Just survived another Valentine's Day with a guilty inner voice persistently making accusations about chocolate over-consumption? Well throw caution and chocolate wrappers to the wind. Worry no more. Not only is sensuous, delicious, melt in the mouth chocolate not bad for you, increasingly it's being found to be positively beneficial to health. Read on and be amazed.

 

 

            There's no comprehensive New Zealand chocolate eating data, but for sure we're a nation of chocolate lovers. Limited supermarket sales data available from research company AC Nielsen indicates we eat seven or eight times more milk chocolate than dark chocolate, and that each of us munches through just over four kilograms of chocolate a year. And rising! Supermarket chocolate sales doubled between 1993 and 2004.

And that's no bad thing and that's official. Medical research into chocolate in the last decade has clearly shown our slow but steadily increasing demand for the dark stuff is good for our health. Although many of us grew up with the idea that chocolate was a wicked, sinful indulgence leading us down a path of ill-health and obesity, science now firmly says otherwise. 

 

A little chocolate history: It began in the far off lands of Central America, where cacahuatl, a bitter frothy drink made from ground cacao beans, had a central role in the religious and secular lives of the Mayans, and later the Aztecs. A beverage of the aristocracy and the elite, it was consumed by Motecuzhoma, the last Aztec emperor. Cacao beans were even used as currency - a slave could be bought for 100 cacao beans, a horse or mule for 50, the services of a prostitute for 10 and a rabbit for four.

In 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernen Cortez, "discovered" the Aztec chocolate and introduced the beguiling bean to Europe. In 1580 the first chocolate-processing plant on European soil was built in Spain and trade routes were established. In the last fifteen to twenty years of the 16th century chocolate began to infiltrate European life through the Netherlands and Italy to France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria, and Great Britain, finally finding its way back across the Atlantic to North America. 

When they invaded Central and South America, the Spanish documented the Aztec's multiple medicinal uses of cacao. Alone or combined with plant extracts like vanilla, cinnamon and peppers or chillis it was used to alleviate everything from haemorrhoids to heartburn, catarrh to cancer and toothache to tuberculosis. Across the Atlantic European authors waxed lyrical about the incredible powers of chocolate to cure an amazing number of ills.

Initially cacao was used as a medicinal drink, and the role of the Church in the introduction and dispersal of chocolate through Europe should not be underestimated. In fact, some historians credit monks and nuns with being the first to add sugar to chocolate, vastly improving its flavour for the European palate. As it was in the New World, chocolate swiftly assumed its place in royal courts across the continent. 

The Industrial Revolution brought about a revolution in the way that chocolate was consumed. In the past chocolate makers had unsuccessfully tried to separate the cacao butter from the paste made from grinding the cacao beans. When made into a drink the cacao butter would float to the top in greasy pools. In 1828, Dutch chemist, Coenraad Van Houten invented a hydraulic press enabling the extraction of cacao butter from the liquid, leaving a refined, cake-like residue which was ground to make cocoa powder. By adding alkaline salts to the powder (dutching), Van Houten improved the miscibility of cocoa, making it easy to mix the powder with water to form a chocolate drink.

It was some time before the chocolate industry worked out what to do with the cacao butter. In a move that must now be regarded as sheer brilliance, and for which chocoholics around the world must be truly grateful, the Fry family - one of four major chocolate manufacturing families in England including the Cadburys, Terrys and Rountrees - were inspired to melt the cacao butter and mix it with ground cacao beans and sugar. And thus the chocolate bar was born.

 

While we've had the sinfulness of chocolate consumption drummed into us for years, in reality cocoa and dark chocolate are chock-full of nutrients making it a supremely healthy and balanced food. It's an excellent source of magnesium, chromium, copper, calcium and iron. In fact, it's a major source of dietary copper - vital for maintaining skin elasticity and the tensile strength of artery walls and other tissues. A 50 gram bar of dark chocolate can provide up to 95 per cent of our daily iron needs.

