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Frequently Asked Questions About Chocolate and Your Health

  • What is chocolate?
  • Answer:

    Chocolate is a mixture of cocoa paste, cocoa butter, and sugar. The cocoa paste and butter come from the seeds of the fruit of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), a native of Central and South America, which is cultivated around the equator. To make chocolate, first the cacao seeds -- with centers more than 50% cocoa butter -- are fermented, roasted, and ground into a paste. Then other ingredients are added, which vary by manufacturer. Nearly 400 beans are required to make a pound of chocolate liquor -- the semiliquid mass produced by grinding the beans. Chocolate liquor, which is nonalcoholic, is the basis for all chocolate and cocoa products.

  • Where did the word chocolate come from? Who first had the idea of eating chocolate?
  • Answer:

    The origins of the word chocolate may come from either the Mayan cacao or the Nahuatl (Aztec) chocolatl. Spanish explorers brought it to Europe as a drink made of powdered beans, similar to cocoa but not sweetened. As cacao beans became more widely available, people began to experiment with different ways of using them. An English confectioner, Joseph Storrs Fry, made the first eating chocolate in 1849.

  • What is the difference between milk chocolate and dark chocolate?
  • Answer:

    Different chocolate liquor-to-milk ratios produce sweet, semisweet, and bittersweet chocolate. Milk chocolate is made from fresh whole milk added to the liquor, and white chocolate -- which some say is not really chocolate -- is a mixture of cocoa butter, sugar, milk, and vanilla flavoring. Some chocolate manufacturers use artificial vanillin, rather than pure vanilla, as a flavoring and use milk solids rather than whole milk. Some dark chocolates also may contain milk products.

  • What is in chocolate as a food?
  • Answer:

    Chocolate contains carbohydrates (starch, various sugars), fats (cocoa butter), vegetable protein, potassium, and magnesium in large amounts; calcium and sodium in small amounts; iron in trace amounts; and vitamins A, B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), and D. Chocolate also contains caffeine.

  • Many people say they crave chocolate. How does this happen?
  • Answer:

    Chocolate is a high-energy food with a luscious mouth feel that many people crave. Your brain remembers the sensations associated with certain foods, including chocolate, that may trigger cravings.  Forbidden foods can also foster cravings.  Chocolate dates back to the Aztecs and was considered a royal aphrodisiac and the ultimate expression of love.   

  • Is chocolate good for you or bad for you? I've heard both.
  • Answer:

    Chocolate can be good for you, if eaten in moderation. Federal dietary guidelines recommend that approximately 30% of a person's daily calories come from fat. A 1.4-ounce milk chocolate bar contains 210 calories and 13 grams of fat. Based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet, that would supply 20% of the 65 gram daily allowance of fat. A dark chocolate bar the same size is slightly lower in calories (200) and fat (11 grams).

  • Is there much difference between chocolate bar brands?
  • Answer:

    The principal ingredient of commercial chocolate bars and candy is not cocoa, but sugar, along with saturated vegetable fat and powdered milk. However, true chocolate -- manufactured from natural ingredients -- is far healthier and contains higher percentages of cocoa solids and lower percentages of sugar.

  • What are the health benefits of eating chocolate?
  • Answer:

    A University of California, Davis, researcher has spent several years studying the possible health benefits of certain antioxidants found in chocolate. These antioxidants -- phenolic compounds, also known as flavonoids -- are the same compounds found in red wine that give it antioxidant properties. Phenolics can help protect against or slow heart disease by preventing fat-like substances (LDL, or low-density lipoproteins, also known as "bad" cholesterol) in the bloodstream from oxidizing and forming plaque that can eventually block arteries. Although chocolate also contains the saturated fatty acid called stearic acid, it has been shown in scientific studies to have a neutral effect on blood cholesterol. One study conducted at Pennsylvania State University with healthy, young, adult male students showed that eating one standard-sized milk chocolate bar a day did not affect blood cholesterol.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on July 23, 2012

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