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Chocolate Facts and Fictions

by Stephanie Zonis

    Myths about chocolate abound. Does it make you gain weight? Does it contain caffeine? Is it really an aphrodisiac? In this edition, we’ll check out a few common statements about chocolate to see if they’re genuinely accurate.

1) Chocolate causes acne, or eating chocolate can worsen acne . This was once a widely-accepted statement, but further research has shown that eating chocolate does not cause or exacerbate acne. Acne is caused by hormonal imbalances.

2. Chocolate contains caffeine. True, but only a fraction of the amount contained in regular coffee and some teas. Estimates for caffeine in foods and beverages vary widely, but I’ve seen figures ranging from 60 to 100 mg of caffeine in 7 to 8 ounces of instant coffee; in brewed coffee, that figure starts at 80 mg and can go up to 135 mg. Caffeine in tea varies according to tea type. Eight ounces of black tea might contain 40 to 50 mg of caffeine, while the same quantity of green tea would have around half that amount, and white tea has roughly 15 mg of caffeine per 8 ounces. By contrast, 1 ounce of dark chocolate has about 20 mg of caffeine, and an ounce of milk chocolate, half or less of that, 6 to 10 mg.

3) Chocolate causes weight gain. This can be accurate; if you eat too much chocolate, you’ll probably start to put on pounds. However, the same applies to eating too much of almost anything. Yes, chocolate is a high-fat food, and if you’re concerned about your weight you ought to limit your intake of high-fat foods. But chocolate can be enjoyed by most people---in moderation

4) Chocolate causes hyperactivity in kids and/or worsens ADHD. A link between chocolate consumption and hyperactivity in children has not been established. That also applies for any link suggested between sugar consumption and hyperactivity. However, it has been suggested that consumption of chocolate and/or sugar (as well as of some other foods) can cause symptoms that mimic those of ADHD or hyperactivity (see http://www.add-adhd-help center.com/adhd_causes.htm).

5) Chocolate is an aphrodisiac. An especially popular urban legend, for some reason or other. Some evidence suggests that cocoa is, in fact, a mild aphrodisiac. However, chocolate contains over 300 different chemical compounds. Scientists still don’t understand exactly why people react so positively to chocolate or crave it; theories on both subjects are plentiful. Such being the case, it seems reasonable that they might not fully grasp chocolate’s effect on the human brain yet. Certainly, chocolate puts many people in a very good, more relaxed mood---particularly women. And there’s never any telling where a good, relaxed mood can lead you…

6) Chocolate is healthy for you. Sorry, but it isn’t. Game over. Chocolate provides pleasure, it provides comfort, it provides a temporary respite from the many cares of this wearying world. Make all the claims about antioxidants and minerals you want, but those are in pure cocoa powder; when comparing nutritional density with other foods on a per-calorie basis, chocolate scores very poorly. For more on this topic, please see my edition entitled Chocolate: Health Food or Health Fad?

7) Chocolate raises your cholesterol level. Untrue. Chocolate does contain saturated fat, the type often associated with elevated levels of LDL. But the saturated fat in chocolate consists primarily of both stearic and oleic acids, neither of which has been linked scientifically to higher LDL numbers.

8) Dark chocolate gives some people headaches. While it can be difficult to establish a genuine cause, dark chocolate apparently does give some people headaches. The same people often get headaches from red wine and aged cheeses. Some researchers have associated this with the chemicals in chocolate, including caffeine and theobromine; others say these headaches occur most commonly in those prone to migraines.

9) Chocolate causes cavities. Your dentist will have to find another scapegoat; this is not true. In fact, there is speculation that the cocoa butter in chocolate coats the teeth and prevents plaque from forming. The sugar in chocolate is a contributor to dental cavities, but so is the sugar in any other food. Additionally, chocolate melts quickly in your mouth, so it doesn’t leave a long-lasting residue as do some sticky candies, like taffy.

10) People can be addicted to chocolate. Yet another myth. Chocolate cravings can seem overpowering at times, but chocolate is not a habit-forming drug after the manner of heroin or cocaine.