Dark chocolate is a very good source of B group vitamins, especially folic acid and has good levels of vitamins A, E and K. It also contains psychoactive substances that make us feel good: theobromine, a stimulant; phenylethalamine, the love substance which makes us feel happy, content and more alert; tryptophan, a serotonin precursor and mood modulator; and anandamide - a brain cannabinol. Before you rush off to get a legal fix from the anandamide, you need to know that you'll have to consume a whopping 10 kilos of chocolate to get the same buzz as from cannabis.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about chocolate and cocoa is their antioxidant content. They're a rich source of phytochemicals or bioflavonoids - specifically the flavanols catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidins - the same antioxidants that make red wine and green tea so good for us. And, the best news of all? There are more antioxidants in chocolate than in red wine or green tea, and more antioxidants in a 50 gram bar of dark chocolate than in two days worth of fruit and vegetables.

ORAC, or Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity, is a measure of how powerful an antioxidant is. Studies show cocoa powder and dark chocolate have higher ORAC values per 100 grams than many foods we've come to consider as valuable for their antioxidants, such as blueberries, cherries, broccoli and capsicums. Only the Chinese wolfberry, almost unheard of in New Zealand, has a greater antioxidant capacity than dark chocolate.  

 

Small wonder chocolate nourishes the body and soothes the soul.

 

How perfect, and therefore how healthy your chocolate is, depends entirely on what's in it. There's no point eating junk chocolate full of sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oils and pretending it's going to be good for you - for example, cheap, mass produced Easter eggs, compound cooking chocolate, the chocolate that coats some biscuits, and the sort of chocolate that is often sold for making handmade moulded chocolate at home. The greatest health benefits come from high quality dark chocolate with the highest percentage of cocoa solids - preferably over 70 per cent but certainly at least 50 per cent - and the lowest proportion of sugar, with no milk solids or other additives such as alcohol and gooey sugar-loaded fondant centres. 

Dark chocolate contains the most vitamins and minerals, and the highest level of all the important antioxidants. Dark chocolate's ORAC value is an impressive 13,000 units per 100 grams while milk chocolate has only 6,700 units. Milk chocolate is also higher in saturated fats and contains cholesterol. It has less cocoa solids for the same weight; in fact, it takes four cacao beans to make 25 grams of milk chocolate and 12 cacao beans to make the same amount of dark chocolate. 

Remember to check labels carefully for the percentage of cocoa solids, and if it's cocoa powder you're after, try to find an undutched cocoa, as the alkalising process depletes the cocoa of some of its antioxidants and vitamins. Undutched cocoa powder can be sourced in many organic and health food shops.

 

Every 90 minutes another New Zealander dies from coronary heart disease (CHD). It's our second leading cause of death after cancer and CHD accounts for 30,000 hospital admissions each year (We're not alone in these stats - CHD is one of the three leading causes of death in most developed nations). 

Wondering what that's got to do with chocolate? A lot actually. In recent research (across dozens of studies and medical papers including research published by nutritionists and cardiovascular specialists in prestigious medical and scientific journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, Nature, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the Journal of Nutrition and The Lancet) dark chocolate and cocoa have been proven not only to be heart healthy foods, but also able to reduce the risk of heart disease.

First, chocolate is an excellent source of folic acid, the gamma-tocopherol component of vitamin E, chromium, magnesium, calcium, copper and potassium, all essential nutrients for maintaining a healthy heart and healthy arteries.

Secondly, the fats in chocolate, often painted as villains, don't contain cholesterol as they are vegetable fats, and don't raise blood cholesterol levels in the body. In two studies in the 1990s, researchers found chocolate raised high-density lipoprotein - good cholesterol - without raising the low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol.

However, it's the high concentration of antioxidant flavonols that allow chocolate to carry out its best work. These antioxidants have been shown to prevent or limit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol which causes atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Doctors specialising in cardiovascular physiology and nutrition research, writing in the Journal Of The American College Of Nutrition in 2004, reported that small daily doses of flavanol-rich dark chocolate, consumed over a two-week period, improved blood vessels' ability to expand or dilate. 

