Eat a bar of chocolate and chances are you will soon be awash with some kind of guilt. If you are health conscious you will be fretting about calories, fat, pimples and pesticides. If you are socially and ecologically aware there will be the added concern about the swathes of irreplaceable tropical forest that were cleared to grow the cocoa beans that went into your favourite sinful treat. You will also worry about whether the cocoa pods were harvested by young children sold into slavery by their impoverished families and often starved and beaten by cruel plantation owners, and whether those fertilisers and biocides used on cocoa plants have harmed its growers and the surrounding environment.
You will also be acutely aware that into even the most ecologically sound lives a little paradox must fall. You may be committed to eating locally grown food, but there are nevertheless a few commodities that most of us now use daily – coffee, tea, spices and of course chocolate – that are only grown in a few specific, even remote parts of the world. Most of us could do without these items, but the reality is that few are prepared to. So, for the 5-10 per cent of your diet that isn’t of local origin, it’s important to make choices that make some positive contribution to health and the environment.
If you are prepared to look, there are one or two silver linings behind these dark clouds of chocolate guilt. By making considered choices about the kind of chocolate you are prepared to eat – for instance buying only organic and Fair Trade chocolate – you can make a significant contribution to more humane and ecologically friendly practices on cocoa plantations (see box), and actually improve the lives of those people who rely on cocoa for their livelihood.
In addition, good quality chocolate has some health benefits too. In 2000 The Journal of Nutrition, the official journal of the American Society for Nutritional Sciences, published a major article on the historical medicinal uses of chocolate. Apart from a fascinating history of cacao, it listed two and a half referenced pages of health claims for chocolate, including improving cardiovascular health, increasing breast milk supply, nourishing the body after exercise, reducing fever, improving longevity, encouraging sleep, soothing sore throats and improving your sex life. However, none of this would have been news to serious chocoholics who have felt intuitively for years that chocolate can cure just about anything.
But recently such claims have been the focus of intense study by legitimate scientists keen to understand more about specific nutrients. Some of these studies have been funded by the cocoa industry, some have been independently funded but received their cocoa and chocolate supplies gratis from companies like Mars or the American Cocoa Research Institute, a non-profit group funded by the chocolate industry. At first glance it would be easy to put such studies on a par with a McDonalds study on the health benefits of a Big Mac. But the nutrients in chocolate are real and measurable and would exist no matter who funded the study or provided the test chocolate.
How we choose to interpret such data is vital. You can, for instance, ignore the spin that chocolate, in the form that it is usually consumed, is a ‘health food’. Nevertheless, data about healthful nutrients in chocolate is now being confirmed by independent researchers and is turning up some intriguing possibilities.
Think about the ‘benefits’ of chocolate and its widely publicised mood lifting and addictive qualities are often the first things to come to mind. Chocolate contains caffeine (though only about as much as a cup of decaf), and other stimulants such as theobromine that can theoretically provide a mild rush. Most high volume commercial bars also contain sugar in varying amounts – the source of another short term high, but one that is inevitably followed by the sneaky backhanded low that indicates exhausted insulin supplies.
Chocolate also contains a cannaboid-like substance known as anandamide that binds to the same receptors in the body as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis). Rumoured to be the real source of the legendary chocolate high, this has never been proven by any reliable data. In fact it is estimated that a person weighing 9st 3lb (130lb) would have to eat 25lb of chocolate all in one go to get a true ‘high’ from it.
Instead what has emerged from the scientification of chocolate is that it has practical and measurable benefits that go beyond any real or imagined emotional high.
A functional food
In the past five years the data has been rolling in. In 2002 a small study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association pronounced that regular moderate chocolate consumption protected the heart by thinning the blood in much the same way as low dose aspirin.
In an earlier study published in 2000 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 25 grams (approximately an ounce) of semi-sweet dark chocolate was even pitted against low dose (81mg) aspirin to see which was best at thinning blood. Both the chocolate and the aspirin worked equally well. This blood thinning action is an important finding since when blood platelets (cells) stick together it is a major risk for blood clots, stroke and heart attack.
In 2004, a small independently-funded study conducted at the University of California at San Francisco’s Department of Physiological Nursing found a link between the flavanols in chocolate and improved functioning of blood vessels, thus reducing the risk of blocked arteries.
