This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode We Heart Chocolate, first released on January 31, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CARLA MARTIN: One bit of trivia about this is even in the present day, women each week of the year are the biggest buyers of chocolate except for one week, and that’s the week leading up to Valentine’s Day.
NICOLA TWILLEY: That’s right, ever since Richard Cadbury put chocolates in a heart shaped box for February 14, way back in 1861, this stupid Hallmark holiday has been associated with one of my favorite substances.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Chocolate! One of mine, too, though I am with you, Nicky, about the holiday. Still, any excuse to eat chocolate is all good by me. It might not be Valentine’s Day quite yet, but the shelves are already stocked.
TWILLEY: And so we at Gastropod are here, as always, to equip you with all the weird chocolate science and history your heart desires. So: Heart-shaped boxes are one thing, but is chocolate really good for your actual heart? And why would you spend $18 dollars on a fancy single origin bar when you can get a chocolate hit for just a couple of bucks at the supermarket?
GRABER: And to get to the heart of the story, how did chocolate conquer the world? And is it true that we might be facing a chocolate-free future?
TWILLEY: Please God, no. I need at least one reason to live. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of history and science. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber.
GRABER: The first thing to know is that chocolate grows on trees.
TWILLEY: Which means that there is such a thing a chocolate forest! Simran Sethi has been to one of these wondrous places. She’s the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate, and she has a podcast all about chocolate called The Slow Melt.
SIMRAN SETHI: It’s lush. It’s akin to a rainforest. I mean, there’s a lot of different kinds of vegetation. The one thing that’s a bit challenging to a human is that there are a lot of insects called midges, also known as no-see-ums, buzzing around and they are relentless. They bite through your clothes, they leave these huge itchy welts, but they are what pollinate cacao.
TWILLEY: This is the first time in my life that I have felt good about midges. I hate midges. But if they pollinate chocolate trees—and Simran says they do—maybe they are actually cool with me.
SETHI: And what the cacao fruit actually looks like is something like a honeydew melon or an American football. It’s oblong or round in shape and it varies in colors from a light kind of whitish green to a deep purple and kind of everything in between, from red to orange to green to yellow. And there’s this what seems like quite haphazard placement on the tree itself. So to me it looks like kind of a botanical game of pin the tail on the donkey.
GRABER: Simran expected these cacao forests to smell like chocolate. But they didn’t—not at all. Cacao, by the way, that’s the actual plant. The tree. The beans. Chocolate, that’s what we turn cacao into. But so the forest didn’t smell like chocolate. Would the pod?
SETHI: You know, we crack open the pod and there are these kind of mushy seeds that are enrobed in mucilage or pulp. And I thought I would find the flavor there. But what those fruits, you know, what that flesh actually tasted like was a wide range of flavors ranging from lemon to honeydew to peanut brittle. I mean it was kind of astonishing.
TWILLEY: Simran got to taste the pulp fresh from the pod, which is not an option for most of us who don’t live in the tropics. But if you have a Brazilian neighborhood near you, you might be able to get hold of some frozen cacao pulp to try.
GRABER: I’ve had it fresh, it’s delicious. If you can find it, I totally recommend trying it. But again, what it still doesn’t do is taste like chocolate. Which Simran found a little frustrating.
SETHI: Nothing offered up the experience of chocolate. And so then I bit into the seed, which I shouldn’t have done because that’s actually just really this intense bitterness, and none of the sweetness, none of the cacao or the cocoa flavors that we expect. And what I learned through that process is of course that those things don’t manifest without many, many steps and that includes, you know, about a week, five to seven days of fermentation plus drying plus roasting. Those are the qualities and the steps that actually bring out the flavor that we know as chocolate.
TWILLEY: That’s right: chocolate is a fermented food. Like pickles and sauerkraut. I had never thought of it that way, but if you leave out the fermentation step, you don’t get chocolate.
GRABER: Once, again, thank the microbes.
TWILLEY: Drink. And yes, thank you!
GRABER: So if you wanted to go find a chocolate forest, where would you go? The wild plant originally came from around the northwest Amazon in what’s now Ecuador. And then it was domesticated at least 4,000 years ago.
TWILLEY: From what we can tell—and the archaeological evidence is pretty slim—it seems like people who first figured out the how to make chocolate from cacao—this whole business of fermenting, drying, roasting and winnowing the bitter seeds from their shell—those people were the Olmecs. And they lived in what is now Central America and southern Mexico.