11) Women need chocolate. I know a book on this subject was published some years back (why, yes, it was a best seller; how’d you guess?), but if push comes to shove, I have to admit I’m extremely doubtful about this one. Amazingly enough, there are women in this world who manage to live without eating chocolate, just as women lived without it for millennia before it was brought to light in Central America. So I don’t think there’s a question of need going on here, but rather one of intense, if not rabid, desire. While I cannot substantiate the claim that women do not need chocolate, I’d say the way to go here is irritating, boring moderation.

12) We shouldn’t eat chocolate because producing countries use child slaves to tend and harvest the cocoa beans. This is a complex issue, but the short answer is that child slavery is apparently not nearly as prevalent as had originally been thought. In the late 1990’s, articles alleging that child slavery was common on cacao farms in West Africa began to be published. These led to great outcries. But subsequent reports found that almost all of the children found working on such farms had some degree of kinship to the farmer. Additionally, many did not work full-time. Don’t get me wrong; I’d rather see these kids in school or playing, and not doing farm work at all. But inhabitants of cacao-producing regions are often poor, and because of that it’s frequently necessary for children in such areas to help on these plantations.

The Fair Trade movement experienced vigorous growth as a result of the initial reports of child slavery. Some people will buy only Fair Trade certified chocolate. The Fair Trade system, however, is not a perfect one. For instance, they will certify only cooperatives, not individual growers; I know chocolatiers who will not buy cacao beans from cooperatives because they maintain that not everyone within a collective growing association cares equally about the cacao they produce. Additionally, each country under the parent fair trade group, the Fair Trade Labelling Organization (FLO) has a different logo. So if a chocolate manufacturer wants to sell fair trade certified chocolate in, say, the US and the Netherlands, they have to have two separate labels and have their product and processes audited by the fair trade organization within each country, something a small-scale manufacturer just won’t be able to afford to do. If you remain concerned about the possibility of child slavery in chocolate, you can consume chocolate produced from cacao beans grown in Ghana (see the Chocolate Find elsewhere in this column for more) or in Central America, where no evidence of child slavery on plantations has been found. 

Chocolate Recipes:

Gorp with Chocolate

"Gorp" is another name for trail mix--traditionally, a combination of dried fruits and nuts that people eat as a snack while on outdoor excursions. Chocolate goes wonderfully well with dried fruits and nuts, but I wouldn't recommend bringing this gorp on a hike in summer! This makes a nice indoor snack, or you can bring some if you’re hardy enough to venture outdoors in cooler weather. Better still, on a snowy day when small children are stuck inside, let them help you make this, then pack them some and send them on an indoor expedition (furniture turned on its side can make great “outdoor” terrain!).  Even a notorious non-cook would have no trouble with this recipe, and it would be perfect for introducing a child to the magic of combining ingredients.

Your objective here is a mix of colors, tastes and textures, and don't think you need to follow the recipe precisely. Experiment with your own combinations--use shelled, lightly salted pistachios for the cashews or semisweet chocolate chips for the milk chocolate chips, for example. If this is upscale gorp, you can even chop your favorite chocolate bar(s) into small chunks, and use those in place of the chips. The dried fruit you use should be moist and pliable; I use sulphured dried fruit, because it looks prettier, but that’s not required. Make sure your nuts are fresh (most natural food stores are good about that). If you're making up your own mix, I'd suggest using no fewer than three ingredients, and no more than about six. One warning about gorp: if it's made too far in advance (more than a few days), the nuts will begin to pick up moisture from the dried fruit, and they'll lose their crispness (pistachios are especially susceptible to picking up moisture).

1/2 cup (3 ounces) dried apricot halves
1/2 cup (3 ounces) dried pitted Bing (sweet) cherries
1/2 cup (3 ounces) good-quality white chocolate chips
1/2 cup (3 ounces) good-quality milk chocolate chips
1/2 cup (1-3/4 ounces) lightly salted, roasted cashews (halves and large pieces)

With kitchen shears, snip each dried apricot half into halves or thirds.  Place apricot pieces in medium bowl.

Add remaining ingredients.  With large spoon, mix thoroughly.  Store airtight at room temperature.

Generous 3/4 pound

Drinking Chocolate

Steaming hot, bittersweet, and rich beyond the dreams of avarice. A few years ago, I developed a Liquid Decadence drinking chocolate, but I think this is better. You will need a one quart, heavy-bottomed, nonaluminum pot, a small whisk, and a heat-resistant rubber spatula to make this.

