Cocoa wellbeing: how to get it
‘Pumping up the cocoa, raking back the sugar’ are words we live by around here. But why? It’s a matter of quality, flavour, satisfaction and ethics.
The Guna people of the island off Panama live longer, healthier lives than the country’s urbanites. What do they know that we don’t?
The Guna people, native to the islands off the Panama coast, are remarkable for their low rates of heart disease and of high blood pressure throughout their lives, even in old age. But Doctor Norman Hollenberg, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, found in a 2006 study* that Gunas who migrated to Panama City on the mainland quickly became vulnerable to these health problems. Why?
Looking for possible explanations, Hollenberg noted that Guna islanders drink at least five cups of homegrown cocoa a day. This gives them around 900mg of cocoa flavanols daily, possibly the most flavonoid-rich diet of any population.
The Gunas in Panama City, on the other hand, drink little or no cocoa. Clinical studies confirmed that the Guna islanders have lower blood pressure and no age-related decline in kidney function. A study of death certificates from 2002–2004 found that the death rate from cardiovascular disease among Guna islanders was around nine times lower than that of mainland Panamanians (just 9.2 deaths per 100,000, compared to 83.4 per 100,000). Cancer was the second-biggest cause of death in Panama, killing 68.4 people out of 100,000. But among Gunas, the comparative rate was even lower: just 4.4 per 100,000.
Hollenberg acknowledged that his studies are based on observations, and don’t provide cast-iron proof. But more standardised studies have also supported the idea that cocoa flavanols can have beneficial effects. For example, a German study in 2015** found that drinking a beverage rich in cocoa flavanols improved blood vessel function and reduced diastolic blood pressure in individuals with kidney failure.
There is more work to be done to fully understand the true impact of cocoa flavanols on wellbeing, but Hollenberg’s outlook is optimistic.
* The Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology
** American Society of Nephrology
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE
In the beginning, before anyone had even worked out how to make chocolate into bars, Victorian Quaker industrialists sold it as a healthy beverage, as part of their campaigns on social justice and abstention from what they saw as ruinous gin palaces. Chocolate was intrinsically linked to ethics and nutrition – it was considered the virtuous option.
Over the years British and American chocolate has undergone a paradigm shift, not only becoming a bar, but, as sugar prices have dropped, focusing increasingly on sweetness. Today, sugar is 20 times cheaper than cocoa – and a typical bar of the bestselling milk chocolate is 56% sugar, compared to just 20% cocoa.
A SWEET DEAL
Why do we insist on more cocoa? The balance of cocoa to sugar affects every part of the chocolate experience. Firstly, taste: high levels of sugar dull the flavours of the cocoa itself, denying you all those nuanced notes such as citrus, earth, red and yellow fruits, leather and wood. It’s the chocolate equivalent of taking a beautiful single-malt whiskey and topping it up with ginger beer.
That dulling effect also masks the quality of the cocoa. Since you can’t taste those subtle notes, chocolatiers are free to use a lower-quality, less expensive cocoa. When you rake back the sugar, the cocoa sings – so it has to be the best.
Then there’s that Victorian approach to chocolate: its relationship to health and ethics. We’re not pretending that it’s one of your five-a-day, but we find the cocoa hit of high-cocoa chocolate – milks of 40% or more cocoa and 70%-plus darks – means it takes less to keep you satisfied than low-cocoa options. Meanwhile, low-cocoa chocolate can use less, lower-quality, cheaper cocoa than high-cocoa chocolate, removing value from the supply chain and holding farmers in poverty. Those of you who know us know we don’t stand for that, while the uninitiated can take a look at our ethics policy at Engaged Ethics | Hotel Chocolat US