GRABER: There are not a lot of archaeological images and descriptions of chocolate. So most of what we know comes from the conquistadors. Yep, the Spaniards who showed up in the New World in order to conquer it.
TWILLEY: Just to give you a perspective, post-conquest to now is about one fifth of chocolate’s existence. But it’s the part we know the most about—the part where Europeans come on the scene, for better and for worse.
GRABER: Carla Martin is a lecturer at Harvard University and director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute. She says at first, the Europeans had no idea what to make of these strange brown beans.
MARTIN: So this is actually another really fun myth that comes up frequently in relation to cacao and chocolate. It’s this idea that Columbus was the European who discovered chocolate. And in fact what happened is Columbus encountered a group of people off of the island of Guanaja in canoes who had what he described as a type of almonds that they treated as though they were extremely valuable.
TWILLEY: Columbus’s son Ferdinand, wrote about this encounter, and he said that when one of these almond things fell to the ground, all the natives raced to pick it up, quote, “as if they were eyes that had fallen out of their heads.”
GRABER: Nobody knows if Columbus actually ever tasted chocolate, or even figured out that the local Aztecs and Maya were using cacao beans as money. Because that’s actually what Columbus witnessed: the locals had basically dropped a bunch of their version of coins.
MARTIN: It was also a particularly practical type of coin, if you can imagine the kind of doubloons made of silver or other metals that Europeans would have been using at this time. If they showed up at the market and wanted to buy, say, a tomato, it was quite difficult to cut out a chunk of that coin and buy a tomato with it.
TWILLEY: Based on conquistador diaries, we have some record of what these cacao beans were worth. So, in the 1540s, in Mexico, a small rabbit would have been worth 30 cacao beans, a turkey egg would have cost you three beans, and a tamale was only one.
GRABER: A brief interlude with a prostitute would run you about eight to ten cacao beans. Apparently the price was negotiable.
TWILLEY: Whereas a good turkey hen was worth much more: 100 good cacao beans or 120 shrunken, old beans.
GRABER: Cacao beans were money, and also people were roasting the beans into a paste and drinking it. That’s how chocolate was typically consumed.
TWILLEY: It’s like eating gold leaf or something: the Aztecs and Maya were literally drinking cash.
GRABER: Europeans quickly figured out that cacao beans were more useful in the New World than their doubloons. But Carla says it took them a while to discover the joys of drinking chocolate.
MARTIN: There’s one particular character that I like a lot. I describe him as one of my favorite historical jerks. His name is Girolamo Benzoni. He was an Italian who went to what is today Nicaragua in the 1500s and spent time traveling through the area. And he was consistently offered cacao beverages and he would turn them down because he thought that they were a drink, as he described it, fit only for pigs. And he would say, you know, every time that I’m offered these drinks I turn them down, and the natives walk away from me laughing because they think, you know, they thought it was absurd not wanting to consume that. And he describes that it was only after he didn’t have enough access to wine, which is what he typically would have been drinking, and the water was bad quality, that he came to this habit of consuming cacao as a beverage. And then he found it to actually be a really nice and refreshing bitter treat. And this is quite typical of many European experiences in this time, where it was only after some real convincing that they came to like chocolate.
GRABER: They were missing out.
TWILLEY: But by the time chocolate reached the Spanish court, they were converted. No one is sure exactly when chocolate first arrived in Europe—the first recorded shipment is in the 1580s.
GRABER: And chocolate became all the rage among the Spanish nobility.
TWILLEY: And from Spain, thanks to nobles marrying each other and also religious networks, the chocolate trend spread across Europe. It was introduced to France by a Cardinal in the 1600s, who advised that it would be useful in helping people overcome fits of anger.
GRABER: The English, um, Nicky, took a while to catch on—English pirates burned a shipful of cacao beans off the coast of Spain thinking they were sheep droppings.
GRABER: You Brits did soon catch on. Nobody can resist chocolate. Okay, almost nobody.
TWILLEY: Slowly but surely, chocolate was conquering the world. But it wasn’t chocolate as we know it. And when it arrived in Europe, it actually wasn’t chocolate as the Mesoamericans knew it.
GRABER: Because for Mesoamericans, there wasn’t just one way to consume chocolate.
FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ: (SPEAKING IN SPANISH)
GRABER: Fernando Rodriguez lives in in a town near Mexico City. His company is called Chocolate Macondo. He is working with researchers to learn about ancient recipes, and he’s creating new versions of some of these original recipes today. He told us that the Mesoamericans made cacao drinks with flowers, herbs, spices, seeds. They called the drinks “precious waters.”
TWILLEY: One of Fernando’s favorites is made with magnolia flower petals, mixed with hierba santa, acuyo flower, pepper, and chile. Fernando says the combination is delicious.
GRABER: From what we can tell, there were a whole range of different styles of chocolate concoctions: drinks, gruels, powders, porridges.
TWILLEY: Carla’s tried a contemporary version of another ancient drink, too—it’s one that Fernando also makes.
MARTIN: So one recipe that was quite popular, and, in fact, that we still see today among contemporary Maya people, was a recipe that was essentially a meal replacement that brought together cacao mixed with a maize-like paste and water. And that would be consumed as something that was really to beat hunger and to provide you with energy to make your way through the day.
TWILLEY: You’ll notice that we’re not talking about chocolate bars. That’s because for most of its history, chocolate has mostly been consumed in liquid form.
GRABER: The Aztecs and the Maya drank it hot or cold. And they loved to whip it into a light, fluffy froth. And apparently the frothiness of that froth was really important.
MARTIN: So there are some beautiful examples in the archaeological record. One is known as the Maya Princeton Vase for example, which shows a serving woman pouring from quite a height a cacao beverage from one vessel to another, aerating it in the process.
TWILLEY: Europeans, once they got the hang of this new beverage, adapted it to what was available in the old world. Chili peppers were replaced with black pepper, fragrant sapote might have been substituted with cinnamon. And Europeans were not keen on drinking chocolate cold.
GRABER: They also preferred it pretty sweet. And then Europeans decided it’d be a good idea to add milk to hot cocoa. It seems like the first guy to offer that serving suggestion is Hans Sloane.
TWILLEY: Better known, at least in England, as the guy whose collection founded the British Museum. In the late 1600s, as chocolate drinking caught on in Britain, Sloane’s advice was that adding milk to chocolate made it easier to digest.
GRABER: So now chocolate is milky and sweet, so we’d recognize that. But it’s still not the chocolate we tend to eat today. When did it become a solid bar?
TWILLEY: Turning chocolate into a stable solid was actually kind of a challenge.
HELEN VEIT: Something that we think of as one of the most wonderful attributes of chocolate was a problem because you really couldn’t control the amount of cocoa butter.
GRABER: Helen Veit is a historian at Michigan State University.
VEIT: So the one of the big breakthroughs technologically was in the 1820s, when a Dutchman came up with a process for really pressing chocolate. And this bright yellow cocoa butter would just ooze out of the chocolate. And so you’d be left with this extremely hard pellet which you could then grind up and, if you wanted to, recombine with some of that cocoa powder and with milk, potentially with sugars, and things like that. So that was when the early solid chocolate started becoming available.
TWILLEY: And then—joy!—you get the first chocolate bar. It’s made in England by Fry’s in 1847. It’s kind of incredible: chocolate has a five thousand year history, but the world has only known the wonders of the chocolate bar for the past hundred and fifty of that.
GRABER: And then even after chocolate bars were invented, it took another almost 30 years before anyone figured out how to get milk into them.
MARTIN: In the mid 1800s, people in Switzerland especially were experimenting with ways that they could powder milk and actually allow for its preservation over longer periods of time. And, if you think about this, this was a really significant problem. Milk goes bad very quickly. It can make people quite ill if they consume it. And so there was this necessity, as people were looking for ways to improve food safety and preservation, to explore this. So it was with that development of a means to powder milk, that people first got the idea to then add powdered milk to chocolate, and it was Henri Nestle who did that in Switzerland.
TWILLEY: Nestle of course is a relatively well-known name in the world of chocolate today.
GRABER: Side note: The first major company to add milk to chocolate in America was, not surprisingly, Hershey’s. But instead of adding powdered milk, Hershey’s added fresh milk.
(HERSHEY MILK CHOCOLATE AD)
TWILLEY: As a Brit, I think Hershey’s tastes like puke.
GRABER: Not exactly the great American chocolate bar, huh.
