The cocoa tree is native to the Amazon Basin and was domesticated in Mexico. Cocoa trees grow exclusively in hot, rainy climates. The cocoa tree produces seeds that when crushed and fermented, cocoa solids and cocoa butter can be extracted. Chocolate was originally produced by mixing the cocoa powder (ground seeds) with the cocoa butter (the fats) from the cocoa bean. The cocoa pod has a tough, leathery outer shell, and holds 30 to 50 large seeds and pulp inside. Harvesting occurs at any time of the year, as there is not a specific harvesting period. When processing the cocoa pods, the outer shell is discarded, and only the pulp and the cocoa seeds are kept.
The raw cocoa derived from the cocoa seeds is low in fat and sugar, but to produce commercial chocolate that is palatable, fat and sugar are added. Chocolate should be eaten in moderation because it can cause weight gain, worsen high blood pressure, and diabetes, and is a risk factor in heart disease. However, the cocoa powder itself is low in sugar and fat and contains flavanols which act as antioxidants that reduce cell damage related to heart disease. That is why dark chocolate is healthier to eat because it contains more flavanols that may reduce blood pressure and improve vascular function. Therefore, chocolate is getting mixed reviews, and is still not considered a healthy food choice.
Is chocolate addictive? Some people claim to be “chocoholics”. Researchers do not consider chocolate cravings as a “true addiction” even though chocolate does contain some mood-altering substances at low levels. Chocolate is the most craved food in teens, and adults consume up to nine and a half lbs. of chocolate per year. The Mayans used chocolate as part of their dowries, and early American civilizations used chocolate as currency.
However you view chocolate, as a midnight snack or to help get you through a bad day, it seems that eating chocolate is okay as long as it’s done in moderation. A Harvard study actually found that eating a high-quality dark chocolate one to three times a month would prevent heart failure in women. One study found that it may reduce your chance of stroke. Go ahead and have a piece of chocolate, but just don’t indulge in chocolate too often or eat too much at one time. This seems to be the best advice!