Chocolate: the good, the bad and the tasty

Simply divine: The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma, means the “drink of the gods”.

Chocolate is big business. On average, British people eat more than 10kg of it every year. This may seem like a lot, but is the sweet stuff really as unhealthy as people think?

  • How much chocolate can I eat?

    Let’s start by getting our terms straight. Chocolate comes from the beans of the cacao tree. The processed, powdered form of the beans is called “cocoa”. Food products based on these ingredients are known as “chocolate”.

  • Where does it come from?

    Ancient civilisations in the Americas were obsessed with the stuff. They tended to drink it — “chocolate” comes from the Aztec word “xocoatl”, a cocoa brew. The plant was seen to have divine properties and was used in rituals. Cacao beans were also used as currency.

  • How did it come to Europe?

    Spanish explorers brought cocoa home. People found it bitter, so sweeteners were added, and soon cocoa drinks were all the rage among wealthy Europeans. In the 19th century, scientists found new ways to process the bean, creating solid chocolate. Famous companies, like Cadbury, popped up around this time.

  • How are beans turned into chocolate?

    They are roasted, their shells are removed, and they are mashed into a paste. At this stage, fat can be extracted, forming cocoa butter; what is left is ground into dry cocoa powder, which is used in cooking. The butter can then be added to more paste, along with sugar, milk and other products. This substance is stirred, rolled, warmed and left to cool until it produces smooth, hard, delicious choccy.

  • What does chocolate do to the body?

    The energy boost that it gives you is due to caffeine (and the added sugar). As well as being used as a stimulant, chocolate has been put to all kinds of other uses in the past. The Mayans used it to stop diarrhoea. Samuel Pepys liked it as a hangover cure. There have even been rumours of people — including a pope! — being murdered by cocoa poisoning.

  • What does science say?

    People generally believe that chocolate is bad for you. In recent decades, however, studies have suggested that dark chocolate, in particular, may have surprising health benefits. These include less risk of mental decline, heart issues, strokes (in women), and much more.

  • Is it good for you then?

    Cocoa may have some good effects, but these studies are not conclusive. Moreover, many are funded by the chocolate industry, so we should be sceptical about their findings. Then there is the fact that most chocolate products are chock-full of added fats and sugars, which are unhealthy in large quantities.

    To answer the original question: don’t eat too much chocolate, but the occasional treat won’t hurt you — especially at Christmas.

You Decide

  1. Would the world be better off without chocolate?

Activities

  1. Come up with an idea for a new chocolate product. Describe its shape, flavour and ingredients — and try to make it as healthy as possible!

Word Watch

Aztec
A warrior people who dominated what is now Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Rituals
A ceremony, usually religious, consisting of a set of fixed actions and words. Aztec sacrifice victims were required to take part in a ritual dance before being killed. They were sometimes given cocoa (mixed with the blood of previous victims) for encouragement.
Cocoa butter
A pale yellow fat. As well as its use in food, cocoa butter is used in beauty products and medicine, among other things.
Stimulant
A substance that stimulates the brain and nerves, making you feel more alert and energetic.
Samuel Pepys
A Londoner who worked for the English navy in the 17th century. He is famous for having kept a diary that describes London life at the time.
Funded
Provided with money. For example, the company Mars alone has published more than 140 papers since 2005.
Sceptical
Having doubts and questioning. In this case, because the chocolate industry is going to be biased on this issue.

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