Chocolate -- and Your Health

From the WebMD Archives

Q: What is chocolate?
A:
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 of course is nonalcoholic, is the basis for all chocolate and cocoa products.

Q: Where did the word chocolate come from? Who first had the idea of eating chocolate?
A:
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.

Q: What's the difference between milk chocolate and dark chocolate?
A:
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.

Q: What's in chocolate as a food?
A:
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), D, and E. Chocolate also contains caffeine.

Q: Many people say they crave chocolate. How does this happen?
A:
Chocolate is a high-energy food for its relatively small volume. Chocolate contains substances, including caffeine, that act in the body in ways similar to medications. This may account for its reputation as an antidepressant, stimulant -- and aphrodisiac.

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Q: I've always heard that chocolate is bad for you. Now I'm hearing differently. Can chocolate really be included in a healthy, low-fat diet?
A:
Yes, if eaten in moderation. Federal dietary guidelines recommend that no more than 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).

Q: Is there much difference between chocolate bar brands?
A:
The principal ingredient of commercial chocolate bars and candy is not cocoa, but sugar, along with saturated vegetable fat and powdered milk. This has gained chocolate a reputation as fattening, tooth-decaying junk food. However, true chocolate -- manufactured from natural ingredients -- is far healthier and contains higher percentages of cocoa solids and lower percentages of sugar.

Q: Are there any health benefits associated with eating chocolate besides enjoying the taste or satisfying a craving?
A:
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) 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.

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