Chocolate Dreams?

Raw Cacao with Chile Peppers

This food stuff we’re so interested in is complicated. The facts reveal themselves layer by layer, often connecting back to layers revealed days, months or years ago. Suffice it to say, we should never take at face value messages from the mass media proclaiming the healthy virtues of any food. Dig deeper, for the nuggets of truth.

Yesterday, I read that the Mars Corporation endowed a “chocolate chair” in 1997 at the University of California at Davis: the Mars Chair in Developmental Nutrition. In fact Mars, Inc. has contributed about $10 million to support chocolate-related research at UC Davis since 1997 and currently fund 20 researchers, as well as the nutrition chair. It turns out that Mars, Inc. has “a strong commitment to health research” and “is the leader in the science of cocoa, chocolate and health.” Well, well. Who better to lead the research on chocolate and health than a candy bar company? Interesting.

Today, I read in the New York Times, that a new study tells us to get healthy by eating chocolate more often. Eating chocolate frequently will make us thin, we’re told, by way of a “metabolic kick” that we’re sure to receive in every bite. Dr. Golomb, the author of the study, is from the University of California at San Diego. “Our findings appear to add to a body of information suggesting that the composition of calories, not just the number of them, matters for determining their ultimate impact on weight,” said Dr. Golomb.  “In the case of chocolate, this is good news—both for those who have a regular chocolate habit, and those who may wish to start one.” (This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.)

My mind quickly scanned memories of the frequent chocolate eaters I’ve known over the years. You know the ones: they keep a stash in their desks and munch all day. The go-to person in the office when the afternoon doldrums become unbearable. Were these chocolate-lovers thin? Sometimes, but not usually. The picture of health? More often than not, no. More to the story, perhaps?

More, indeed.

From the site “Chocolate Research Portal,” a UC Davis-owned website:

To assess the potential long-term benefits of a flavanol-rich diet, the researchers studied two populations of Kuna Indians of Panama. Previous work by Dr. Norman Hollenberg has shown that hypertension is rare among the indigenous Kuna Indians living on the islands as compared to those living on the mainland. The island-dwelling Kuna Indians traditionally consume large quantities of flavanol-rich cocoa (an average of 3-4 cups daily), while those who live in the suburbs of Panama City consume very little cocoa, supporting the idea that cocoa flavanols may be responsible for the lower blood pressure in the island dwellers. Linking Dr. Hollenberg’s observations to their own findings, Schroeter and colleagues found that the Kuna Indians on the island who regularly consume flavanol-rich cocoa had higher levels of flavanols, as well as higher levels of nitric oxide metabolites in their circulation compared to the mainland Indians who consume little cocoa.

“These findings suggest that frequent intake of cocoa flavanols can have biological effects with important implications for long-term cardiovascular health,” said Dr. Hollenberg.

I’m no research scientist, but I find it telling that these researchers turned to an indigenous people to study the effects of chocolate on health, a group that, I’m guessing, ate an otherwise local diet based on whole foods. The study conveniently made no mention of whether the “flavenol-rich cocoa,” consumed at a rate of three to four cups daily, was sweetened with white sugar—or sweetened at all. Without addressing the rest of the subjects’ diet, what good are the conclusions? Fiber? Vegetables? Whole grains? We don’t know what they ate. Yet the findings suggest that “frequent intake of cocoa flavenols” will lead to “long-term cardiovascular health.” Really?

I found not one speck of information regarding the diet as a whole, nor the presence of refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or other potentially harmful ingredients. The message, repeated over and over by the media following the study, was to simply “eat more chocolate to be healthy.”

I believe that chocolate is an inherently healthy food. But dial back several hundred or a couple of thousand years or more, and look at how ancient civilizations used chocolate. It was a health food—a brain food, in fact—but in no way was it a sweet food of indulgence. Chocolate drinks were usually cold, dark, bitter drinks made from raw (or fermented) cacao, water, cornmeal, chile peppers and other ingredients, mixed until frothy. For the Aztec and Mayan peoples, the cacao drink was medicinal, ceremonial and religious. If sweetened at all, it was sweetened by honey.

Incorporating chocolate into your diet may in fact be a healthy choice for you. But don’t go reaching for that candy bar quite yet. I’d urge you to consider your diet as a whole, thinking about the full range of healthy changes you might make, looking to the more obvious ones first.

Good nutrition and good health are infinitely more complex than food corporations, eager for a seat at the healthy food table, would lead us to think. Simply eating chocolate more frequently, especially if it’s from that bag of snack-sized candy bars in your desk drawer, can’t possibly lead to being slim and healthy.

