Montana State University

Chocolate: It melts your heart

February 10, 2005 -- By Carol Flaherty

The beauty of a box of chocolates is only partly in their taste. Photo of chocolates by Erin Raley of MSU.   High-Res Available

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For many people chocolate is irresistible. Not only is it irresistible, but many choco-holics wouldn't consider trying to resist it. And now that chocolate has been found to have healthful properties, why would we want to?

Well, let's take a close look at chocolate, savor its every quality, admit its limitations and see what we find on balance, says nutrition researcher Mary Stein of Montana State University.

"The Aztecs and Mayans considered chocolate a huge delicacy," Stein says. "They reduced the extract of the cocoa bean down to a frothy bitter drink for royalty and rituals. They also used it in marriage ceremonies, so you can see the tie to romance long before there was a Valentine's Day."

The history of chocolate is as dark as the frothy mixture. The Aztecs introduced Spanish invader Hernando Cortez to a chocolate drink on his explorations of Mexico. Showing little appreciation, Cortez then captured Montezuma and effectively destroyed the Aztec empire in 1521. There is no proof that Cortez shipped cacao beans back to Europe, but early Dominican friars seem to have been more appreciative of chocolate's potential. In 1544, they sent ready-to-drink chocolate back to Prince Philip of Spain. The Spanish are given credit for adding sugar to it.

From the Spanish Court, a taste for chocolate spread to other countries, notably England, France and Switzerland. By 1765, Dr. James Baker and partners began to manufacture chocolate in a mill in Dorchester Lower Mills, Massachusetts. That enterprise became the Baker Chocolate Company. During the 1800s, the Swiss are credited as being the first chocolate makers to add milk.

A love of chocolate bloomed. Richard Cadbury of Birmingham, England is credited with creating the first heart-shaped box of candy for Valentine's Day, 1861, and our view of the well-dressed gentleman proffering a box of chocolates to his lady-love still has a distinctly Victorian tint.

In America, notes Stein, chocolate became such a staple that it was included in World War II military rations.

"Not only is it still in military rations, it has also been included in astronaut rations, too," she adds.

So, after chocolate's centuries as a privilege of royalty, and more centuries evolving and spreading to near-universal availability, chocolatiers still melt our hearts with their alluring concoctions.

But to what extent can chocolate be termed "healthy" and to what extent a heart-stopping addition to our national problem of weight-gain?

"Certainly, if you go to the basic cacao bean, a lot of recent research has shown that it is a very rich source of flavonoids, or plant chemicals that are antioxidants. They help our body scavenge damaging oxygen radicals from our blood. Without antioxidants, there would be all kinds of cellular damage," Stein says.

There are many different nutrients that act as antioxidants in our body, Stein says. Flavonoids are one category of these important protectors. In general, the darker the chocolate the more antioxidants present.

However, darker chocolate also has more caffeine. About 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate has about 31 milligrams of caffeine, or roughly a quarter of the caffeine contained in a cup of brewed coffee. Caffeine is addictive, and withdrawal from caffeine is linked to an increase in migraine headaches.

The largest negative of chocolate is that, in the form in which we usually eat it, it has added sugar and fat, contributing to our national tendencies to be over-weight and have heart disease.

"But there is the pleasure aspect of chocolate," Stein adds, "and pleasure is important for health. In total it seems that the best approach might be to combine our love of chocolate with enjoyment of other good foods."

She suggests that instead of a box of chocolates for Valentine's Day, a couple could plan a lovely evening of dipping strawberries or other fruit into a fondue pot of melted chocolate.

"Researchers feel that there is something to the association between chocolate and mood, but little is really known about it," Stein says. "What we do know is that chocolate has a long association with romance and Valentine's Day. We just need to be creative to combine chocolate into healthy eating."

Contact: Mary Stein (406) 994-5640