TWILLEY: Many of us non-Americans share my view. Some of them have even shared their opinions on YouTube.
(MONTAGE OF HERSHEY’S OPINIONS)
TWILLEY: See, Cynthia? It’s not just me. And it’s actually down to the milk: because Hershey’s uses fresh not powdered milk, they have to treat it to make it shelf stable, and that treatment—that adds the signature Hershey’s vomit flavor note. So now you know.
GRABER: Speaking of Hershey’s, which I don’t love, but I do not think tastes like vomit, that brings up another innovation in the chocosphere. It’s the final step in making what we know and love today. It’s a technique called conching.
TWILLEY: And it was invented by another name you might recognize from the candy aisle: Lindt. Rudolf Lindt.
GRABER: I’m not sure they’re selling chocolate in that ad. But basically the conching machine that Rudolf Lindt invented, it kneads the chocolate over and over and smooths out all the rough grittiness from the beans.
VEIT: One of the unique things about Hershey’s is that it’s not super smooth.
TWILLEY: Wow, sorry, we’re really dumping on Hershey’s here. But it’s not highly conched.
VEIT: So it hasn’t had as long of a processing time, so that you can taste a little bit of grittiness with chocolate, which I think Americans like and a lot of other people find offensive and unnecessary.
TWILLEY: No kidding. But here’s where chocolate’s journey from Mesoamerican spicy drink to candy bar is complete. Once conching was invented in the 1870s, chocolate really became chocolate as we know it.
GRABER: This transformation, from a drink to a bar—Helen and Carla both told us that what it also meant is that many more people had the chance to get to know chocolate.
VEIT: Early on, like in the 18th century, people really associated chocolate with the aristocracy, with the wealthy. Drinking chocolate was this sort of idle practice for people who didn’t have to work.
MARTIN: And really, by the early 1900s, these were foods that the average person could more regularly access.
TWILLEY: Chocolate had gone mass market. Kids could buy a penny chocolate candy.
GRABER: Workmen could have a bar for lunch
TWILLEY: And stressed podcasters could tear through tons of the stuff every episode.
VEIT: Yeah, I mean chocolate is one of those foods that when you say, like, “Oh I had a bad day I just want to go home and eat chocolate,” it’s this sort of, you know, automatic escape valve.
GRABER: Oh yes. And it turns out it might not be so bad for us. That’s right—chocolate might be good for our health. But, like everything with chocolate, this is actually a very old idea. In Mesoamerica, they ate it for all sorts of health-related reasons.
DEANNA PUCCIARELLI: So there’s theobromine in chocolate that gives you a perkiness. And so sometimes soldiers would consume it to stay awake.
TWILLEY: That’s Deanna Pucciarelli. She’s a professor at Ball State University in Indiana, and she’s an expert on the medicinal history of chocolate. Early Mesoamericans didn’t know what theobromine was, of course, but cacao was widely used as a stimulant—and not just for marching. It was considered helpful for the horizontal jog, too.
PUCCIARELLI: So we have quotes from the codices that suggest that, for example, Montezuma would consume anywhere from 20 to 50 glasses before he went with his wives.
GRABER: I’m not sure I’d really be in the mood after 20 glasses of anything. But really, the Mesoamericans saw chocolate’s health benefits as more of a holistic thing—it was really a huge part of their spiritual life. They used it in all sorts of rituals, from childbirth to marriage.
TWILLEY: Then the Europeans show up, and they are not interested in ritual. They just want to know what chocolate can do for them, physically.
MARTIN: The early Spanish conquistadors upon arriving in Central America were fascinated by the possibilities of cacao as an aphrodisiac. They were quite health obsessed, in fact, and were looking for foods that would make them less constipated—they were often consuming so much protein that they were uncomfortable—or that would make them more virile. So they were excited about the possibility that cacao could do those things for them.
GRABER: Then when the Europeans brought chocolate back home with them, they decided it could be used to treat all sorts of diseases.
TWILLEY: The first book entirely devoted to the topic of chocolate was published by a Spaniard in 1631, and he said, basically, chocolate is good for everything, but especially “the plague of the guts, fluxes, consumptions, and coughs of the lungs, with sundry other desperate diseases.”
GRABER: And actually, plague of the guts and fluxes—that’s diarrhea—there might be some reality to the benefits of drinking chocolate to treat those unpleasant symptoms.
