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Stolen: Chocolate lovers: Rejoice

by Joanne Stolen

I have more chocolate-loving friends than not. In fact, I have friends who are serious chocoholics. Well it turns out chocolate is good for you! In a report dated April, 2010 published in HeartWire, which I found on Medscape, the largest observational study so far to examine the association between chocolate consumption found that those who ate the most chocolate had a 39 percent lower risk of heart problems and stroke than individuals who ate almost no chocolate. The study found habitual consumption of chocolate related to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, which is partly explained by blood-pressure reduction. Furthermore, it is the cocoa content in chocolate that is important. Dark chocolate particularly, with a cocoa content of at least 70 percent, reduces oxidative stress and improves vascular and platelet function.

Of course, the downside is that chocolate contains calories and sugar, so moderation is the key. Snacking on small amounts of chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is preferable to snacking on other sweet snacks. The amount consumed on average by the highest consumers in the study was about one square of chocolate a day. A survey found women eat more chocolate than men.

Where does chocolate come from? Well it comes from the cacao tree, which grows in humid, tropical regions, near the equator in a zone called “the cacao belt” at an ideal altitude between 1,300 and 1,970 feet. This tree is very fragile and highly dependent on the ambient heat and humidity, often growing in the shade provided by other trees, such as the banana, which are taller and more robust. Two thirds of the world’s cocoa bean production comes from Africa – the rest of the “cacao belt” includes South American countries such as Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Colombia and Venezuela. The cacao tree also grows in Mexico, the Caribbean islands, Jamaica, Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

The fruit of the cacao tree, called a pod, grows right on the trunk of the tree and a single tree can produce close to 2,000 pods per year. A pod weighs between 7 to 27 ounces and takes 5 to 6 months to arrive at maturity. Inside each of those pods is between 20-50 cocoa beans. The cocoa bean is dried in the sun and then has its center removed. When the cocoa bean is ground, it transforms into a liquid. The chocolate liquor is pressed to separate the fat. The fat part is the cocoa butter, the powder is cocoa.

The ancient Mayas believed the cocoa tree belonged to the gods, and they looked upon its fruits as divine gifts to mankind and as symbols of life and fertility and as food for the gods. The Aztecs believed wisdom and power came from eating the fruit of the cocoa tree, and also that it had nourishing, fortifying and even aphrodisiac qualities. There are claims that Columbus or one of the Spanish conquistadors brought the seeds back home to Spain and thus introduced chocolate to the Europeans. Chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac flourished in the French courts and by 1900 the Swiss led in the making of fine chocolates.

So enjoy a good piece of chocolate. It is not only yummy, but it is good for you!

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.


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