The clotting of blood in the arteries is also a significant factor in heart disease, and the flavanols in chocolate stop blood platelets from making the blood too thick and sticky, thereby reducing the occurrence of clots.

For some the sheer pleasure of chocolate is enough to erase the stresses of the day, but it can also lower high blood pressure, another heart disease risk factor. In a 2003 study at the University of Cologne in Germany, people with untreated mild hypertension ate either flavanol-rich dark chocolate or an antioxidant-poor white chocolate every day for two weeks. Within 10 days those eating dark chocolate had shown significant reductions in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. 

Drs Hannum, Schmitz and Keen, in summing up the benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa on the heart, say in their paper published in Nutrition Today that "we can drop our twinges of guilt as we enjoy cocoa and chocolate foods, as long as they are in moderation and part of a healthful balanced diet." 

If like me you suffer from persistent debilitating unsupressable coughs - the type that haunt you for weeks or months after a cold or bout of the flu, chocolate could be the answer. In 2004, doctors at London's National Heart and Lung Institute rediscovered the therapeutic use of cacao as a cough suppressant. 

Among its other medicinal uses, cacao was used by the Aztecs and later the Europeans to treat tuberculosis, catarrh, upper respiratory tract infections and coughing.

In trials that pitted theobromine against a placebo and codeine - a traditional cough suppressant - theobromine was found to be a third more effective than codeine for stopping the cough. In fact, codeine was only marginally better than the placebo and  caused some significant side-effects including drowsiness and constipation, while theobromine had no adverse effects. 

Relief for exasperated coughing New Zealanders could be as close as the local supermarket. As a sufferer of post-viral cough I've used two to three tablespoons of plain cooking cocoa in hot water, adding only as much sweetener, preferably honey, as needed to make it palatable, to make a cheap, extremely effective cough remedy that is completely without side-effects. 

And chocolate is even being touted as a baby pacifier. Research on the link between chocolate consumption during pregnancy and subsequent happy babies came to light last year in the journal Early Human Development. 

Previous research showed maternal stress during pregnancy could influence a baby's temperament after birth. University of Helsinki researchers in Finland started with the knowledge that chocolate contains a number of biologically active components: the methylxanthines theobromine and caffeine; mood modulators phenylethylamine and tryptophan; and brain cannibinoid anandamide, all of which potentially have behavioural and psychological consequences. 

Over 300 pregnant Finnish women who ate chocolate daily, weekly, or seldom/never were studied until their babies were six months old. When researchers analysed the results they found mothers who experienced the most stress during pregnancy rated their infants as more fearful. However, when the mothers reported consuming chocolate weekly or daily, their prenatal stress had no significant effect on their baby's fear responses and the babies were more positively reactive and active. 

The researchers surmised that either the psychoactive compounds in chocolate affected the neurodevelopment of the babies during pregnancy, promoting a more positive temperament, or these compounds may have acted as a buffer against the effects of the stress experienced by the mothers. Whatever the mechanism, eating chocolate during pregnancy may make for a happier, more responsive baby.

 

So what about the calories, the zits, the guilt?

Chocolate need not be bad for you. As already canvassed, good quality, dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids and low sugar offers the greatest health benefits. And, as in all things, moderation - up to 50 grams a day - is the key to enjoying chocolate guilt free.

Medical research reassures that chocolate doesn't cause acne, migraines, tooth decay or allergies. Dark chocolate can be eaten by diabetics, cocoa reduces the symptoms of lactose intolerance, and eaten in moderation as part of a healthy diet, chocolate won't even make you fat (50 grams of chocolate has about the same number of calories as two sweet biscuits).

First, there's no scientific evidence chocolate consumption is associated with obesity. Chocolate contributes only 0.7 to 1.4 per cent of the total average daily energy intake of Americans, whose chocolate eating habits are similar to our own. Additionally, a Scottish study found body mass indices remain about the same for chocolate and non-chocolate eaters of all ages and both sexes.

