Chocolate: the good, the bad and the tasty

Simply divine: The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma, means “drink of the gods”.

Chocolate is big business. The average Briton eats more than 10kg of it every year — much of that over Easter. This statistic may seem worrying, but is the substance as bad as people think?

  • It’s Easter. How much chocolate can I eat?

    Let’s start by getting our terms straight. Chocolate comes from the beans of the cacao tree. The processed, powdered form of the beans is called “cocoa”, although this word can also refer to the raw material. Food products based on these ingredients are known as “chocolate”, especially when sweetened and sold as confectionery.

  • Where does it come from?

    Pre-Columbian civilisations in the Americas were obsessed with the stuff. They tended to drink it — “chocolate” comes from the Aztec word “xocoatl”, a cocoa brew. The plant was seen to have divine properties, and was used in rituals. Though widely consumed, cocoa was valuable enough to be used as currency: in 16th-century Nicaragua, a prostitute was worth 10 beans, a slave 100.

  • How did it come to Europe?

    Spanish conquistadors brought cocoa home, where it initially proved too bitter for local taste buds. Sweeteners were added, and soon cocoa drinks were all the rage among wealthy Europeans. In the 19th century, scientists across the continent found new ways to process the bean, creating solid chocolate and paving the way for cheap mass production. Famous companies like Cadbury and Hershey popped up around this time.

  • Does my chocolate still come from Latin America?

    Some of it does, but most cocoa farms are in West Africa, especially Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Faced with huge global demand, some farms have turned to exploitative practices like child labour and slavery. This has led to a market for “fair trade” chocolate, which guarantees ethical production.

  • How are beans turned into chocolate?

    They are roasted, their shells are removed, and they are mushed into a paste. At this stage, fat can be extracted, forming cocoa butter; what is left is ground into dry cocoa powder, which is used in cooking. The butter can then be added to more paste, along with sugar, milk and other additives (depending on what kind of product you want). This substance is stirred, rolled, warmed and left to cool until it produces smooth, hard, delicious choccy.

  • What does chocolate do to the body?

    The conquistadors observed that cocoa gave the locals a big energy boost. That is because it contains caffeine. Chocolate is still valued as a stimulant (it has often been handed out to soldiers in wartime).

    But there is more to cocoa. The Mayans used it to stop diarrhoea. Casanova took it as an aphrodisiac. Samuel Pepys liked it as a hangover cure. There have even been rumours of people — including a pope! — being murdered by cocoa poisoning.

    Then there is the effect we all know and love: the sudden rush of chemical-induced joy.

  • What does science say?

    Science complicates the picture. The received wisdom is that chocolate is bad for you. But in recent decades, studies have suggested many surprising health benefits to chocolate (especially dark varieties). These include less risk of cognitive decline, of heart flutters, of strokes (in women), and much more. Newspapers greet these findings with gleeful headlines such as: “Why chocolate is good for you!”

  • Well? Is it?

    Cocoa may have some beneficial properties, but the studies are far less conclusive than the media reports imply. Moreover, many are funded by the chocolate industry, which casts doubt on their findings. Official health organisations like the NHS generally refuse to endorse them. Then there is the fact that most chocolate products are chock-full of added fats and sugars, which are unhealthy in large quantities.

    To answer the original question: don’t pig out on Easter eggs. But one or two won’t hurt you.

You Decide

  1. Would the world be better off without chocolate?

Activities

  1. Choose another important foodstuff (like tea or the tomato). Create an illustrated timeline of its history, like ours above.

Subjects

Word Watch

Pre-Columbian
This term refers to the history of the Americas before Christopher Columbus arrived, ushering in the era of European colonisation.
Rituals
Aztec sacrifice victims were required to take part in a ritual dance before being killed. They were sometimes given cocoa (mixed with the blood of previous victims) for encouragement.
Conquistadors
Spanish colonists who claimed vast regions of the Americas, starting in the 16th century.
Cocoa butter
As well as food, cocoa butter is used in beauty products and medicinal drugs, among other things.
Aphrodisiac
A substance that increases one’s sexual desire. Casanova was an 18th-century Italian adventurer who described his sexual experiences in a famous memoir.
Chemical
Cacao beans are full of happiness-inducing substances, including caffeine, theobromine (which has similar effects) and anandamide, which triggers receptors in the brain that are also sensitive to cannabis.
Cognitive decline
In other words, a drop in your memory and thinking skills.
Funded
Mars alone has published more than 140 papers since 2005.