That same year in London, tests conducted by the National Heart and Lung Institute found that a substance in chocolate can help defeat a winter cough. The British researchers tested a group of healthy non-smokers and found that one of the stimulants in cocoa, theobromine, was more effective than codeine, a traditional cough suppressant, for soothing a sore throat. In a similar vein, a study in the journal Cellular Immunology suggested that several constituents of chocolate even have an immune enhancing effect.
In October of this year a team of scientists from California and Germany, reporting in The Journal of Nutrition, found one of the historical uses of cocoa beans, as a treatment for diarrhoea, might have some merit. Their laboratory study found that substances in cocoa could limit the secretion of the fluids that cause diarrhoea – a finding that could lead to the development of supplements to ease the condition. However, at a pinch dark chocolate, which contains high concentrations of cocoa, may offer some relief by itself.
Another recent and independently funded Italian study found that consuming dark chocolate not only lowered blood pressure and cholesterol levels, it also improved the body’s ability to process sugar.
An antioxidant boost
Most of these health benefits are linked to the high level of antioxidants – specifically flavonols and polyphenols – it contains. Antioxidants are an important part of the diet because they help fight the damage to body tissues and organs caused by the continual exposure to pollutants, hydrogenated fats and other everyday chemicals. As our body tries to metabolise these toxins, reactive molecules called free radicals are produced. In fact, free radicals are also produced naturally by all metabolic processed – the problem is when the body is overwhelmed with these highly reactive molecules, they begin to attack vital tissues. Antioxidants help deflect and mitigate the damage.
Chocolate’s flavonoid content is surprisingly high – a 40g (1 1/4oz) serving of dark chocolate contains about 400mg of antioxidants – equivalent to a glass of red wine. Milk chocolate contains about half this much but white chocolate (which isn’t really ‘chocolate’ at all but an odd mixture of milk, sugar and fat) contains no health promoting antioxidants at all. Plain unsweetened cocoa powder, according to scientists at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), contains the highest level of flavonols, but adding sugar and milk to it substantially reduces its antioxidant levels.
A review in the medical journal The Lancet in 1999 suggests that chocolate’s main antioxidants catechin and epicatechin are the same ones that give green tea its anti-cancer properties. Other studies confirm the presence of these powerful antioxidants. One study, published in 2003 in the ultra conservative journal Nature, concluded that the right kind of chocolate given in the right way could provide the body with the same health benefits – such as lower risk of cancer, lower blood pressure and lower risk of stroke – as antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.
The Nature study gave volunteers either 100g of plain chocolate or 200g of milk chocolate with or without a glass of milk. Drinking milk with the chocolate interfered with the absorption of the antioxidants. But dark chocolate on its own raises levels of the antioxidant epicatechin in the blood by 20 per cent.
If you are still not convinced, consider the conclusions of a 1998 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. This ongoing independent study, which has over many years provided volumes of data about what makes people healthy, followed 7,800 male Harvard graduates across 80 years and found that those who eat chocolate (and other sweets) up to three times a month live on average 1 year longer than those who overindulge, or who avoid sweets altogether. So maybe that comforting old saying is true: a little of what you fancy really does do you good.
But there’s a catch
Naturally there’s a downside. The way that most commercial cocoa powder and chocolate syrup is produced destroys its natural nutritional value. The cacao bean and its bran have the highest polyphenol levels, but heating and processing can strip the nutritional value of the bean away and polyphenol levels in the end product can vary enormously – just like they can in teas and wines. Exposing it to an alkali as in Dutch chocolate further destroys chocolate’s antioxidant content.
When chocolate manufacturers started to get positive results from these studies, they began to make outrageous claims for the ‘health food’ status of their products. Meanwhile behind the scenes they also began to look for money-making patented ways to reintroduce back into commercially available bars some of the flavonoids destroyed by their own harsh processing methods.
Having realised they could potentially and legitimately market chocolate as a functional food, big companies like Mars are now working on ways of processing chocolate to maintain its polyphenol content. In the US, for instance, Mars has developed a proprietary method for processing the beans, called Cocoapro, which preserves polyphenol content. Some of their products in the US now carry the Cocoapro label.
This begs the question, however: rather than choose a scientifically engineered bar, why not choose one that has been carefully grown and processed from the beginning? Whatever the advantages of a bar containing standardised amounts of polyphenols may be, it is still a bar of conventional chocolate grown in ecologically unsound ways and containing traces of contaminants, the risks of which outweigh any potential benefits.
