People naturally make positive associations between happiness and food. This seems to be especially true during certain holidays: for example, we start pining for foods like pumpkin and turkey in autumn and peppermint and cranberry during the winter holidays.
And then there’s chocolate, our constant companion at most holidays—or any time of year, for that matter. In fact, this was true even during one of the most challenging years in memory. Amid a pandemic, chocolate sales increased by 4.2 percent in 2020, according to the National Confectioners Association’s 2021 State of Treating report.
Since we are in the middle of peak chocolate-buying season, let’s take a look at why this sweet (and sometime bitter) treat has captured so many hearts and palates throughout much of human existence and how, yes, it can be good for us.
A treat timeline
The first known documentation of chocolate being created is from thousands of years ago in Mesoamerica, the native home of the cacao tree. Mayans not only consumed it as a drink but also used it in ceremonies. The Aztecs drank it as well, and their ruler, Montezuma II, was notorious for consuming it regularly. They also used the beans as a form of currency, even rewarding their soldiers with it.
In the early sixteenth century, Spanish explorers brought the chocolate drink home, where it became a hit with the upper classes in Spain and then throughout Europe. When Amsterdam’s Coenraad Johannes van Houten perfected the cocoa press, which created cocoa powder, in 1828, it revolutionized the drink, making it more easily accessible to the masses. It also led to the creation of chocolate bars, milk chocolate, and the first mass-producing chocolatiers later in the nineteenth century. Fast-forward to today, and it’s become a $100 billion industry worldwide.
A complete sensory experience
On a basic level, we tend to be more attracted to things that stimulate our senses, and chocolate checks off most boxes on that front. It tastes great, of course, but its aroma can also be intoxicating. (Think of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.) Interestingly enough, when they’re being fermented, cocoa beans can also have various other aromas and flavors, including cheesy, floral, and fruity.
Visually, chocolate can be shaped into any number of uplifting images, from bunnies to hearts to coins; additionally, it can boast an array of colors and is often wrapped in shiny foils to make it even more attractive. Finally, with a melting point of 93 degrees F°, it’s one of the few foods that actually melts in your mouth—just a finishing touch to a thoroughly enjoyable food experience.
Be choosy about your chocolate
Of course, just because something tastes good, smells good, and looks good, that doesn’t mean it’s actually good for you. And chocolate is no exception, both in terms of health and production. But if you choose wisely, the benefits can be tremendous.
Let’s start with the bad aspects of chocolate, most of which are probably already understood. Chocolate tends to be quite sugary, which helps to explain why we can crave it, and it’s high in calories. Also be wary of the caffeine content. Although it may not give you the same jolt as a cup of coffee, a soda, or an energy drink, it can still pack a caffeinated punch—most notably dark chocolate. However, that same dark chocolate is where you’ll find many of the food’s health benefits.
- The primary difference between dark chocolate and milk chocolate is that the former contains at least 50 percent cocoa solids, whereas the latter only needs a minimum of 10 percent to earn its name. White chocolate contains no cocoa solids, so it’s technically not even chocolate!
- Yes, chocolate has a lot of saturated fat, but the less processed it is, the better—and dark chocolate mostly consists of healthier fats that aren’t believed to raise cholesterol. In fact, dark chocolate consumption has been linked to lower cholesterol levels.
- Nutritionally, dark chocolate contains a good amount fiber and of minerals like copper, iron, magnesium, and zinc.
- Research indicates that dark chocolate has antioxidant properties since it’s rich in flavanols, which have been connected with decreased inflammation and better blood flow, blood pressure, and overall heart health.
- That same improved blood flow can help your brain, which is why dark chocolate is also associated with improved mood and reduced stress.
- Flavanols are also associated with better insulin resistance, which may help people with diabetes. Plus, the darker it is, the less sugar it contains.
So should you ditch fruits and vegetables for lots of dark chocolate? Of course not. As mentioned earlier, it can still be high in calories and caffeine. But if you limit yourself to a small piece or two a few times week, and opt for a cocoa content of 70 percent or higher, you can maximize the health benefits while minimizing the downsides.
Making chocolate is a time-consuming process from start to finish, per the National Confectioners Association. It starts with cocoa trees, which produce pods with cocoa beans after four to five years; each pod has approximately forty beans. Overall, a cocoa tree will produce approximately 2,500 beans in its lifetime. After all that nurturing, it takes around 400 cocoa beans to make a single pound of chocolate.
The vast majority of the world’s cocoa beans—around 70 percent—are harvested by hand on approximately 1.5 million small, family-owned farms in West Africa. In recent years, a number of companies have prioritized and promoted fair trade to help these workers. If you want to feel as good about your chocolate as it makes you feel, simply look for the Fair Trade logo on the packaging.