PUCCIARELLI: At this time, you know, a lot of diseases was due to bad water, and so you’re boiling water to make this beverage so that aids in health at this time.
TWILLEY: So it’s less the chocolate that’s healing here, and more the boiling of water to make the chocolate drink. But hey, whatever, it worked.
GRABER: And consumption and coughs of the lungs? Turns out there might weirdly be some usefulness to chocolate there, too.
PUCCIARELLI: So most of our diseases during this era are associated with wasting. So we have, you know, smallpox and yellow fever and so people lose weight and they’re also very lethargic. Well, you start giving chocolate to a patient, it’s not going to cure a virus, but it certainly will aid anyway in having people gain weight as well as become a little bit more alert.
TWILLEY: In other words, someone who had TB and was wasting away, or someone with one of these other consumptive diseases—it’s like give them some chocolate, and at least they gain the weight back. They look healthier!
GRABER: Of course, that’s because chocolate is really energy dense. And in fact Mesoamericans loved it for that reason, as Carla described. Cacao paste mixed with maize, or corn—that was an energy drink.
TWILLEY: But what’s interesting is two things sort of happened at the same time. Like we said, by the end of the 1900s, chocolate has been transformed from drink to solid, which means that in Europe and North America it’s starting to be seen as a food, rather than a medicinal drink. And that’s also exactly when this guy called Wilbur Atwater starts measuring the energy in food in calories.
GRABER: And if you want to learn everything possible about the calorie, we have it covered. Go back and listen to our episode The End of the Calorie. You’ll become an expert. So applying the concept of calories to chocolate—according to Helen, that made chocolate even more appealing.
VEIT: If you’re looking at it in terms of calories, chocolate is cheaper than bread, it’s cheaper than butter, it’s certainly way cheaper than fruits or vegetables. So people promoted it for the poor because it was seen as economical in this, you know, in the sense that we no longer think of.
TWILLEY: It’s so weird now, when we think of cheap calories as bad. But in the early twentieth century, Hershey’s would put out ads that literally just compared the calories in a pound of chocolate to beef, potatoes, white bread… The message was, why waste your money on this other, energy-poor food, when you could just have chocolate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
GRABER: And this is awesome. Chocolate is food. And then, Helen told us, if you combine it with milk? Even better.
VEIT: Milk was was really at its high point in the early 20th century. People thought it was a perfect food. So this was this great way to combine what was seen as the healthfulness of chocolate, the, you know, the supreme nutrient nutritive value of milk, and also some sugar which was seen as energy boosting and positive. And advertising also really pushed hot cocoa for children and also chocolate bars as this special wholesome treat, a way that mothers could express their love.
GRABER: Yes, if you really loved your children, you’d give them chocolate. Children still use this argument today.
TWILLEY: And this is not just good news for kids. Chocolate makers are all over the switch from chocolate as medicine to chocolate as wonder food. I mean, you eat food everyday, you only take medicine if you’re feeling under the weather.
GRABER: This is all at the start of the twentieth century. But a few decades later, after the second world war, things are no longer looking so sweet. Suddenly those calories? They’re not so awesome anymore. In the West, we are now worried that we’re eating too many calories. Chocolate is no longer a good food, suddenly it’s a bad food. It’s sinful.
TWILLEY: This is a sad time in chocolate’s history. But all is not lost because it looks like now, in the twenty-first century, chocolate might actually be medicine again.
GRABER: But before we share that great news, we have news from some of our sponsors.
TWILLEY: So, let’s get some science going ourselves. Here’s my question: can it possibly be true that something as delicious as chocolate is actually medically beneficial? And not just because it makes you gain weight?
GRABER: Maybe. And for that discovery, we can thank an indigenous community in Central America back in chocolate’s original homeland.
PUCCIARELLI: The people that are attributed with the so-called discovery of chocolate and heart health were the Kuna Indians in Panama. It’s a group of people that lived on an island and consumed chocolate as a beverage unsweetened without milk. Just, you know, the cocoa and water mixed together. And they consume such high amounts, somewhere in the neighborhood of eight to 15 cups a day as part of their culture. And there was this correlation that they had relatively no heart disease.