It is imperative that you use best-quality chocolate here; the supermarket stuff simply won’t do!  Playing with the flavor of this is a simple matter; you can add a bit more sugar (I prefer to use superfine sugar in this recipe, but for such a small quantity I’m not sure it makes a difference), or add 1 to 2 teaspoons of a sweet liqueur (such as dark rum or Grand Marnier), adding it with the vanilla. Incidentally, don’t omit the salt here. You use a tiny quantity, but without it the drink will taste flat. Lightly sweetened whipped cream isn’t mandatory as a garnish, but it cuts the
richness and adds to the elegance.

4 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1 ounce best-quality unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped
1 to 2 tsps. superfine OR granulated sugar
Few grains of salt
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp. vanilla

Additional sugar
Small amount of a sweet liqueur

Lightly sweetened whipped cream

In bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade, combine both chocolates, sugar, and salt. Cover; process at high speed just until chocolates are finely ground. (Alternatively, finely chop both chocolates, then combine with sugar and salt.) Set aside near stovetop.

In a one-quart, heavy-bottomed, nonaluminum saucepan, heat milk over low heat, stirring often with small whisk, until it is steaming hot. Carefully add chopped chocolate mixture (don’t let the hot milk splash you as you do this!).

Continue cooking mixture over low heat, stirring almost constantly with whisk and scraping bottom and sides of pot with rubber spatula frequently. Mixture will steam for several minutes before coming to a boil, and as temperature increases it will thicken slightly. When mixture achieves a simmer, continue cooking and stirring for 30 to 45 seconds, reducing heat if mixture boils.

Remove from heat; whisk in vanilla and either optional ingredient, if desired. Divide among small mugs, top with whipped cream, and serve immediately. 1-1/2 cups; at least 2 to 3 servings

Note: If you have leftovers, cool briefly, then chill, covering tightly when cold. This will last for a day or three in the fridge. To reheat, make sure your mug is microwaveable. Heat in microwave at 50% (medium) power for short intervals, stirring well after each, just until mixture is very hot.

(c) Stephanie Zonis provides the above information to anyone, but retains copyright on all text.  This means that you may not: distribute the text to others without the express written permission of Stephanie Zonis; "mirror" or include this information on your own server or documents without my permission; modify or re-use the text on this system.  You MAY: print copies of the information for your own personal use; store the files on your own computer for your personal use only; reference hypertext documents on this server from your own documents.

Chocolate Find:

Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company

     You probably don’t recognize the first word there, which is from the Ghanaian language, or the chocolate. I’ll let you slide on the etymology, but not the chocolate, because this is chocolate worth knowing about. It’s a dark milk chocolate---one of very few anyone is making. Put aside your usual difficulties with milk chocolate being too sweet or “kid stuff” or poor quality. This is a dark milk chocolate made exclusively from cacao beans grown in Ghana, a country with a reputation for producing beans of excellent quality. This chocolate has a glorious, genuinely chocolatey flavor that always hints of coffee to me. Because it isn’t excessively sweet, Omanhene is very satisfying. And the texture of the miniature bars, called “ingots”, is velvety smooth. It’s great for baking or cooking (I once gave some to a pastry chef, who couldn’t stop raving about how great it was to work with), but I’d just as soon eat this chocolate by itself; unwrapping an ingot is akin to opening your own personal treasure.

Omanhene is the brainchild of Steven Wallace, former exchange student to Ghana. This chocolate is made entirely in Ghana, from bean to bar. Further, Ghana has been visited many times by officials in human welfare organizations, and no evidence of any child slavery has been found on the cacao plantations there. The handsomely-wrapped ingots are available in gift packs; if you’d prefer this chocolate in slightly larger quantities to use as couverture, you can buy it that way, too. Also offered are a Hot Cocoa Mix, Double Chocolate Iced Frappe Mix (I haven’t tried this, but just the name is making me hungry), and “Treasure Packs” (multiple item gift boxes). To order, surf over to www.omanhene.com (yes, they have online ordering); be sure to read the fascinating history you’ll find on the website. Alternatively, you can call to order at (414) 744-8780 or (toll-free) (800) LUV-CHOC. Omanhene chocolate can make your life (and your conscience) a little sweeter.    



Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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