If you do choose to indulge in sweetened chocolate in the form of a candy bar, look for the darkest, least sweet, organic chocolate you can find. As for frequency, that’s totally up to you. Whatever you choose to do, don’t eat more chocolate in hopes of becoming healthy—certainly not without making other changes in your eating. Eat it for pleasure, as part of a healthy diet—however you define that.

I like to look for the nugget of truth in the hype. That nugget, for me, is that chocolate has its roots in ancient traditions that were, indeed, healthy. If I’m to experiment with adding chocolate to my diet, I’m going to look to those traditions for guidance.

In my kitchen, as I write, is a bag of raw cacao. I’ll begin by using it raw, here and there, without sweetening of any kind. I’ll add a tablespoon or so to a smoothie, or try my hand at a cold, chile pepper infused, frothy drink. I’ll drink it with reverence, honoring those ancient people who drank it for health and spiritual enlightenment, thousands of years ago.

A recent paper by Merrill Goozner of the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that studies funded by corporate interests (that’s about 64 percent of higher education research) are four to eight times as likely to reach conclusions in the financial interests of sponsors.

Four to eight times.

As for UC Davis and the many other universities receiving and seeking funding from corporations like Mars? Shame on you! You have the audacity to call this health research?

What role does chocolate play in your life? Do you trust the research? Do you have any good raw cacao drink recipes to share?

18 responses

  1. Our problem is mostly that we’re looking for a simple, miracle solution – if I eat A I’ll be healthy/thin, without looking at the whole picture! Let us know how your cold/frothy/spicy drink experiments turn out – I’m sure G would love to give them a try. We used crushed, unsweetened nibs to add crunch to all sorts of savory dishes… the first step is clearing away the mindset that chocolate is for sweets!

    • I’m experimenting as we speak. I recall an interesting recipe from an herbalist, but I’m having trouble laying my hands on it. We (culturally) have no idea how addicted we are to sugar!

  2. Shame on you indeed – what a waste of 10 mil. I’m intrigued by your raw cocoa – I am a HUGE fan of mole which isn’t easy to come by in these parts.

    I’m with you on the fact that the cocoa eaten by the Kuna Indians isn’t likely to be remotely close to eating a Mars bar, lol. Spoken like a girl who just polished off a Cadbury creme egg – gawd I love those things!

  3. I don’t know that I would conclude “shame on you” UC Davis for accepting 10 million dollars from Mars for research, unless I had information stating that Mars directed the research, influenced the data collection or analysis etc. The scientists at UC Davis may be people with high ethical standards and may not be swayed by where their employer gets its funding. You never know – it could happen.

    • Of course, you’re right—it could happen. It’s hard for me to see a difference, however, in a study that comes from the endowed “chocolate chair” and the endowment corporation itself. Or, at least, the money trail gives that study less credibility.

      • It’s too bad that the money trail gives the study less credibility right from the start, because then it’s hard for a person to think critically when results are studied. Corporations have done many self-serving things in the past, so there is certainly good reason to suspect ulterior motives when they are so generous, which is unfortunate.

  4. A study that says “these findings suggest that…..may have an important effect…..”, is not really saying anything. There is no statistical meaning to that, it is a complete conjecture. Unfortunately, too much of medical research turns on comments like this.

  5. Certainly the public perception turns on comments like that, too. The popular media distills the message down (dumbs it down) to simple concepts that people retain, like “chocolate is good,” and that’s all we remember. To association frequent chocolate consumption with being skinny is a dangerous over-simplification, I think.

  6. I’ve been thinking lately about diets, and our culture’s addiction to fads. It seems no one knows how to simply eat sensibly any longer…

  7. Right, go and spoil it for us! :-) I cracked up at the study of those living the island life vs. those who had moved to a dense city to find work. Of course, chocolate was the denominator in quality of life. Seriously though, I am have raw vegan brownie bites for my birthday this year and am very excited.

  8. I agree completely. A lot of the studies are bogus. If it’s a study with findings that interest me, I always go back and look at the methodology and sponsoring institution. Headlines these days are often (sadly) absurd hype. That said, I do love chocolate- in moderation ;>)

    • Now that I understand this more fully, I’ll try to do the same. It requires getting out of the popular media, and looking deeper, all of which takes time and discipline. In our Hungry for Change course this week, we learned about the horrible child labor abuses (slavery, really) happening in most of the chocolate industry. It reminded me that there’s even more to consider, to learn about, with these favorite foods of ours. It all comes back to being fully conscious of what we’re eating, where it’s coming from, and its effect on our bodies. Wow, takes a lot of thought!

  9. Thank you for this post. I agree with you that looking back to indigenous cultures for the health uses are more reliable than Mars, Inc. Now, do you have a recipe for the raw cocoa frothy Mayan drink?

  10. Pingback: 1000 Year History: Theobroma Cacao “Food of the Gods” | Gold Within

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