Sweet cure: Chocolate

While still best loved as a sweet confectionary, humans first used chocolate thousands of years ago as a medicine.

Anxiety, fever, and fatigue were all treated by chocolate-sweetened remedies made by the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec civilisations. The Europeans later used chocolate to treat conditions such as anaemia, emaciation, and kidney stones when it arrived from American some 500 years ago.

Good news for chocolate lovers

Recent studies have shown the potential health benefits of chocolate as the humble bean contains high levels of antioxidants (also found in red wine).

These antioxidants (specifically flavanols) may help protect against heart disease, as well as improving the immune system and affording protection against cancer. The cocoa beans also contain a saturated fat which the liver converts to a beneficial unsaturated fat. As with olive oil, this unsaturated fat can actually lower harmful cholesterol.

Darker chocolate is most beneficial because it contain more antioxidants, while eating milk-chocolate negates many health benefits by adding saturated fats from whole-milk and reducing the cocoa per gram.

Nevertheless, chocolate remains a highly valued and useful high-calorie food for boosting energy, albeit accompanied by a guilty pleasure!

Flower to wrapper: making chocolate

E038 - Theobroma cacao flowersFlowers: produced from the trunk and older branches. They are 1-2 cm (0-5-1’’) wide and pollinated by midges. Despite thousands of flowers, only 20-30 cacao pods develop. The yield is especially affected by rainfall as trees are sensitive to soil dryness.

E039 - Theobroma cacao pods (green)Harvesting: cacao pods are 15-25cm long (6-10’’) and contain 30-40 seeds surrounded by a whitish sweet pulp.

The pods are harvested and (usually) cut open by hand. The discarded husks may be put on the soil to recycle the nutrients or used as a maize substitute to feed edible snails.

The seeds undergo fermentation where micro-organisms in the pulp (including yeast) cause chemical reactions that develop the chocolate flavour and colour. Beans are then dried to reduce moisture content before packing.

E040 - Theobroma cacao beansWrapper: dried cocoa beans are roasted, blended, and mixed with other ingredients such as sugar, milk, and emulsifying agents. The process varies depending on the desired chocolate product.

Fair-trade

An increasing percentage of world chocolate is sold fair-trade, where growers receive a higher price for beans to fund ethical and sustainable production. This includes environmental, economic, and labour conditions.

Consumer demand for fair-trade products, together with organically grown chocolate beans, is rapidly increasing as people become more concerned about the environment and the origin of their food.

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At a glance

Distribution and Habitat

From the understory of South American tropical rainforests, such as the foothills of the Andes, and Amazon and Orinoco river basins. Commercial plantations are widespread in tropical countries around the equator. The largest producing nations are Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Indonesia.

Size

Tree grow up to 6m (20’) tall; the leaves are up 30cm (12’’) long

Use

Popular and high-calorie snack food with potential health benefits

Scientific name

Theobroma cacao

For the garden

For chocoholics: As chocolate plants are rather large, so you might prefer to grow the chocolate scented flowers of Cosmos atrosanguineus. This low growing perennial plant is available at garden centres.

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