Theobroma cacao (a small evergreen tree which produces cocoa beans), found in deep tropical regions of South America, has been widely cultivated for its seeds, which are used to make chocolate, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder. People have been devouring chocolate in the US as far back as the eighth century, as based on trace evidence found in an archaeological site in Alkali Ridge, Utah.
The archaeological research, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, more specifically suggested the presence of theobromine and caffeine, two compounds found in cacao (cocoa plant). Theobromine is a bitter alkaloid which similarly acts like caffeine as a stimulant, and is a diuretic.
The fruit of the Theobroma cacao can produce several varieties of chocolate. Each undergo a different processes to render cocoa powder and chocolate liquor which are used in part as ingredients for unsweetened chocolate, dark chocolate, and milk chocolate.
Chocolate liquor (cocoa liquor) is pure chocolate in its liquid form, derived from cocoa beans which have been fermented, dried, roasted, and husked. Beans are ground into a paste and melted into liquor. It contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter (fats) in roughly equal proportions. Once cooled, the mass can be molded into blocks known as unsweetened chocolate (bitter chocolate).
Chocolate liquor contains roughly 53 percent cocoa butter (fat), about 17 percent carbohydrates, 11 percent protein, 6 percent tannins, and 1.5 percent theobromine.
Unsweetened cocoa powder is pulverized, partially defatted chocolate liquor. Cocoa powder gives an intense chocolate taste and is available in alkalized or natural varieties.
Natural cocoa powder is light brown, with a pronounced chocolate flavor. Alkalized cocoa powder is darker in color, less acidic, and has a milder chocolate taste. Alkalized cocoa powder has an alkaline pH from 7 to 8, while natural cocoa powder has an acidic pH, around 5. Alkalized cocoa powder is sold in stores alongside other types of baking chocolate and is sometimes labeled as Dutch-process cocoa or European-style cocoa.
Dark chocolate contains chocolate liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla, and leicithin (an emulsifier). No milk solids are present in dark chocolate. The cocoa content of commercial dark chocolate bars can range from 30 percent (sweet dark) to nearly 80 percent for extremely dark bars. Bittersweet chocolate and semi-sweet chocolate also fall into the dark chocolate category, with the addition of sugar.
White chocolate is referred to as a type of chocolate because of the cocoa butter it contains, but it does not contain chocolate liquor or any other cocoa products.
In the US, standard milk chocolate must minimally contain 10 percent of chocolate liquor, 3.39 percent of butterfat, and 12 percent of milk solids. Milk chocolate typically contains condensed milk or dry milk. This type of chocolate is sweeter and lighter in color than dark chocolate.
Eating moderate amounts of dark chocolate, more specifically eating a dense amount of cacao, has been scientifically linked to lowering blood pressure, and has several other noted health benefits associated with the flavanol antioxidants, a flavonoid subunit of polyphenol antioxidants. Found naturally in chocolate, flavanols limit oxidative damage to the body’s cells. Cocoa beans have a concentrated amount. Antioxidants have been found to inhibit some cancer cell proliferation. The process of alkalizing the chocolate, which is done to enhance the flavor, can have an impact and reduce the overall amount of antioxidants.
According to a study by the American College of Cardiology, quoted in Sciencedaily, the phytochemical flavanol increased nitric oxide in blood of smokers and appeared to reverse smoking related damage to blood vessels. In another study, flavanols lowered blood pressure and aided in the reduction of cholesterol, thus reducing the chance of heart disease.
New research, published in the journal Neurology, has given chocolate lovers another reason to indulge in their guilty pleasure, as it appears chocolate consumption has been linked to lowering the risk of stroke. Glasgow University researchers demonstrated how savoring a single chocolate bar can have a direct impact on the brain and stroke risk, by measuring blood flow in their participants. They found the chocolate specifically affected the levels of carbon dioxide within the blood vessels, linked to the flavanol antioxidants, improving the overall blood circulation.
Chocolate also acts like morphine on the brain, affecting the response in pleasure centers. The study, “Enkephalin Surges in Dorsal Neostriatum as a Signal to Eat,” published in the journal Current Biology, examined how binge-eating and addiction are both centered around the compulsive overconsumption of something that triggers the brain’s reward center.
Researchers used a rat model and found when the dorsal nestriatum (part of the brain) was stimulated, the rats consumed 250 percent more chocolate, as a surge of encephalin (a natural opiate-like peptide) was produced and interacted with the receptors of the brain. The release of this peptide encouraged a feeding frenzy and a desire for more stimulants (chocolate). They consumed the equivalent of six pounds of M&Ms within an hour.
So, for your health, dip a few strawberries, bananas, or pretzels in a drizzle of dark chocolate. Perhaps experiment with obscurely flavored and seasoned varieties like bacon or hot pepper dark chocolates. And enjoy the chocolate eggs come Easter. But please do so in moderation.
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