Cocoa without carcinogens
Buying organic chocolate, for instance, ensures that you are not consuming dangerous contaminants. At least 30 pesticides are used in growing cocoa. According to the Annual Report of the Working Party on Pesticides Residues 1998, around 75 per cent of samples of European chocolate tested contained low levels of carcinogenic lindane – a hormone-disrupting, carcinogenic pesticide linked with breast cancer – which is banned in six countries including the UK and severely restricted in another 18, but is still widely used in cocoa-producing countries.
Some of the other pesticides that can legally contaminate non-organic chocolate include:
Methyl Bromide: linked with prostate cancer, kidney and liver effects, neurological effects
Pyrethrins: carcinogenic and a cause of reproductive and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity
Hydrogen Cyanide: acutely toxic, causes thyroid damage and nerve degeneration
Naled: a central nervous system disruptor, causes headaches, nausea and diarrhoea
Glyphosate: carcinogenic, damages digestive system tissue, causes genetic damage and reproductive effects
Organically grown chocolate means you avoid these toxins. It also often has a richer, more chocolatey flavour because of the way the beans are grown. Cocoa plants thrive in the shade of the rainforest – their natural habitat – where favourable nutrients and the lack of direct sunlight give the cocoa plant its best possible growing conditions.
Thriving in the dark
The shade versus sun argument is important not just for the taste of the chocolate but for its entire method of production, for the sustainability of cocoa plantations and for the safety of cocoa farmers.
Cocoa is a naturally shade loving plant. Plants grown in the sun in areas of forest that have been specially cleared to make way for large plantations are markedly different from those grown under a natural forest canopy.
The manifold problems of sun grown cocoa include:
• Increased use of pesticides. Heavy and generally under-regulated pesticide use is an integral part of full sun systems. Whether used in shade or sun systems, pesticide application in cocoa production can have adverse impacts on the environment and human health. Many of the chemicals used, such as chlordane, endosulfan and DDT, are banned in most developed countries. Poisoning from pesticide contamination is common among plantation workers.
• Increased use of fertilisers. Full-sun systems necessitate greater use of water and nitrogen-based fertilisers. These increase soil erosion and acidification, decrease the soil’s fertility, pollute drinking water, and cause damage to aquatic habitats. Increased soil erosion can also cause devastating landslides and flooding during weather emergencies.
• Direct loss of species biodiversity. Clearance of shade trees greatly reduces the biodiversity of the area. This loss increases the economic dependence of farmers on a single crop (e.g. cocoa) by reducing secondary production (for example, firewood, timber, medicines and fruit) to near zero.
A 2003 report entitled Venture Capitalism for a Tropical Forest produced by the Worldwatch Institute even went so far as to suggest that cocoa grown in the shade could help preserve and restore the northern part of the Brazilian Atlantic forest. The report highlighted that if Brazil, the world’s fifth largest cocoa-producing country, engaged in producing cocoa products on an ecologically and socially sound basis it would boost its domestic industry, provide rural employment and support the conservation of the Atlantic Forest biome – a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ and a global priority for conservation – that contains as many as 476 tree species in a single hectare (about 2.5 acres). That’s the highest level of tree species diversity per unit area ever recorded anywhere on earth.
While there’s no guarantee that the organic chocolate you buy has been grown under a natural rainforest canopy, the chances are much better than if you buy non-organic chocolate, which is generally grown in direct sunlight.
When cocoa is grown as nature intended, everybody wins. Free from the burden of toxic biocides and working with fair trade schemes, farmers, labourers and their environment stay healthy and productive. And for millions of chocolate lovers worldwide the humble chocolate bar is restored to a simple pleasure, instead of a guilty one.
The six largest cocoa producing countries are the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, and Cameroon. More than 90 per cent of the world’s cocoa is grown on small family farms in these countries. Most cocoa farmers are trapped in poverty and forced to rely on child labour and even child slavery to make ends meet. The major chocolate companies such as Mars, Cadbury, Nestle and Hershey exacerbate these problems by refusing to take part in Fair Trade schemes that guarantee:
• A stable living wage under direct long-term contracts and access to credit, ensuring that farmers can cover the costs of labour, production, and meet basic needs over the longer term.
• Farmers are organised into democratic cooperatives that have control of their own production and marketing, promoting continued self-sufficiency.
• The prohibition of abusive child labour and forced labour, while ensuring sufficient wages for hired workers.
• Compliance of labour and wage standards through yearly independent monitoring.
• Records kept of all farmer sales, offering the ability to trace cocoa directly to the farm of origin.
