I bet I have your attention now… Chocolate it’s the sweet stuff we all hate to love and that fills our supermarket shelves wrapped in brightly coloured, eye-catching, shiny paper. It sits there calling our names, tantalizing us, wanting us to cave and throw a family size block into our trolley, run off and devour it all in one sitting.
Well, that might be a tad over-dramatic, but you get my drift right? People are addicted to the stuff, and it’s not surprising why…it’s full of sugar, unhealthy fats and additives! When we eat sweet and high-fat foods, like chocolate, serotonin is released, making us feel happier and this is how food addictions can start.
Chocolate as we know it now is not what it once was. Chocolate (in its original form- Cacao) actually has a long history of powerful, medicinal and biochemical effects within the human body. Unfortunately, most of the stuff we consume today has long lost these beneficial effects, due to it being so highly processed and people have also lost the ability to appreciate this food for what it once was (and for what it can be). So, step away from the Easter egg, put down that chocolate bunny and read on so you can learn how to enjoy chocolate for its taste and medicinal benefits.
It’s basically a fruit… Yep, that’s right; our chocolate bars grow on trees! Now, don’t get too excited and go looking for ‘chocolate trees’ at your local Bunnings because I’m sure you will leave empty handed. However, the Theobroma cacao plant grows a fruit called a cabosside, or pod, within this pod are seeds, each fruit usually contains 20-40 seeds and these seeds are actually the cacao beans-used to make chocolate .
Cacao beans are thought to have first been used as a food product by the Mayans and the Aztecs throughout South and Central America. Their cultural belief surrounding ‘chocolate’ was that it was a food of the gods and that it was considered of very high nutritional and medicinal value and was even used as a trading commodity . The beans were fermented and dried before being turned into a drink; other spices such as chilli, pepper and vanilla were added. The flavour was bitter and strong; it was used both ceremoniously and medicinally and was favoured among the wealthy. It was said to have nourishing, fortifying and aphrodisiac (insert wolf whistle here) qualities .
Apart from getting wealthy Nobel’s in the mood, chocolate was also used to treat skin infections, diarrhoea, fatigue, dysentery, mood disorders, cardiovascular disorders, haemorrhoids, gout, labour and childbirth, lactation (breastfeeding) issues and even dental problems – in fact it was so widely attributed to good health that is was a first line of treatment commonly dispensed for nearly all – and any- ailments [4, 5].
Now that we have fancy gadgets that can tell us how things work, we know that indeed, the cacao bean does pack a nutritionally sound punch so it’s no wonder the Mayans and the Aztecs relished in the stuff. If we take one of those fancy gadgets and break a cacao bean down to its chemical properties we know just how, and why, it works so well in almost every bodily system.
It is one of the highest natural sources of magnesium, which helps with a multitude of biochemical bodily reactions including helping us cope with stress and modulating our hormones. It is thought this is sometimes why women crave chocolate at ‘that time of the month’.
Flavonols/polyphenols and methylxanthines are the most recognisable active components of cacao. Flavonols are favoured for their strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties . Flavonols in cacao have shown to inhibit the oxidation of fat which in turn decreases inflammation and circulating free radicals (cancer causing nasties). They also aid in the correct production of fat-derived molecules that help regulate the immune response .
Perhaps my most favourite thing about flavonols in cacao is that they seem to be key players in increasing our beneficial gut microbes (lactobacillus & bifidobacterium) and decreasing our not so beneficial ones (clostridia)  thank those chocolate producing gods!! Cacao modifies intestinal flora in the same way that prebiotics and probiotics do. As the functional interactions between gut microbiota and host metabolism has been shown to benefit the improvement and maintenance of overall host health some of the beneficial effects of cacao may also be due to this indirect mechanism .
Methylxanthines, on the other hand, are considered ‘stimulants’ – these are what would have helped those raunchy Nobel’s get their groove on back in the day. Although these are found in much lower quantities in cacao and chocolate than they are in coffee – they are still known to trigger a biochemical reaction on our central nervous system and cardiovascular system. The most important mechanism of action of methylxanthines involves blocking the adenosine receptors and competitively inhibiting the action of adenosine in the cells. This inhibition results in increased release of hormones, such as adrenalin and of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin . When methylxanthines take the place of adenosine at the receptor site, everything is basically ‘enhanced’ (think how you feel after your morning coffee), the bioavailability of nitric oxide is improved which, in turn, improves the pressure, fluidity and clotting function of blood- this makes our heart happy and our brain cells exhibit enhanced neuronal activity (they can send faster messages to each other) – this is what gives coffee/cacao neuroprotective effects against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s [1, 6, 8].
Main properties of chocolate beans beneficial to health 
- Improves insulin response
- Cardio protective
- Improves intestinal flora
- Stimulates neurotransmitters
Now it doesn’t take a nutrition expert to realise that these ingredients will not exert the same health benefits as the cacao consumed by our Aztec and Mayan counterparts. Let’s take a look a soy lecithin- it looks like a pretty healthy ingredient right? Well, usually it isn’t. Soy is a heavily genetically modified product (warning flag 1). To make soy lecithin, soybean oil is extracted from raw soy beans using a chemical solvent- hexane (warning flag 2). Hexane is listed as carcinogenic, hazardous to our health and a neurotoxin by the CDC  (warning flag 3,4,5,6 &7) (of course this isn’t true of organic soy and organic soy derivatives). Vegetable fat is basically a not so scary way of writing Trans fat – which we know are a big no no and cause huge inflammation and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Sugar, well that’s a no brainer! Flavours and colours cross the Blood Brain Barrier and can cause a myriad of behaviour and neurological disorders. Need I go on?
However, this is a far cry from the chocolate we know today. Milk solids, Sugar, soy lecithin, vegetable fat, flavours, colours and even wheat are all fairly common words that you will see plastered on the back of your block of dairy milk. Even ‘dark’ chocolate with 70%+ cocoa solids (heated and processed cacao) still usually always contains sugar and a soy lecithin based emulsifier.
So can you have chocolate, eat it too and reap the health benefits? Of course! The percentage of cocoa is one of the main characteristics determining its quality. The best ones contain at least 70% cocoa and minimal additives and the better ones are made of raw cacao.
However, just because cacao is known to enhance and benefit our health in many ways, it doesn’t mean it’s a free for all to go and gorge your body weights worth of raw chocolate! Using it as a healthy treat food is still advisable. It does alter the way our liver detoxes and processes metabolites, so depending on genetic variability, some people can only handle very small amounts- just like coffee!
Chocolate was once cherished and appreciated for its amazing health benefits, now it is a main contributor to obesity, diabetes and other ill-health. We need to strip it back to its basics and start consuming it how it was originally intended. So this Easter, the day of chocolate from dawn until dusk , opt for raw cacao Easter eggs, or better yet, make your own with raw cacao powder and cacao butter or coconut oil and other yummies you wish to add. It can take some ‘de-sensitising’ of the taste buds, but they adjust very quickly and then you will never look back and you will be nourishing your tastebuds as well as your health!