Realistically chocolate has similar calories to many other snack foods we feel less guilty about consuming. But potato chips and sweet biscuits don't have the same healthy vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and do contain lots of harmful trans fatty acids.

Scientists have confirmed that acne is largely caused by hormonal changes and a number of studies have shown that chocolate has nothing to do with the scourge of pimples. In 1965 researchers Drs Grant and Anderson from the University of Missouri in the US used large amounts of chocolate in an attempt to induce an outbreak of pimples in eight people with mild to moderate acne. They failed! In another 65-subject study, undertaken by acne specialist and founder of the Acne Research Institute in California, Dr James Fulton, excessive intake of chocolate didn't affect the course of acne in American teenagers and young adults.

Those parents worried chocolate will rot their children's teeth can rest easy. Not only does it not accelerate tooth decay but it's a lot better for teeth than many ordinary foods. A complex interaction of factors lead to tooth decay and a 1984 study, published in the Journal Of The American Dental Association, showed solid milk chocolate was found to have the lowest potential to cause dental caries compared with several other common snack foods. 

And as for the long held belief that chocolate causes migraines, especially in women, well research debunks that too. So much so that for some migraine sufferers who have low levels of magnesium in their brain tissue, the high concentration of magnesium in chocolate may actually help alleviate headaches by preventing blood vessel spasms that contribute to them. 

 

So, we have a healthy appetite for chocolate, and now science has shown us that such appetites can be healthy. But where did it all start for New Zealanders and what of New Zealand chocolate in the 21st century?

Our love affair with chocolate got serious in 1896 when James Henry Whittaker founded New Zealand's only chocolate manufacturer to compete in the major retail market. That was 50 years after the Cadbury Brothers started selling chocolate confectionery in France and England, and 20 years after Swiss confectioner, Daniel Peter, created milk chocolate by mixing Henri Nestle's powdered condensed milk with cocoa, cocoa butter and sugar. 

Creators of our iconic peanut slab, Whittaker's is the only chocolatier in the country that controls the whole manufacturing cycle - from bean to bar, a process marketing manager Phillip Poole says gives their chocolate a more European flavour. Whittaker's beans come from Ghana which, along with beans grown in Venezuela, Ecuador, Trinidad and Indonesia, are regarded in the industry as being of the highest quality. Despite the dominance of Cadbury and Nestle, Whittaker's retains a significant share of the market, currently at 19.7% of supermarket sales*, and they also export to Australia. Theirs is the only true dark chocolate - cocoa solids and sugar, no milk - produced by major manufacturers in New Zealand.

Poole says our collective palate is maturing and becoming more educated. As our appreciation of fine wine, cheese and coffee has peaked over the last decade, so too has our sophistication and taste for darker chocolate. 

If we can foot it with best in the mass market - to use a wine analogy, chocolate for quaffing - what of our gourmet or boutique chocolate, chocolate delicacies for savouring and consuming in somewhat smaller quantities?

New Zealand is not short on chocolatiers at the more expensive end of the market; there are between 20 and 30 makers of specialty and handmade chocolates throughout the country. While there is no representative or industry group for them, some belong to the Confectionary Manufacturers of Australasia. However, in this small, competitive market, most chocolatiers are working in relative isolation.

Who are these chocolatiers and what are they doing that makes them special? I wanted to talk about chocolate that was different, that had a unique style and spirit; chocolate that could proudly compete on the world stage. I found three chocolatiers that were all very much doing their own thing, and doing it deliciously and successfully.

Roger Simpson and Murray Langham are therapists and counsellors. Or, at least they were until two years ago when their lives seemingly went off at a tangent and they opened Schoc Chocolates in Greytown. 

