly on the trunk and older branches; this is known as cauliflory. The flowers are small, 1–2 cm (0.39–0.79 in) diameter, with pink calyx. The floral formula, used to represent the structure of a flower using numbers, is ✶ K5 C5 A(5°+5²) G(5). While many of the world’s flowers are pollinated by bees (Hymenoptera) or butterflies/moths(Lepidoptera), cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies, Forcipomyia midges in the subfamily Forcipomyiinae. Using the natural pollinator Forcipomyia midges for Theobroma cacao was shown to have more fruit production than using artificial pollinators. The fruit, called a cacao pod, is ovoid, 15–30 cm (5.9–11.8 in) long and 8–10 cm (3.1–3.9 in) wide, ripening yellow to orange, and weighs about 500 g (1.1 lb) when ripe. The pod contains 20 to 60 seeds, usually called “beans”, embedded in a white pulp. The seeds are the main ingredient of chocolate, while the pulp is used in some countries to prepare refreshing juice, smoothies, jelly, and nata. Usually discarded until practices changed in the 21st century, the fermented pulp may be distilled into an alcoholic beverage. Each seed contains a significant amount of fat (40–50%) as cocoa butter. The fruit’s active constituent is the stimulant theobromine, a compound similar to caffeine.
In 2008, researchers proposed a new classification based upon morphological, geographic, and genomic criteria: 10 groups have been named according to their geographic origin or the traditional cultivar name. These groups are: Amelonado, Criollo, Nacional, Contamana, Curaray, Cacao guiana, Iquitos, Marañon, Nanay, and Purús.
The generic name is derived from the Greek for “food of the gods”; from θεός (theos), meaning “god”, and βρῶμα (broma), meaning “food”. The specific name cacao is the Hispanization of the name of the plant in indigenous Mesoamerican languages. The cacao was known as kakaw in Tzeltal, K’iche’ and Classic Maya; kagaw in Sayula Popoluca; and cacahuatl in Nahuatl as “bean of the cocoa-tree”.
T. cacao is widely distributed from southeastern Mexico to the Amazon basin. There were originally two hypotheses about its domestication; one said that there were two foci for domestication, one in the Lacandon Jungle area of Mexico and another in lowland South America. More recent studies of patterns of DNA diversity, however, suggest that this is not the case. One studysampled 1241 trees and classified them into 10 distinct genetic clusters. This study also identified areas, for example around Iquitos in modern Peru and Ecuador, where representatives of several genetic clusters originated more than 5000 years ago, leading to development of the variety, Nacional cocoa bean. This result suggests that this is where T. cacao was originally domesticated, probably for the pulp that surrounds the beans, which is eaten as a snack and fermented into a mildly alcoholic beverage. Using the DNA sequences and comparing them with data derived from climate models and the known conditions suitable for cacao, one study refined the view of domestication, linking the area of greatest cacao genetic diversity to a bean-shaped area that encompasses Ecuador, the border between Brazil and Peru and the southern part of the Colombian-Brazilian border. Climate models indicate that at the peak of the last ice age 21,000 years ago, when habitat suitable for cacao was at its most reduced, this area was still suitable, and so provided a refugium for the species.
Cacao trees grow well as understory plants in humid forest ecosystems. This is equally true of abandoned cultivated trees, making it difficult to distinguish truly wild trees from those whose parents may originally have been cultivated.
Cultivation, use, and cultural elaboration of cacao were early and extensive in Mesoamerica. Ceramic vessels with residues from the preparation of cacao beverages have been found at archaeological sites dating back to the Early Formative (1900–900 BC) period. For example, one such vessel found at an Olmec archaeological site on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico dates cacao’s preparation by pre-Olmec peoples as early as 1750 BC. On the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico, a Mokaya archaeological site provides evidence of cacao beverages dating even earlier, to 1900 BC. The initial domestication was probably related to the making of a fermented, thus alcoholic beverage. In 2018, researchers who analysed the genome of cultivated cacao trees concluded that the domesticated cacao trees all originated from a single domestication event that occurred about 3,600 years ago somewhere in Central America.
