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Chocolate -- and Your Health

By Ori Twersky
WebMD Health News

Q: What is chocolate?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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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