Shoc Chocolates was born of an obsession with chocolate that produced the internationally acclaimed book Chocolate Therapy written by Murray with Roger handling the artwork. The book analyses what your choice of chocolate, particularly the ones with centres, says about you. In the book, Murray writes that many of our beliefs about chocolate, including our perceptions that it is not good for us, "are held in our bodies as guilt." He believes that guilt disempowers us, so Chocolate Therapy is concerned with healing the mind, body and spirit through liberation. It was even read by Juliette Binoche in preparation for her role in the film Chocolat. And far from resting on the laurels, Murray and Roger have produced Hot Chocolate: Chocolate Therapy II which analyses your relationships through chocolate.

After the first book, unable to find the sort of chocolates they wanted and with no formal training Roger and Murray started to make their own. The resulting chocolates are as unique and original as their book. Schoc Chocolates import high-quality, single origin chocolate from all over the world including Venezuela, Belgium, France and the Carribean. Most of their chocolate is over 50 per cent cocoa solids and they make a range of milk, dark, bittersweet and bitter chocolate, including a stunning 100 per cent cocoa solids chocolate!

But it is not just the source of chocolate that makes their chocolates unique, it is the incredible range and blend of other flavours that they use.

"Schoc Chocolates have heart," says co-owner and connoisseur, Roger Simpson. "We hand temper the chocolate on a marble slab... we use natural fillings. We use incredibly good smoked paprika, dry our own kalamata olives, chilli and lime." These fillings and mixes hark back to the ancient Aztecs, and Roger emphasises the importance of enhancing the flavour of the chocolate. They add flavours such as lemon grass, Earl Grey tea and lavender to the tablets of chocolate, make truffles with pomegranate, ginger and wasabi, raspberry and lemon, and fill others with peanut butter, passion fruit, raspberry and apricot.

They finely tune the percentage of cocoa solids to match the flavour of the chosen fruit or wine. "All the way through, it's about supporting the chocolate," Roger stresses. "The chocolate is Number One!"

When Stephanie Everitt took over Devonport Chocolates five years ago the range was entirely dark chocolate, and they still sell more dark than milk chocolate. As a long time chocaholic and with a background in sales and marketing she thought being a chocolatier would be interesting. "Our aim is to produce really good chocolate in an efficient company with happy staff. And we've always wanted our chocolate to be fun." 

Stephanie keeps an eye on international chocolate fashions and she believes that the increasing interest in, and market for, gourmet and specialist chocolate in New Zealand is reflecting a worldwide trend. And its not just chocolate. "In the last two years there has been a real resurgence of specialist food stores," she says. "There has been a swing away from mass produced foods, to foods that are fresher, with less additives. It applies to bread, cheese, wine, chocolate... One of the trends is small indulgences." The theory, she explained, is that the more we are divorced from the earth the more we try to get back to it with simpler, cleaner less processed foods.

From Stephanie's experience in Devonport, the news about the health benefits of chocolate is definitely starting to filter through. Although Devonport Chocolates produce mostly filled chocolates and truffles, in response to the flood of positive medical research she is planning to produce a 30 gram bar of dark chocolate, an amount that can be healthily consumed each day with significant health benefits.

Stephanie promotes healthy moderation and quite happily sells a single chocolate. She clearly derives a great deal of pleasure from creating and sharing her chocolates. New Zealanders have become sophisticated, she says, readily accepting that as a nation we are producing chocolates of an international standard. "I'm absolutely delighted at how New Zealanders have come to know us."

Four years ago Vanessa Kettelwell, a chef in a life before motherhood, was at home with her first child, 18-month old Hugh. "I had the very honest feeling of needing something more in my life, even though I was busy," she recalls. "I needed more people contact, more stimulation and something for me to move forward with." This need for something more resulted in the birth of Bloomsberry & Co. in Christchurch. 

Quality chocolate - the 70% dark chocolate is the best I've tasted - and quirky packaging is a Bloomsberry signature. "My background's in cooking and my husband Giles runs a graphic design agency, so starting Bloomsberry & Co was the perfect combination of our talents," says Vanessa. 

