Health News Digest

March 7, 2011

Making Chocolate Sweet Again

Little girl with chocolate

By  Michael D. Shaw

History records that chocolate was first introduced to Europeans in 1519, when conquistador Hernán Cortés was served xocoatl, a bitter cocoa-bean drink, in the Aztec court of Montezuma. Chocolate is produced from the seeds of the tree Theobroma cacao, and archaeological evidence of cacao cultivation goes back to 1100 BC.

Cortés would bring the drink to Spain, and it gradually spread to other European countries, where it was consumed mostly by wealthy customers. Interestingly, chocolate was available only as a beverage until 1847. At that point tools of the new Industrial Age were used to create the first solid chocolate, and soon after, the first modern chocolate bar.

With increasing demand, plantations (largely in Africa) became the primary source for the needed cacao and sugar. However, even though slavery did not formally exist after 1888, conditions at many of the plantations were far from satisfactory, and some manufacturers—including William Cadbury—sought to use their considerable influence to force improvements.

Perhaps hearkening back to their puritanical roots, killjoys are quick to caution us that chocolate is a calorie-dense food that can lead to obesity. Baby Boomers are sure to remember the dire (but never proven) warnings against chocolate: It would promote acne!

In fact, there are many claimed health effects of dark chocolate, and nearly all of them are positive. These would include…


  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Potent antioxidant activity (not in milk chocolate)
  • Lowering blood glucose and decreasing insulin resistance
  • Creating a pleasurable sensation by delaying metabolism of anandamide (the “bliss” neurochemical)


One of the most sensational findings came from Norman K. Hollenberg, MD, PhD, of Harvard Medical School. Hollenberg first became interested in the Kuna Indians of Panama’s San Blas islands when he discovered their very low incidence of hypertension. He would also learn that the Kuna, who drink upwards of 40 cups of cocoa per week, show rates of stroke, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes of less than 10%. They also seem to live longer than other Panamanians, and do not get dementia.

As Hollenberg explained, “I was in search of protective genes but it turned out to be environmental because, when they migrated to the mainland with all the benefits of modern Western urban life, their blood pressure rose with age and hypertension became quite common.”

He believes that it all comes down to their cocoa beverage, the heavy consumption of which stops when they migrate to the mainland. Natural cocoa contains high levels of epicatechin, a flavanol. Bear in mind, though, that flavanols such as epicatechin are usually removed for commercial cocoas due to their bitter taste. Epicatechin is also found in teas, wine, and some fruits and vegetables.

Experts think that epicatechin elevates levels of nitric oxide in the blood, which helps relax the blood vessels and improves blood flow.

Sadly, the worker exploitation on the cacao plantations which William Cadbury fought against in the early 1900s is still with us. Persistent reports—mostly from the Ivory Coast—speak of child labor (often a euphemism for outright slavery) and drastically poor working conditions.

In addition to poverty, there is also a custom in certain African countries whereby children are sent away to be apprenticed and learn a trade. In recent years, though, some of this has degenerated into little more than child labor trafficking. Various governmental efforts are in place to curtail slave chocolate, but some smaller chocolate manufacturers choose not to buy from West Africa at all, believing that any cocoa from that part of the world may involve forced labor.

Another approach involves the establishment of Fair Trade Certified producer groups. Chocolate manufacturers and importers who buy Fair Trade cocoa sign a contract committing to pay the co-op farmers the Fair Trade price—the world market price plus a premium—that guarantees a living wage, with extra proceeds going back into the co-op community.

The process is designed to be transparent, and the right is reserved to inspect tracking and product documentation. Farms are inspected once each year and abusive labor practices are not tolerated.

One chocolate company leading the way is San Diego based Jungell, Inc. Husband-and-wife founders Christopher and Suzanne Angell developed Angell Bars—both organic and Fair Trade certified—to be a traditional candy bar that consumers could feel good about eating because of the product’s high quality ingredients, sustainable production, and reasonable price point.

Christopher tells us that “We created Angell Bars so that everyone could enjoy a delicious candy bar without compromising their values.” Jungell also donates 1% of the gross sales of Angell Bars to environmental organizations through the group 1% For the Planet.

No one likes being reminded of nasty issues regarding the foods they love, but it is only with such awareness that we can truly make chocolate sweet again.