On average, an American consumes ten pounds of chocolate per year, making America the largest consumer of chocolate in the world. It is used as a symbol of love and commitment for Valentine’s Day, and is a common treat for other holidays such as Easter, Halloween, and Christmas. The sales of chocolate during these holidays accounts for about 20% of the yearly sales. While some may immediately label chocolate as a junk food treat, studies have shown that the main ingredient, cocoa, has several health benefits from decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease to decreasing blood pressure. However, what most people do not think about is where it comes from, who is harvesting the cocoa beans, and how the laborers are affected by the massive demand for chocolate around the globe. The delightful treat of chocolate, with it’s historic presence and the tremendous amount of consumers today, has several meaningful health benefits, though the industry has some drawbacks.
The word chocolate is derived from “chocolatl” meaning warm liquid. It is believed that the origins of chocolate date back to the Mayan and Aztec people in 400 A.D. who were most likely the first to cultivate the cacao plant. The way they consumed cocoa was much different than it is today. “Xocolatl” was a drink in which ground cocoa beans were dissolved in water and mixed with cinnamon and pepper and “was most appreciated for its invigorating and stimulating effects…” (Verna 112). At one point in time, cocoa beans became so valuable that they “were used as currency and kept in safes along with gold and precious stones” (Verna 112). Hernando Cortez and his conquest through Mexico stumbled upon the Aztecs using cocoa beans and was intrigued by the “royal drink”. It is believed that Cortez took some beans back to Europe where they added cane sugar to the drink and became popular mostly among the Spanish aristocracy. Recognizing the popularity of the cocoa bean, Spain started to plant trees which turned into a rather profitable business. In 1657, “chocolate drinking houses started to open up, but mainly served only the rich, since the cost to make chocolate was still very expensive” (Chocolate Facts). Eventually, machines were created so it was no longer necessary to use one’s hands to grind the cocoa beans, which made it less expensive. However, the way we know chocolate today is in a solid bar form, something that wasn’t created until 1847 by using cocoa beans, sugar, and cocoa butter. It wasn’t until the very early 1900’s when chocolate became widely available for everyone. Companies that are still very relevant in the chocolate industry today such as Lindt, Hershey, Cadbury, and Nestle all began during this time period.
Furthermore, most people are not familiar with the process of turning cocoa beans into chocolate. According to Ecole Chocolat, an award-winning school for making chocolate, “Chocolate processing practices haven’t changed much from the time of the Maya; it is just that the equipment and processes have been refined”. It all starts with a cacao tree, which is grown in subtropical areas like Central America. In this climate, the trees produce buds year-round, and turn into pods that contain the cacao beans. The pods, which are harvested by hand, are broken open carefully to retrieve the beans which are “embedded in a moist, fibrous, white pulp” (How Chocolate is Made). The cacao beans along with the pulp are removed from the pod and placed in a box with a lid, which allows the fermentation process to begin. In this process, the white pulp is converted into alcohol and the beans are gently stirred to expose them to oxygen. Next, small cuts in the box are used to slowly drain the liquid contents, leaving the beans. Additionally, the high temperatures created by the process of fermentation, stops the germination of the beans. They then absorb moisture from the environment and become plump. In this stage, the bean’s “flavor begins to change from mainly bitter to the beginnings of the complex flavor called chocolate” (How Chocolate is Made). The entire process of fermentation takes up to eight days, and the better the process is done, the better the flavor. Now that the process of fermentation is complete, the beans are now considered cocoa beans. The next step toward making chocolate is to dry the beans, which is done by placing trays of beans in the sun or in a shed with a lot of air flow. Once the cocoa beans reach a certain moisture percentage, they are sorted and put in bags by size and quality, and are shipped to chocolate manufacturers. The manufacturers do a lengthy testing and sampling process to ensure the quality of the beans fits their standards. When the manufacturers are satisfied with their beans, the beans are roasted anywhere from ten to thirty minutes. During this process, the shells of the cocoa beans are removed, leaving what is often called the “cocoa nib”. These “nibs” are then ground, making cocoa butter, and turned into a liquid chocolate known as chocolate liquor. At this stage, the manufacturers are able to tamper with what kind of chocolate is to be made, whether it is milk, or dark. The last step before the chocolate becomes the famous treat everyone loves is the conching process where the liquor and all of the added ingredients are kneaded for hours or even days, which develops the desired texture and flavor of the manufacturer. At this point, the chocolate is able to be molded and eaten, which is my favorite part.
Contrary to what one may believe, chocolate has several health benefits. Before getting excited, the calorie-packed candy bars with loads of sugar don’t qualify in this context. It is the high levels of cocoa and minimal empty-calories that researchers say are beneficial to one’s health, which has spawned many new products with such qualities. The cocoa bean itself contains a compound called flavanols which has been “shown to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow and reduce overall risk of heart disease” (Johannes). It is believed that the flavanol compound has this effect due its “stimulating production of nitric oxide, which relaxes vessels and improves blood flow” (Johannes). It is important to note however, that it is uncommon to find chocolate that is labeled with flavanol content, but a good indicator would be the cocoa percentage found on the packaging. While milk chocolate contains as little as 10% cocoa, one can find dark chocolate with anywhere from 50% to 60% cocoa. Therefore, if a consumer is looking for the health benefits that chocolate offers, dark chocolate is the way to go. “’The higher the percentage of cocoa, the higher the flavanol content, the higher the antioxidant content and thus we believe the greater positive health benefit,’ says Washington, D.C., nutritionist Joy Dubost, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics” (Johannes). Recently, cocoa dietary supplements have appeared on the marketplace, one brand being CocoaVia which is produced by Mars Inc, a popular candy bar company. Each supplement contains 350 milligrams of cocoa flavanol compound, which is minimally processed to retain as many nutrients as possible. While some scientists have confirmed that cocoa indeed has health benefits, others believe that there is not overwhelming evidence to take it as a dietary supplement.
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