Vanessa was only vaguely aware of the recent research into dark chocolate's health benefits, but their new dark chocolate looks set to take advantage of an increasing public awareness. Bochox, just one of a line in funky designer wrappers, is recommended for "relief from the symptoms of wrinkles and crows feet" and comes with a "pharmacy only" style wrapper complete with directions, dosage and a warning that it is "NOT TO BE TAKEN seriously". 

But Bloomsberry is more than quality chocolate and innovative packaging. With an uncommon awareness of the exploitation and human rights abuses in the cacao industry in some producer countries, Bloomsberry have ensured they not only use quality GE free ingredients, but ensure fair trading and that the production process is non-exploitative. 

Historically, slavery was a integral part of the cacao plantations as the Spanish realised the economic potential of the bountiful bean and expanded the industry into other countries capable of growing the very fussy Theobroma tree. Today cacao is grown in many countries in an equatorial band that encircles that globe - on the African continent, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and, of course, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. The Ivory Coast in Africa is the world's largest supplier of cocoa beans, providing 43% of the world's supply accounting for one-third of the nation's economy. 

But all is not sweet in the industry. Destitute parents from other African nations sell their children into slavery and a life of forced manual labour on the Ivory Coast plantations, according to a BBC investigative report in 2000. While the international chocolate industry is slowly, and in some instances reluctantly, addressing the issue of slavery, some chocolatiers, such as internationally known Rapaunzel, buy only Fair Trade chocolate. Vanessa Kettelwell proudly stands alongside such companies with her purchasing policy strongly influenced by such ethics.

"The whole point of buying a Bloomsberry & Co chocolate bar is to encourage people to give nice things to each other and in that small way make the world a better place," says Vanessa. "We couldn't make happy gift chocolate from other people's misery, so our ingredients are as friendly as Bloomsberry itself."

All the chocolatiers interviewed were frantically busy at the close of the year. In fact, many were barely keeping up with Christmas demands. Jane Stanton from Invercargill's Seriously Good Chocolate Company says sales have rocketed 10-fold in her four years in business and Christmas production doubled in the last year. All said business was booming and that the demand for antioxidant-rich dark chocolate was increasing. 

Handmade gourmet chocolates are more expensive than blocks off the supermarket shelves. It is a labour intensive process and the chocolatiers source top quality, preferably New Zealand grown, ingredients to use with their chocolate. New Zealand chocolate is also surprisingly innovative. Our gourmet and boutique chocolate makers are using good quality chocolate and mixing it with uniquely New Zealand fruits, wines and honey to produce specialised handmade chocolate indulgences. Our collective palates have matured and our cuisine has come of age. Our wines are now making an international name for themselves. And it seems that our chocolate, too, is all grown up.

Dark chocolate has arrived, assuming its rightful place in the catalogue of "good food" - healthy food that indulges our taste buds, nurtures our flesh and soothes our souls. 

New Zealand chocolate? Dark, decadent and different. And damn fine it is too. Let the science assuage your guilt and our chocolatiers satisfy your palate. Give it, receive it, eat it. But above all, enjoy it.

Glossary

Theobroma cacao - the botanical name for the cacao tree.

Cacao - unprocessed cocoa, e.g. cacao beans. Also used to refer to the traditional Aztec drink.

Cocoa - cocoa powder, the ground, processed powder from the cacao beans, with the cocoa butter removed.

Cocoa butter - the vegetable fat part of the cacao bean.

Chocolate - can refer to the base chocolate material that the chocolatier work with or the processed chocolate confectionary including dark and milk chocolate.

Dutching - an alkalising process that makes cocoa powder more miscible (mixable) in water.

 

* Based on AC Nielsen data for the quarter ending 31 October 2004 for total supermarket sales of molded chocolate - Cadbury was 61.1% and Nestle 15.2%. 

Copyright © 2005 Susan Claridge.

Hot Chocolate

(2005, unpublished)

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