• Farmer cooperatives reserve a portion of their revenues for community development projects and farmer training, removing the need for outside charity and ensuring that 100 per cent of funds earmarked for development work go to the communities that need them.
• Environmentally sustainable farming methods such as organic and shade cultivation, ensuring that farmers use methods that benefit the earth and maintain community health.
According to a recent report by the Global Exchange , progress in this area is slow. It notes, for instance, that while America is the biggest chocolate consuming country in the world, with consumers spending £7 billion ($13 billion) annually on chocolate, fair trade chocolate makes up only one per cent of this market.
It’s not lack of interest by consumers that keeps Fair Trade chocolate off the market. It is the reluctance of big business to exchange a minute proportion of its profits to ensure better working conditions and a living wage for cocoa farmers. M&M/Mars is the largest chocolate and candy company in the world, with annual sales of more than £11 billion ($20 billion). Its position in the marketplace means that M&M/Mars also has the greatest responsibility and the most resources to offer Fair Trade chocolate on a wide scale. Yet the company consistently refuses to do so, relying instead on the industry Protocol – a document issued in 2001 which laid out the industry’s commitment to end abusive and forced labour on cocoa farms by 2005 – and other development projects to sort out the problems of cocoa growers.
The UK’s biggest chocolate producer Cadbury Schweppes also places its faith in the Protocol rather than direct, effective action to improve the lot of cocoa farmers.
The problem is that putting something in writing doesn’t make it so and to date little concrete progress has been made with regard to the goals of the Protocol. In addition the Protocol does not address some very specific problems, such as the way cocoa prices are kept low by major corporations who control every aspect of the world market. This means that for every pound spent on chocolate, these huge companies get 70 pence while farmers get only five pence. In West Africa cocoa revenues average £16-60 ($30-108) per year per family member, not nearly enough to cover their costs or meet their basic needs.
In 2000, Fair Trade cocoa co-ops produced 89 million pounds of cocoa, but because of the refusal of companies like Mars to enter into fair trade agreements, only three million pounds were sold at Fair Trade prices.
Good chocolate, bad chocolate
What to look for on the label
Cocoa beans, like coffee beans, are fermented, roasted and ground for use. The beans come in three primary species: Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. The Criollo has been compared to Arabica coffee, in that it is the cream of the crop and has the most delicate and complex array of flavours. The Forastero can be compared to Robusta coffee in its disease resistance and higher yield, but whereas Robusta has a fairly crude taste, Forastero has a strong if somewhat one-dimensional cocoa flavour. Well-prepared Forastero is what goes into most conventional chocolate bars. Finally, Trinitario is a hybrid of the two, and can have various characteristics of both types.
Chances are your average bar of chocolate will not tell you what kind of cocoa bean or beans went into it. Unless you are a chocolate connoisseur who actively seeks out single bean or single estate chocolate, you probably won’t care either. Besides, the rich range of flavours in different kinds of chocolate grown in different parts of the world make the taste more rewarding when the beans are blended.
What most of us need to know is how to get the best from our chocolate bar, so consider these tips.
Think dark thoughts The health benefits of chocolate lie in its cocoa content not its dairy content, so one way for chocolate lovers to get the best out of chocolate is to switch from milk chocolate (which can contain as little as 10 per cent cocoa solids) to semi-sweet or dark chocolate (which has at least 70 per cent cocoa solids and less sugar). Switching to bars with a higher percentage of cocoa solids also means more sales for cocoa farmers.
Read the label Avoid bars with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. These oils are added to improve the mouth feel of highly processed chocolate bars that have had all the natural (and in health terms largely neutral) fats taken out of them. Avoid also those bars that list preservatives, flavourings or colourings, again a sign of poor quality starting ingredients and over-processing.
Look for the Fair Trade logo It means that cocoa farmers get a fair living wage from their cocoa, it supports sustainable cocoa production.
Buy organic This guarantees your bar will be free of harmful pesticides – better for you, better for the farmer and better for the environment.
Moderation More is not better and the health benefits of chocolate can be destroyed if you overindulge. As a rule of thumb, limit yourself to 30g (1oz), three or four times a week. This is approximately what the average Brit eats anyway, so this shouldn’t be too much of a hardship.
You get what you pay for Good chocolate is never cheap. Cheap chocolate is never good. Eating less of a quality chocolate will be more deeply satisfying than any amount of sugary, largely tasteless, commercially available bars.
Below are some manufacturers whose chocolate you might want to try:
This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2005