Several mixtures of cacao are described in ancient texts, for ceremonial or medicinal, as well as culinary, purposes. Some mixtures included maize, chili, vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), and honey. Archaeological evidence for use of cacao, while relatively sparse, has come from the recovery of whole cacao beans at Uaxactun, Guatemala and from the preservation of wood fragments of the cacao tree at Belize sites including Cuello and Pulltrouser Swamp. In addition, analysis of residues from ceramic vessels has found traces of theobromine and caffeine in early formative vessels from Puerto Escondido, Honduras (1100–900 BC) and in middle formative vessels from Colha, Belize (600–400 BC) using similar techniques to those used to extract chocolate residues from four classic period (around 400 AD) vessels from a tomb at the Maya archaeological site of Rio Azul. As cacao is the only known commodity from Mesoamerica containing both of these alkaloid compounds, it seems likely these vessels were used as containers for cacao drinks. In addition, cacao is named in a hieroglyphic text on one of the Rio Azul vessels. Cacao is also believed to have been ground by the Aztecs and mixed with tobacco for smoking purposes. Cocoa was being domesticated by the Mayo Chinchipe of the upper Amazon around 3,000 BC.
Cacao beans constituted both a ritual beverage and a major currency system in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations. At one point, the Aztec empire received a yearly tribute of 980 loads (xiquipil in Nahuatl) of cacao, in addition to other goods. Each load represented exactly 8,000 beans. The buying power of quality beans was such that 80–100 beans could buy a new cloth mantle. The use of cacao beans as currency is also known to have spawned counterfeiters during the Aztec empire.
The Maya believed the kakaw (cacao) was discovered by the gods in a mountain that also contained other delectable foods to be used by them. According to Maya mythology, the Plumed Serpent gave cacao to the Maya after humans were created from maize by divine grandmother goddess Xmucane. The Maya celebrated an annual festival in April to honor their cacao god, Ek Chuah, an event that included the sacrifice of a dog with cacao-colored markings, additional animal sacrifices, offerings of cacao, feathers and incense, and an exchange of gifts. In a similar creation story, the Mexica (Aztec) god Quetzalcoatl discovered cacao (cacahuatl: “bitter water”), in a mountain filled with other plant foods. Cacao was offered regularly to a pantheon of Mexica deities and the Madrid Codex depicts priests lancing their ear lobes (autosacrifice) and covering the cacao with blood as a suitable sacrifice to the gods. The cacao beverage as ritual was used only by men, as it was believed to be toxic for women and children.
The first European knowledge about chocolate came in the form of a beverage which was first introduced to the Spanish at their meeting with Moctezuma in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519. Cortés and others noted the vast quantities of this beverage the Aztec emperor consumed, and how it was carefully whipped by his attendants beforehand. Examples of cacao beans, along with other agricultural products, were brought back to Spain at that time, but it seems the beverage made from cacao was introduced to the Spanish court in 1544 by Kekchi Maya nobles brought from the New World to Spain by Dominicanfriars to meet Prince Philip. Within a century, chocolate had spread to France, England and elsewhere in Western Europe. Demand for this beverage led the French to establish cacao plantations in the Caribbean, while Spain subsequently developed their cacao plantations in their Venezuelan and Philippine colonies (Bloom 1998, Coe 1996). A painting by Dutch Golden Age artist Albert Eckhout shows a wild cacao tree in mid-seventeenth century Dutch Brazil. The Nahuatl-derived Spanish word cacaoentered scientific nomenclature in 1753 after the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus published his taxonomic binomial system and coined the genus and species Theobroma cacao. Traditional pre-Hispanic beverages made with cacao are still consumed in Mesoamerica. These include the Oaxacan beverage known as tejate.
In 2016, cocoa beans were cultivated on roughly 10,196,725 hectares (25,196,660 acres) worldwide. Cocoa beans are grown by large agroindustrial plantations and small producers, the bulk of production coming from millions of farmers with small plots. A tree begins to bear when it is four or five years old. A mature tree may have 6,000 flowers in a year, yet only about 20 pods. About 1,200 seeds (40 pods) are required to produce 1 kg (2.2 lb) of cocoa paste.
Historically, chocolate makers have recognized three main cultivar groups of cacao beans used to make cocoa and chocolate: Forastero, Criollo and Trinitario. The most prized, rare, and expensive is the Criollo group, the cocoa bean used by the Maya. Only 10% of chocolate is made from Criollo, which is arguably less bitter and more aromatic than any other bean. In November 2000, the cacao beans coming from Chuao were awarded an appellation of origin under the title “Cacao de Chuao” (from Spanish-cacao of Chuao).