GRABER: This came to light a while ago, in the 1940s. There was an army surgeon who was serving in the Panama Canal zone, and he noticed that the Kuna who stayed in their home region, these islands called San Blas, they had really low blood pressure. The ones who moved to the city, they weren’t doing nearly as well.
TWILLEY: This army surgeon’s work was kind of ignored for 50 years, but then a Harvard doctor came across his papers in the 1990s, and started studying the Kuna and chocolate’s possible cardiovascular benefits again.
PUCCIARELLI: Now, mind you, they’re living on an island, they’re not in a high-stress environment, they’re probably in a low-pollution environment. It’s recorded that they didn’t smoke cigarettes. So there’s other elements. But, in any event, that’s when the science started to take off again.
GRABER: Now, a few decades later, there’s reams of research into chocolate and its potential medicinal qualities. We spoke to another Harvard doctor about it. Eric Ding is an epidemiologist and nutritionist at the Harvard School of Public Health.
ERIC DING: There’s so many supplements that tout the benefits of cocoa that we really wanted to do an evidence-based assessment of whether a lot of these claims have merit. Especially since people say it pretty often colloquially—“Oh, chocolate is good for you. Chocolate is good for you.” But how good is it for you?
TWILLEY: So Eric and his colleagues decided to take a hard look at the evidence so far. Specifically, they wanted to know whether chocolate can prevent heart disease.
DING: So altogether we reviewed 24 papers that we included in our study, selected out of thousands of studies related to cocoa.
GRABER: Eric told us that there are dozens of factors that are linked to a healthy heart. Things like blood pressure and cholesterol that you’ve heard of and things like flow mediated vascular dilation which you probably haven’t.
TWILLEY: All of these are risk factors—things that have been shown to be either very predictive or actually causal, when it comes to heart disease.
GRABER: And did eating chocolate work? Did it improve these risk factors?
DING: So the chocolate findings are actually quite stunning. So it lowered blood pressure, it actually lowered the bad cholesterol, increased good cholesterol, lowered the bad triglycerides, and improved fasting glucose which means it improved insulin sensitivity. And interestingly it also improved inflammation, as well as the flow mediated dilation, FMD.
TWILLEY: Dude. Chocolate really is a wonder drug! This is the best news of 2017 so far.
DING: It’s not like a one-hit wonder in certain ways, it only lowers blood pressure and nothing else. It lowers almost every major risk factor for heart disease which is quite remarkable.
GRABER: And it’s something called flavonoids that seem to be the key to chocolate’s benefits. These flavonoids are chemicals that can be found in all sorts of foods, but the ones in cocoa do seem to be unusual.
DING: Right, so cocoa flavonoids are really specialized. So there are many flavonoids and, you know, there’s tea flavonoids and berry flavonoids. But the evidence for tea flavonoids and berry flavonoids are much more, you know, controversial.
TWILLEY: So what Eric and his colleagues showed is that these flavonoids in chocolate, they work in a bunch of different ways to lower risk factors for heart attacks. But here’s the question: do they actually prevent heart attacks?
DING: And I’ll say right now the heart attacks, in terms of doing these kind of actual heart attack prevention trials, take millions and millions of dollars and many, many years. And there’s actually one that just recently started called Cosmos and that trial will actually finish within the next two to three years. We should hopefully get preliminary results on whether or not it actually prevents heart attacks, which is a hard end point.
GRABER: So, really, we don’t know if chocolate actually prevents heart attacks. Yet. Though Eric is kind of shockingly positive about it.
DING: In academic science we don’t usually get that excited about compound but cocoa flavonoid seems to hold all the different checkmark potentials.
GRABER: Amazing! Chocolate is in fact the miracle drug we’ve all been looking for! But of course, there’s more to the story.
TWILLEY: Let’s go back to the Kuna Indians for a minute—they, like before, hold the clues.
DING: But you have to consider that, like, the natives in these these tribal populations that drank these cocoa drinks, drink a huge, huge volume a day on a daily basis.
GRABER: They were drinking about eight cups of unsweetened cocoa every day. This is not the same thing as having a few bites of chocolate after dinner.
TWILLEY: Right, and same deal in the medical trials—people were given really high doses of these flavonoids.
DING: Normally, you—to get the doses seen some of these trials, you would have to consume a lot of bars or likely use a supplement,
TWILLEY: Specifically, eight bars of dark chocolate. Every day.
