I love chocolate. I always have and regard it as one of the wonderful treats we can have through the interwoven world we live in today. I will mainly focus on chocolate here, but much applies to other food things.
I once researched into the traditional use of the cocoa products in the context of a presentation I was preparing. Theobroma (food of the goods) cacao, the botanic name for the plant reflects its traditional importance, used in different ways such as culinary, medicinal and ceremonial and thought to be an aphrodisiac. The name cocoa originates in the Nahuatl language word cacahuatl and is a deviation from the Spanish word cacao. It was used in drinks, which were mixed with chillies and maize, vanilla and honey. I have even tasted a nice turkey dish with mole, containing chocolate. While I liked the sauce with the meat and the chocolate did work well, I might’ve improved it. Personally, this sauce was lacking depth and did stop short of giving an interesting balance to the dish for me. This was the first time trying it and I could think of some vegetables to add which would counterbalance this effect it would have on me. Either way, it showed me that chocolate works, elaborated on this serious eats post, also in savoury dishes. I may look into that at some stage. It is a brilliant ingredient. And I got carried away – sorry.
While chocolate, due to its high caloric value, was deemed ‘unhealthy’ in the past, it is getting more and more recognition for its health benefits. Modern science is slowly catching up with studies investigating the benefits in cardivascular disease, where higher chocolate consumption is correlated with better cardiovascular health – in humans that is, don’t feed it to animals, it may be toxic for them. Other studies look into body weight relation, heart attacks and stroke, diabetes, colon cancer and dementia. Since I like my chocolate, but have been unfortunately born into a family-line prone to easy weight gain, I was interested in the association of lower body weight with high chocolate consumption in adolescents reported by Magdalena Cuenca-García recently.
This study did not distinguish between the so called healthier dark chocolates, containing a high proportion of cocoa solids from other chocolates. I would find it interesting if this study included even ‘white chocolate’. While these results are self-reported and only reflect on 2 non-consecutive days, another study from California appears to support this correlation, claiming ‘This was despite the fact that those who ate chocolate more often did not eat fewer calories (they ate more), nor did they exercise more’. While this is what I wanted to hear (*who doesn’t), it does not mean straight away that the conclusion is eating chocolate MAKES you thinner – it’s just correlated to being thinner in many individuals. This would have to be further examined in an intervention study, in which people go and eat MORE chocolate than previously, while their body-measurements would be monitored over time.
It definitely, however, debunks the myth, that chocolate or high caloric foods eaten in higher amounts automatically(!) make you heavier or less healthy. Also, it suggests (this is not an absolute conclusion – mind the word!) that the type of food you eat is possibly at least as important as the ‘caloric value’ (a short summary, on the caloric value dispute here and here, note that these are not scientific studies but articles of which I did not track the validity of the statements). There are more studies of that type and I might add them, when I stumble upon the next one. One study from Tel Aviv also supported the ‘not calories are created equal’ assumption, finding a high calory breakfast (with overall the same calories consumed) helps to reduce weight as well as keep it down.
Either way, to me, the growing evidence in the food effect knowledge suggests a good diet asks for a balanced, diverse nutrition, embracing all sorts of foods and relying on foods with genetic diversity, species diversity, diversity of growth conditions (unlike in ‘classic’ modern agriculture) and a diversity (more and less) of processing steps. Our ancestors probalby started grinding seeds to make digestion easier, among other reasons. But having too much of it is detrimental. Having just one genetic variety (one cultivar) of tomato will only provide you with the biochemical diversity of this single one exclusive restricted (do I have to find more words?) type. Imagine e.g. eating only 20 different organisms (tomato, cow, chicken, cucumber etc), which are within their type nearly identical in their composition of nutrients over long periods of time. My understanding is that you become deprived of many biochemical compounds from other organisms, which aid your body in keeping healthy, without even knowing that they are lacking, without knowing their identity and what they do in our bodies. This includes toxins as well as vitamins. To explain the toxin: I recently heard that the cyanide contained in low quantities in apples and pears naturally actually prepares the body to deal with other ‘normal’ toxins better. I guess you can call that ‘a healthy dose of cyanide’ (when I find the link I’ll add it).
Considering the immense growing knowledge of gut-bacteria influence on our behaviour, it may be time to start thinking how to get lots of bacteria we used to get historically with our food back into our guts 😉 (mind you, not all of them were beneficial, far from it, but some are probably lacking these days, especially considering the possible secondary impact of antibiotics). I personally wash my veggies a lot less these days, but if you do so yourself, do it at your own risk. There are lots of factors relevant to this decision.
My personal conclusion thus is: Eat, eat many different things from different sources and mix the degrees of processing as well. Eat from your garden, eat from a tree in the street, eat from the discounter, eat from your farmer’s stand at the weekly market. Eat seasonal. Eat in moderation, but don’t feel guilty just because you like that stuff (guilt and anxiety are actually tremendously unhealthy). It’s probably much less harmful than overdoing the current food-fad or following ‘media wisdom’ and may even contain some of the good important stuff we don’t even know about just yet.
Chocolate and other demonised foods are probably both – friend and foe, depending on how much you eat of it and what other things you eat.
I shall conclude with this:
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”, Hippocrates.