The cacao bean in 80% of chocolate is made using beans of the Forastero group, the main and most ubiquitous variety being the Amenolado variety, while the arriba variety (such as the Nacional variety) are less commonly found in Forastero produce. Forastero trees are significantly hardier and more disease-resistant than Criollo trees, resulting in cheaper cacao beans.
Major cocoa bean processors include Hershey’s, Nestlé and Mars, all of which purchase cocoa beans via various sources. Chocolate can be made from T. cacao through a process of steps that involve harvesting, fermenting of T. cacao pulp, drying, harvesting, and then extraction. Roasting T. cacao by using superheated steam was found to be better than conventional roasting (use of ovens) because it resulted in same quality of cocoa beans in a shorter amount of time.
|Cocoa bean production – 2016|
The pests and diseases to which cacao is subject, along with climate change, mean that new varieties will be needed to respond to these challenges. Breeders rely on the genetic diversity conserved in field genebanks to create new varieties, because cacao has recalcitrant seeds that cannot be stored in a conventional genebank. In an effort to improve the diversity available to breeders, and ensure the future of the field genebanks, experts have drawn up A Global Strategy for the Conservation and Use of Cacao Genetic Resources, as the Foundation for a Sustainable Cocoa Economy. The strategy has been adopted by the cacao producers and their clients, and seeks to improve the characterization of cacao diversity, the sustainability and diversity of the cacao collections, the usefulness of the collections, and to ease access to better information about the conserved material. Some natural areas of cacao diversity are protected by various forms of conservation, for example national parks. However, a recent study of genetic diversity and predicted climates suggests that many of those protected areas will no longer be suitable for cacao by 2050. It also identifies an area around Iquitos in Peru that will remain suitable for cacao and that is home to considerable genetic diversity, and recommends that this area be considered for protection. Other projects, such as the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre, aim to combat cacao diseases and preserve genetic diversity.
Phytopathogens (parasitic organisms) cause much damage to Theobroma cacao plantations around the world. Many of those phytopathogens, which include many of the pests named below, were analyzed using mass spectrometry and allow for guiding on the correct approaches to get rid of the specific phytopathogens. This method was found to be quick, reproducible, and accurate showing promising results in the future to prevent damage to Theobroma cacao by various phytopathogens.
A specific type of bacteria Streptomyces camerooniansis was found to be beneficial for T. cacao by helping plant growth by accelerating seed germination of T. cacao,inhibiting growth of various types of microorganisms (such as different oomycetes, fungi, and bacteria), and preventing rotting by Phytophthora megakarya.
Various plant pests and diseases can cause serious problems for cacao production.
- Rats and other vertebrate pests (squirrels, woodpeckers, etc.)
Map showing genetic clusters of Theobroma cacao
|NCBI genome ID|
|Genome size||345.99 Mb|
|Number of chromosomes||10 pairs|
|Year of completion||2010|
The genome of T. cacao is diploid, its size is 430 Mbp, and it comprises 10 chromosome pairs (2n=2x=20). In September 2010, a team of scientists announced a draft sequence of the cacao genome (Matina1-6 genotype). In a second, unrelated project, the International Cocoa Genome Sequencing Consortium-ICGS, co-ordinated by CIRAD, first published in December 2010 (online, paper publication in January 2011), the sequence of the cacao genome, of the Criollo cacao (of a landrace from Belize, B97-61/B2). In their publication, they reported a detailed analysis of the genomic and genetic data.
The sequence of the cacao genome identified 28,798 protein-coding genes, compared to the roughly 23,000 protein-coding genes of the human genome. About 20% of the cacao genome consists of transposable elements, a low proportion compared to other plant species. Many genes were identified as coding for flavonoids, aromatic terpenes, theobromine and many other metabolites involved in cocoa flavor and quality traits, among which a relatively high proportion code for polyphenols, which constitute up to 8% of cacao pods dry weight. The cacao genome appears close to the hypothetical hexaploid ancestor of all dicotyledonous plants, and it is proposed as an evolutionary mechanism by which the 21 chromosomes of the dicots’ hypothetical hexaploid ancestor underwent major fusions leading to cacao’s 10 chromosome pairs.
The genome sequence enables cacao molecular biology and breeding for elite varieties through marker-assisted selection, in particular for genetic resistance to fungal, oomycete and viral diseases responsible for huge yield losses each year. In 2017–18, due to concerns about survivability of cacao plants in an era of global warming in which climates become more extreme in the narrow band of latitudes where cacao is grown (20 degrees north and south of the equator), the commercial company, Mars, Incorporated and the University of California, Berkeley are using CRISPR to adjust DNA for improved hardiness of cacao in hot climates.
