Cocoa, from which chocolate is created, is said to have originated in the Amazon at least 4,000 years ago.

Health benefits of cocoa (not chocolate which contains sugar, and some contain fat and milk) include decreased inflammation, improved heart and brain health, blood sugar and weight control and healthy teeth and skin.

In the beginning chocolate was never sweet as we know it. Called xocolatl, drinks were bitter, frothy and spicy, seasoned with vanilla, chillies or achiote (a shrub native to Central America).

The Aztecs were the first to use chocolate as an aphrodisiac.

Chocolate has been nicknamed the “food of gods” and “dark gold”.

The most prestigious tribute to “dark gold” is found in the New England Journal of Medicine which based on a study states that the higher a country’s chocolate consumption, the more Nobel laureates it spawns per capita.

Darker the Chocolate the Better

Cocoa trees naturally harbour dozens of endophytes or fungi, but produce pods which is the fruit chocolate is derived from. The Theobroma cacao flowers are pollinated by wild rainforest insects called midges, but not more than 1 in 20 turn into pods or fruit in which the cacao beans or seeds are found. Wild microbes or organisms get to work on them via fermentation up to 100 million yeast and bacteria cells in every gram of cacao bean.

These chocolate beans/nibs are then heated – roasting the beans is important to eliminate pathogens. High temperature results in separation of cocoa butter. Also called theobroma oil, cocoa butter is a pale-yellow, pure, edible vegetable fat. (Vegetable oil is known to have been used in place of cocoa butter in order to lower costs.)

Dark chocolate contains 50-90% cocoa solids, cocoa butter and refined sugar, whereas milk chocolate contains anywhere from 10-50% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, milk in some form and refined sugar. White chocolate does not contain any cocoa solids and is made simply of cocoa butter, refined sugar and milk.

Dark chocolate (only if it contains more than 70% cocoa) is considered healthy and vegan (notwithstanding the fungi, midges and fermentation organisms mentioned above): chocolate liquor solidified with cocoa butter without added sugar.

It contains polyphenolic compounds called flavonoids (also found in tea and brightly coloured fruits & vegetables that are far lower in calories) known for health benefits like antioxidant activity, preventing oxidation of bad LDL cholesterol, anti-cancer effects, lowering blood pressure and inhibition of platelet activity and inflammation, as well as boosting memory and mood, particularly in old age. Apart from having stress-busting effects, chocolate also improves immunity since it contains Vitamin D2. According to a research group at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and the Max Rubner-Institut cocoa butter and dark chocolate have the highest amount of Vitamin D2. It also provides magnesium which is good for bones and helps control food cravings.

Theobromine found along with caffeine in cocoa solids gives dark chocolate its bitter taste. Caffeine and theobromine both contain naturally occurring substances that can stimulate the central nervous system and elevate feelings of alertness and positively affect mood. Chocolate elevates a person’s mood since it contains caffeine, fat and phenyl-ethylamine associated with endorphin release. Its consumption also increases the release of serotonin and endorphins into the body which together produce a relaxing and euphoric feeling. Dark chocolate has successfully helped people stop smoking.

Cocoa powder and dark chocolate are much the same. Cocoa beans are powdered and the heat generated melts the cocoa butter. The resulting suspension, chocolate liquor, is dried to make cocoa powder. A study undertaken at the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Centre, USA, states “Cocoa can protect nerves from injury and inflammation, protect the skin from oxidative damage from UV radiation… and have beneficial effects on satiety, cognitive function, and mood.”

Chocolate liquor used in drinks and chocolate flavoured products like candy, is sweet syrup of chocolate and refined sugar – without alcohol. It can be processed in different ways with or without cocoa butter, refined sugar and milk. The combination resulting in milk chocolate is harmful as opposed to cocoa butter which is a natural vegetable fat and does not increase cholesterol.

