The Bitter Truth About Chocolate

Valen­tine’s Day is known for two things: ro­man­tic love and choco­late. Ro­mance is fa­mously fickle—it comes and goes. But our love af­fair with choco­late never seems to wane.

Amer­i­cans spend more to­day on choco­late prod­ucts than the gross na­tional prod­uct of some of the coun­tries where ca­cao is grown. The re­search group Eu­romon­i­tor In­ternational re­ports that U.S. sales of choco­late went from $14.2 bil­lion in 2007 to $18.9 bil­lion in 2017, a pe­riod dur­ing which over­all sales for candy de­clined, largely be­cause of grow­ing health con­cerns over sugar.

How did choco­late man­age to buck the bear mar­ket in candy? One rea­son is the wide­spread per­cep­tion that choco­late, un­like other sweet treats, is not just de­li­cious but good for you. This no­tion has some ba­sis in the lat­est re­search, but it’s also been cre­ated by head­lines that ex­ag­ger­ate the find­ings. Some cau­tion is in or­der be­fore we con­grat­u­late our­selves for hav­ing our choco­late and eat­ing it, too.

Ex­or­bi­tant claims for the power of co­coa are noth­ing new. In Mesoamer­ica, con­sum­ing a drink that in­cluded the ground beans of theo­broma ca­cao (Greek for “food of the gods”), a shade-lov­ing rain for­est tree from the re­gion, was a re­li­gious sacra­ment, re­garded as a po­tent strength en­hancer. The Aztec name for the drink—“chico­latl”—is the root of the Eng­lish word choco­late.

Some Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors ini­tially found the froth­ing brew of co­coa and chile pep­pers re­pul­sive. The Fran­cis­can friar Bernardino de Sa­hagún warned that drink­ing too much choco­late made peo­ple de­ranged and con­fused, al­though ju­di­cious use, he said, could be “en­liven­ing.” In the 16th cen­tury, co­coa spread to the no­bil­ity of Eu­rope, where its users were soon adding sugar and spices such as laven­der and cit­rus peel to make the re­puted health drink more palat­able.

A whole genre of choco­late lit­er­a­ture sprang up dur­ing the 17th cen­tury. Many of the ear­li­est books were writ­ten by em­i­nent physi­cians, who of­ten dou­bled as cook­book au­thors in an era that treated many foods as med­i­cines. Anne Gar­ner, cu­ra­tor of the li­brary at the New York Acad­emy of Med­i­cine in Man­hat­tan, showed me one pe­tite leather-bound vol­ume by King Louis XIV’s doc­tor, Nico­las de Blégny. He lauded choco­late as a vir­tual panacea, ca­pa­ble of al­le­vi­at­ing fa­tigue and in­som­nia and cur­ing di­ges­tive prob­lems, di­ar­rhea and even vene­real dis­ease.

One of Ms. Gar­ner’s fa­vorite his­tor­i­cal sources on choco­late is a lav­ishly il­lus­trated tome, “Voy­ages to Ja­maica” (1725) by Sir Hans Sloane, the physi­cian who founded the British Mu­seum. He de­scribed his dis­taste for the oily and bit­ter drink and ad­vised his read­ers to add milk. He later sold this for­mula to Cad­bury, the com­pany that has the dis­tinc­tion of of­fer­ing not only the first milk choco­late bar but the first Valen­tine’s Day candy box in the mid-19th cen­tury.

Sloane re­ported that, while choco­late dis­solves kid­ney stones and helps to tame fevers, it also “pro­motes ven­ery,” that is, sex­ual in­dul­gence. Be­liev­ing it to be an aphro­disiac, the famed Ital­ian wom­an­izer Casanova, dur­ing his hey­day in the late 18th cen­tury, would drink a mug be­fore love­mak­ing.Leav­ing aside such his­tor­i­cal hype, many mod­ern stud­ies have shown, in fact, an as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween the con­sump­tion of pure co­coa, which is rich in com­pounds called fla­vanols, and mod­er­ate re­duc­tions in risk for a range of car­dio­vas­cu­lar ill­nesses and even for di­a­betes. Re­search done in 2009 on the Kuna peo­ple, who live on is­lands off the coast of Panama, lends some cre­dence to these re­sults. Dr. Nor­man Hol­len­berg of Har­vard Med­ical School found that the Kuna, who drink up to 10 cups of gravy-thick home­grown hot co­coa a day, live longer and have lower rates of hy­per­ten­sion, heart dis­ease and stroke than most West­ern pop­u­la­tions, though other fac­tors may also con­tribute to their out­stand­ing health.

