There have been numerous studies done on the health benefits of chocolate. Some dietitians (the ones we want to believe – say that chocolate contributes to a healthy diet. However, there is also some evidence in preliminary tests that are contradictory to this belief.
Chocolate is an energy dense food and responsible health care provider should use caution when making recommendations about including it in a healthy diet.
While some studies have found that eating dark chocolate is not harmful to serum cholesterol levels, reports that dark chocolate is able to improve cholesterol concentrations are mixed. No matter what the effect of cocoa products on cholesterol concentrations, they have been shown to decrease the likelihood of LDL cholesterol oxidizing in tests.
Another cardio-protective action of cocoa products is the ability to thin the blood by decreasing platelet activation. These studies have shown a decrease in platelet activity after being given cocoa beverages, cocoa flavonol supplements or dark chocolate has been linked to cardiovascular disease because of the high concentration of fat, most of which is saturated.
However, the saturated fat in chocolate is stearic acid, which does not seem to cause cholesterol levels to rise after it is eaten. Increased risk of heart disease has been associated with higher levels of stearic acid in some population studies.
Mainly because foods that are high in stearic acid also have high levels of other saturated fats, these do cause elevation of cholesterol levels. Studies of Indians in Panama have observed low blood pressure even though consumption of cocoa is high.
Several clinical studies have supported this theory that cocoa may have favorable effects on blood pressure and flow. Other studies have shown that it would take at a minimum of 100 grams of flavonol rich dark chocolate to decrease blood pressure by an observable amount.
The Cacao Tree:
Cacao trees in the wild grow to forty or fifty feet in height, some may even grow to sixty feet in their natural environment. On plantations they are pruned to fifteen to twenty feet to allow for easier harvesting.
A cacao tree on the plantation will bear fruit for thirty to forty years before being replaced by seedlings, there are instances of trees that have produced fruit for as long as one hundred years.
A long handled goulette is used to harvest the pods because the trees are two delicate to be climbed by workmen. Women and children follow behind the pickers, called tumbadores gathering the pods and placing them in baskets they carry on their heads.
A machete is used to break the pods open; a good breaker can open 500 pods in an hour! Each pod contains between 25 and 50 almond shaped beans. The cacao beans come in several colors, white, cream or lavender and are surrounded by a white or pink, stringy pulp which hold them together.
The beans are about one inch in diameter; after the pods are opened the workers scoop the seeds and pulp from the pods. The beans begin changing color as soon as they meet the air through oxidation, changing them to different shades of purple.
Within a few days the pulp ferments away, the seeds are then placed in baskets or wooden boxes for the fermentation process which removes the raw, bitter taste and to develop the cocoa butter (essential oils). This part of the process takes between two and ten days, during this time the beans change to a dark brown color.
Next the beans are dried being spread in the sun or in some areas they are dried by hot air pipes indoors, they must be turned often during the drying process. Most trees yield one or two pounds of dried seeds each year, each pod contains about two ounces of dried seeds. After the drying process is complete the beans are ready for packing and shipping.
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