Macrophotography of Theobroma cacao flower (closed) (University of Vienna)
Macrophotography of T. cacao flower (open) (University of Vienna)
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Chocolate: beauty, or the beast, or both? Although cocoa itself is frequently found in foods like “chocolate which can contain high levels of fat and sugar,” the cocoa powder itself “may have beneficial effects in a number of chronic disease conditions, including [heart] disease.”
Flow-mediated dilation, measured in the main artery of the arm, which is about the same caliber as our coronary arteries, is considered one of the best measures of arterial function—a predictor of cardiovascular mortality. A little bit of cocoa doesn’t do anything. But a little more, or a lot more, gives one a significant boost in arterial function within hours of consumption. How much does it take? Not much—just a teaspoon of natural cocoa powder, which would be like a tablespoon or more of Dutch cocoa.
Now, makes you a little suspicious that the author works in Hershey, Pennsylvania, at the Hershey Medical Center, and, indeed, has accepted money from our largest chocolate manufacturer’s Center for Health and Nutrition, conveniently located near the intersection of Chocolate and Cocoa Avenues.
Putting together all of the best available science, though—dozens of randomized controlled trials—arterial function was significantly improved within hours, and after weeks and months of chronic cocoa consumption. It’s always difficult to tease out fact from fiction when such powerful financial interests are involved. “Many [of these] studies were funded by industry” as well, “and [as] in all areas of research evidence suggests that industry funding is associated with pro-industry conclusions.” But, even after removing “those studies funded by industry,” they found the same protective effect.
The reason they measure arterial function in the arm, rather than where you really need it—the coronary arteries of the heart—is that that would require an angiogram, which is a little more invasive. But if you were able to find people already scheduled for an angiogram anyway… Here we go.
Double-blind randomized trial finds that dark chocolate actually opens up coronary arteries themselves. And, when they did what’s called a cold-pressor test, where they plunge your hand into a bucket of ice water—which normally causes your arteries to constrict—but, after dark chocolate, they dilated. Dark chocolate may also improve blood flow to the heart of our kidneys.
“Because chocolate also contains fat and sugar,” though, we have to be careful. “Furthermore, most chocolate products are manufactured with milk, a compound known to influence antioxidant…capacity in [our blood].” Even if milk chocolate had the same flavonoid phytonutrient content as dark chocolate, “the antioxidant effect of cocoa is potentially [weakened] in the [blood]” when milk is consumed.
So, not only are there triple the antioxidants in dark, compared to milk, chocolate, but the milk actively works against the effects in the human body. So, eat dark chocolate, and get a nice spike in the antioxidant power of our bloodstream within an hour. Milk chocolate—nothing. And, if you eat that same dark chocolate with a cup of milk, the benefit is suppressed. The “[a]ddition of milk”—either in our stomach, or in the chocolate itself—”inhibits the [within-body] antioxidant activity of chocolate and the absorption into the bloodstream of [one of the target phytonutrients].”
Sugar isn’t good for us, either. Sugar impairs arterial function. One bottle of soda’s worth of sugar can temporarily cripple arterial function. That’s why sugar-free cocoa improves arterial function better than the same amount of cocoa with sugar added. So, “[e]liminating sugar…appears to amplify the beneficial effects of cocoa.”
Bottom line: “Although the positive effects of chocolate and cocoa products seem apparent, precautions exist” when we’re talking about the calories, fat, and sugar in chocolate. Cocoa powder, then, offers the best of both worlds. “Although [not as tasty], cocoa-based products with little or no sugar or…fat are certainly preferred.” And, you can make them tasty, as I note in my healthy chocolate milkshake recipe, and my healthy chocolate ice cream video.
Since this video came out, I’ve made a few more videos on chocolate:
What effects do other foods have on arterial function? See:
- Tea & Artery Function
- Olive Oil & Artery Function
- Sodium & Arterial Function: A-Salting our Endothelium
- Vinegar & Artery Function
- Plant-Based Diets & Artery Function
- Fatty Meals May Impair Artery Function
- Coffee and Artery Function
- Walnuts and Artery Function
- Eggs and Arterial Function
- Benefits of Blueberries for Artery Function
- Low Carb Diets & Coronary Blood Flow