Chocolate: history and nutritional aspects

Chocolate: history and nutritional aspects

Chocolate, food derived from cocoa beans, has been defined throughout its long history as “the food of the god” and since its early stages (600 a.D. – 1200 a.D. ad at the Maya and Aztecs, and 1500 a.D. – 1700 a.D. at the Spanish, Dutch and French) has generated considerable economic, food and scientific interest: tho emphasize always its peculiarity and preciousness.
In fact, it’s increasingly appreciated by a large number of consumers for a number of reasons:
those same historical origins, the mystical and the nutritional properties as well as hedonistic/therapeutic potential.
All this has contributed to making her a very fascinating and discussed dietetic part, to the point that her raw material certainly deserves, according to the opinion of famous scientists, the sumptuous name of Teobroma, literally “God’s drink”, given by botanists of 1700 (Carlo Linneo, 1734).


The birth of the cocoa plant is said to be in the Land of the Olmecs (lowland of the South of Mexico) in 1500 B.C., which is a conventionally acknowledged date. As it known to many, the “official” cocoa discovery is due to Christopher Columbus (1502), who brought the seeds of this tropical plant to King Ferdinand of Spain but they weren’t appreciated nor considered as food.
The explorer Hernando Cortéz, the first to have tasted chocolate and to create the first cocoa plantation in Mexico (1519), on the other hand, he perceived the important properties of this specialty. Thanks to Cortéz himself who imported it to Europe (1521), Spain began preparing cocoa drink and its consumption in the aristocracy by modifying the ancient Aztec recipe because it was very bitter with the addition before of spicy spices and then sugar and cinnamon or vanilla.
The cocoa trade was dominated by the Dutch and the first chewing chocolate appeared in London in 1647. But the great diffusion of chocolate was in Europe in the 1800s, with the creation in Switzerland of Vevey’s (1819) prototype chocolate bar, and in 1825 with the obtaining of dry soluble cocoa by the Dutch Van Houten, without the cocoa butter. However, the drink that Cristoforo Colombo and then Hernando Cortèz had known in Latin America was something completely different from what we currently call “chocolate”. The Maya-prepared Xocoatl consisted of a thick and bitter juice obtained from cocoa beans roasted and crushed with stone cylinders, diluted with water and then flavored with pulverized chilli.


Leaving aside the different phases of the technological cycle of chocolate (production of cocoa beans and processing of cocoa paste to obtain chocolate for consumption), it must be said that it, as it is today consumed, is one of the most complex and long foods to prepare, and its industrial production passes through a series of specific operations from which you invariably get the cocoa paste and, from this, the cocoa butter and the cocoa powder. These are then mixed with sugar and milk in varying proportions to obtain the three basic types of chocolate: dark, milk, white.
As is easily perceived by the same raw material, from production technology and from recent European legislation which governs and defines chocolate as “The product obtained from cocoa and sugars, containing at least 35% total cocoa solids, at least 18% cocoa butter and not less than 14% degreased dried cocoa”, the nutritional properties of the food in question generally identify a lipo-glycidic profile which, although not very dietetic but hypercaloric, it can be defined without a doubt nutritionally noble, such that not exclude it from a healthy and proper diet.

More in detail, given the specific characteristics of the product (pure and milk), in our opinion, it is important to emphasize some basic general aspects of chocolate:
1. high caloric contribution by comparison to weight and volume (540-560 kcal / 100 g of product, high energy density), which makes it very useful for emergency rations and support for long physical performance;
2. very low water content (2%), which allows easy and long storage;
3. average protein content (6.5% for pure 7.5% for milk), and a good level of protein of high biological value for the milk one;
4. high in simple sugars (from 49% to 50%);
5. high in vegetable lipids (from 33.5 to 36.5%) with average saturates content of 21% and average content of mono-unsaturates equal to 11% of the product but with a good acid composition or fats quality, as described in the following paragraph;
6. low in highly atherogenic saturates such as lauric acid and myristic acid (less than 1%), high in low atherogenic saturates such as palmitic acid and stearic acid (equivalent to 9% and 11% with C18 stearic acid equivalent to 30% of total lipids) and high in mono-unsaturates with known protective effects on cardiovascular health such as oleic acid (equal to 11% and 34% of total lipids);
7. Very low cholesterol content (0 in the dark and 10 mg% in milk) and high in plant sterol (sitosterol, campisterol, stigmasterol), which are useful in helping to reduce cholesterol absorption (exogenous) thanks to antagonistic action against the latter;
8. Good content of calcium, magnesium and phosphorous macro-elements (equivalent to 160, 55 and 180 mg% respectively in the finished product), especially in milk chocolate;
9. good content of trace elements like copper, manganese and iron , only for dark chocolate, whereas in milk, due to its addition, the content of the same, in particular iron, is reduced;
10. well-represented vitamins, both for water soluble (B1, B2, B6, C) and for liposoluble (A, D, E), especially in milk chocolate;
11. content of antioxidant polyphenols (flavonoids and tannins) of great biological importance,
because they have intermediate properties between nutritional and preventative / curative (nutraceutical) and because they are found to be effective compounds that can limit the risk of oxidative stress;
12. presence of endogenous substances with psychoactive action (methylxanthine, thyroxine, anandamide and phenylethylamine), important for their neurophysiological effects, as they take into account the antidepressant value, that is the known positive effects on mood and memory and the euphoric effect , stimulating sensory perceptions and reducing fatigue (psychoactive effects similar to catecholamines);
13. favorable ratio of alkaloids to pharmacological activity (methylxanthines),
that is the prevalence of low activity theobromine on very active caffeine and the diuretic effect of theophylline, which is useful for the beneficial effects of these substances in small amounts,
on the central, cardiovascular and respiratory system.

Among the positive nutritional properties mentioned above, however, it should first be emphasized the remarkable caloric contribution (540 kcal) of a 100 g of a normal dark chocolate tablet, greater than the energy of 100 g of tomato paste (400 kcal) , taking into account that usually the commercially available products contain a very variable amount of cocoa as they often reveal high amounts of fat and sugars. So although it is undoubtedly enjoyable to eat it, you must always be careful to excesses and be very moderate, according to the food recommendations of the international medical-scientific community.