Sci­ence has also delved into the im­pact of co­coa prod­ucts on var­i­ous brain func­tions. A re­view pub­lished last May in the jour­nal Fron­tiers in Nu­tri­tion found ev­i­dence that co­coa fla­vanols may help to fo­cus con­cen­tra­tion and im­prove mem­ory and may even slow the men­tal de­cline that of­ten comes with ag­ing.

What med­ical re­searchers in­ves­ti­gate is not sug­ary, fat-laden and highly pro­cessed choco­late but con­cen­trated ex­tracts and fla­vanol-en­hanced co­coa drinks. One such study—the Cos­mos trial—is ad­min­is­ter­ing co­coa fla­vanol cap­sules to­gether with place­bos to over 21,000 in­di­vid­u­als. Har­vard’s Dr. JoAnn Man­son, a co-di­rec­tor of the study, says that while pre­vi­ous re­search shows that co­coa can lower blood pres­sure and in­crease the elas­tic­ity of blood ves­sels, “the jury is still out on whether this trans­lates as lower risk of heart at­tack and strokes.” The re­searchers hope to pro­vide some de­finitive an­swers when they pub­lish their find­ings in 2020.

Dr. Mar­ion Nes­tle (no re­la­tion to the choco­late man­u­fac­turer), a pro­fes­sor emerita in the nu­tri­tion and food stud­ies de­part­ment at New York Uni­ver­sity, points out that most choco­late re­search has been funded, at least in part, by choco­late com­pa­nies. “In gen­eral, they get over-whelm­ingly pos­i­tive re­sults. Whereas stud­ies that are in­de­pen­dently funded have mixed re­sults,” Dr. Nes­tle said. “Bias can creep in with the re­search ques­tion that they ask, or how they in­ter­pret the re­sults.”n fact, all of the stud­ies I have cited in this ar­ti­cle have re­ceived at least some of their fund­ing from choco­late man­u­fac­tur­ers or an­a­lyze re­search that did.

How much of co­coa’s ben­e­fi­cial com­pounds end up in your typ­i­cal choco­late bar or box of Valen­tine treats? At Ca­cao Pri­eto, a maker in Brook­lyn, pro­duc­tion man­ager Steve Lesce walked me through the cav­ernous for­mer para­chute fac­tory where they make their goods. He showed me where the co­coa beans from the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic are first roasted, then pul­ver­ized and fi­nally mixed into a slurry with vanilla and sugar be­fore be­ing made into choco­late drops and bars and co­coa mix.

Mr. Lesce, who sports on his right arm a tat­too of the theo­bromine mol­ecule—the va­sodila­tor that is said to be re­spon­si­ble for choco­late’s heart-healthy ef­fects—told me that most com­mer­cial choco­lates don’t have enough co­coa to be of much help. A Her­shey’s milk choco­late bar, for ex­am­ple, con­tain only 11% ca­cao. Ca­cao Pri­eto’s bars, by con­trast, are 72% co­coa. The pre­cise line where choco­late morphs from a sug­ary in­dul­gence to a food that is healthy when eaten in mod­er­a­tion is the sub­ject of de­bate, but it is fair to say that 72%, a level matched by most com­mer­cially avail­able dark choco­late, is a good place to start.Mr. Lesce, who sports on his right arm a tat­too of the theo­bromine mol­ecule—the va­sodila­tor that is said to be re­spon­si­ble for choco­late’s heart-healthy ef­fects—told me that most com­mer­cial choco­lates don’t have enough co­coa to be of much help. A Her­shey’s milk choco­late bar, for ex­am­ple, con­tain only 11% ca­cao. Ca­cao Pri­eto’s bars, by con­trast, are 72% co­coa. The pre­cise line where choco­late morphs from a sug­ary in­dul­gence to a food that is healthy when eaten in mod­er­a­tion is the sub­ject of de­bate, but it is fair to say that 72%, a level matched by most com­mer­cially avail­able dark choco­late, is a good place to start.

Mr. Lesce, who sports on his right arm a tat­too of the theo­bromine mol­ecule—the va­sodila­tor that is said to be re­spon­si­ble for choco­late’s heart-healthy ef­fects—told me that most com­mer­cial choco­lates don’t have enough co­coa to be of much help. A Her­shey’s milk choco­late bar, for ex­am­ple, con­tain only 11% ca­cao. Ca­cao Pri­eto’s bars, by con­trast, are 72% co­coa. The pre­cise line where choco­late morphs from a sug­ary in­dul­gence to a food that is healthy when eaten in mod­er­a­tion is the sub­ject of de­bate, but it is fair to say that 72%, a level matched by most com­mer­cially avail­able dark choco­late, is a good place to start.