A study conducted between 1993 and 1997 and with over 13 years of follow up, published in the British Medical Journal: Heart found that moderate chocolate intake can be positively associated with lower risk of the heart arrhythmia condition atrial fibrillation. The condition affects millions and is associated with a higher risk of a stroke, heart failure, cognitive decline and dementia.

Non-veg Chocolates

The global chocolate industry is dominated by the five manufacturers: Hershey, Mondelez, Mars, Nestle and Ferrero – with West Africa providing most of the cocoa. The plants grow only 20 degrees north and south of the Equator – South India qualifies!

Apart from some common centres like most truffles, pralines, ganaches, gianduja, candies, marshmallows, nougats, Turkish delight, fruit flavoured jellies, liquor, etc, that probably contain animal derivatives, chocolate definitely turns non-vegetarian when animal fats, gelatine, egg white or albumen, honey, shellac, colours & additives of animal origin, and whey (produced using animal rennet) are used as ingredients. Labels should therefore be checked for these substances. For example, some chocolates contain dual-origin emulsifiers like E322 or INS 322 (lecithin can be derived from plant/soy and egg) and E476 or INS 476 (polyglycerol polyricinoleate or PGPR contains glycerol and fatty acids which can be of animal or non-animal/castor bean origin). For example, Amul Dark/Bitter Chocolate having 55%/75% cocoa contain both these but they do not mention the origin of the lecithin, nor the origin of PGPR, however since the green veg symbol is affixed on the boxes it indicates the emulsifiers are of plant origin – and vegan since no milk has been added.

In May 2007 it was revealed that some of UK’s best-selling chocolate bars such as Mars, Twix, Snickers, Maltesers, Bounty, Minstrels, and all Milky Way products, along with ice-cream versions of these chocolates, were no longer suitable for vegetarians because of whey derived from animal rennet used as an ingredient. We do not know whether it continues to be utilised so ingredient labels should be checked.

Similarly, BWC was informed that whey powder was listed as an ingredient on a box of imported Rochero Ferroro chocolates marked with the green veg symbol. The chocolates had been manufactured in Italy so it was more likely than not that the whey used had been derived through cheese-making with calf rennet. BWC complained to the authorities that the chocolates should have been marked with the brown non-veg symbol, but they continue to be marked with the green veg symbol. The company obviously has no respect for Indian laws or consumers because on one of their recent products both veg and non-veg symbols have been affixed making BWC complain about it to the Food and Drug Administration.

Belgian chocolates are available in a wide range of fillings and flavours. Some can include direct non-veg items such as bacon. Also chocolate-covered bacon is an American dish.

Globally chocolate with beef flavouring is also sold.

After the UN-FAO recommended entomophagy in 2013, chocolate covered insects were tried out by people who traditionally did not eat insects. Some chocolates, like those containing grasshoppers, may take on the shape of the insect covered, but most like those that contain ants look just like other chocolates.

However, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India website has declared “according to FSSAI standards, any chocolate should be free from insects and other contaminants. Any rumour stating that FSSAI has permitted insects in chocolate manufacturing process, are false”.

Teetotallers should beware of chocolates containing vodka, gin, brandy, whisky, etc. Alcohol is some times added to chocolates laced with spices such as chilli and cardamom, or even salt to impart unique flavours.

Conclusion: check list of ingredients before consuming.

Cocoa Crisis and Food for Thought

World production of cocoa is 3.7 million tonnes annually. The yield is not expected to increase significantly but estimates suggest that the global demand will grow to 4.5 million tones by 2020. Researchers from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil therefore began looking for alternatives that mimic chocolate’s distinct aroma and flavour. They discovered that jackfruit seeds could serve as a potentially cheap and abundant substitute for making chocolates.

40% of the world’s cocoa comes from the Ivory Coast. In 2017 less than 4% of the Ivory Coast remained densely forested due to deforestation to grow cocoa. It has led to pushing wildlife into smaller areas indirectly leading to a decline of populations.

Page last updated on 26/02/24