GRABER: So does that mean there’s no benefit unless you eat those massive amounts? I mean, that sounds delicious, but I’m not sure about eight bars of dark chocolate a day. Or eight cups of unsweetened cocoa. What if I just want to snack on some chocolate?
DING: I think the benefits will accrue, even if you do not hit a certain target. There’s an assumption of linear effects, in which we assume even if you don’t hit the really high target that the benefits are proportional and accumulate.
TWILLEY: OK, so how do we know if the chocolate bar we’re eating is full of flavonoids?
GRABER: Like everything, it depends what you buy.
MARTIN: A Hershey’s Kiss typically contains about, I think, 11 percent cacao content. So really very little. And my students and I often try to think of what are other foods where if it only had 11 percent would you still call it chocolate, let’s say.
TWILLEY: Not to dump on Hershey’s again, although it does taste like puke. But Carla’s point is, most of the mass market chocolate out there has very, very little chocolate in it—and hence very, very few flavonoids. It’s mostly milk and sugar.
GRABER: In America, it only legally needs 10 percent cocoa to be called chocolate. And so to get some of the benefits Eric’s talking about, you really need to be eating dark chocolate. Like 70, 80 percent dark chocolate.
DING: But altogether darker chocolate or cocoa powder or the direct supplement itself is clearly the best source and milk chocolate is never going to get you to the right dose that you need.
TWILLEY: So here’s where we’re at. It’s taken hundreds of years, but chocolate has again become both food and medicine at the same time. But once again, there’s a dark cloud on the horizon. Even while scientists such as Eric are getting all excited about chocolate, other scientists are sounding alarm bells.
GRABER: It’s true: there are some pretty major threats to our chocolate supply. One of those is disease. Simran Sethi—she wrote the book Bread, Wine, Chocolate—she spends a lot of time worrying about the future of our our favorite treat.
SETHI: One third of the crop currently is lost to diseases that have like completely sinister names like witches’ broom and frosty pod rot and black pod rot. And you see them and, like, it just kills you because you see how sinister they are just on the vine.
TWILLEY: And—this story will be familiar from other crops—but one of the reasons disease is such a threat to chocolate is because of monocultures. We’re growing this one particularly hardy and high-yielding variety in bulk, on massive plantations in West Africa—to the point that 70 percent of the world’s chocolate comes from there. And that makes our supply vulnerable.
GRABER: A monoculture of one particular varietal that’s plagued by disease—that’s an obvious vulnerability, but that’s not the only threat to cacao. The trees won’t grow outside a narrow band 20 degrees north and south of the equator. And climate change threatens to make these regions too hot for cacao trees to thrive. Scientists are trying to breed varieties that are even hardier and more resistant to diseases.
SETHI: And so what we see is, you know, the development of hybrids, because they grow quite abundantly and they do have disease tolerance, are kind of taking over. We need to increase yield. But what happens is, when we increase yield to the exclusion of everything else is we lose this diversity, we lose the backup system, and we lose the diverse flavors. And to me that’s a real shame because we’re only just at the beginning of discovering them you know.
TWILLEY: And this is where some chocolate makers are saying hold up. There’s another strategy. What about if we grow traditional cacao varietals in a diverse forest, rather than a monoculture plantation? Because that kind of chocolate forest—that’s another way to resist disease. And there’s a big bonus to this strategy—it means we get to taste all the different flavors that chocolate can offer.
SETHI: And they range from like caramel and and violet that you find in cocoa from Ecuador you know or caramel from cocoa from Venezuela. A really nice fruit kind of acidity, almost a sourness that we find in cocoa that’s grown in Madagascar. There’s all this diversity that gets erased through the commoditization that says we kind of just need that one chocolate note and everything else can kind of go away.
GRABER: These flavor differences come from all sorts of things: different tree varietals, like Simran said, and also soils and growing conditions. You can even taste this for yourself. You can find higher end craft chocolate bars that are single origin—that is, they just come from one country. Buy some from different countries and taste them one after the other.
TWILLEY: This is precisely how I discovered that Hawaiian chocolate tastes like honey. For real.
GRABER: And cacao grown in Honduras tastes sort of like grapefruit. We’re not making this up.
SETHI: But if we stop growing those varieties, if we stop retaining that diversity, then we’re not going to have that backup system as we may need it moving forward. And it might be because of climate change, it might be because of our tastes changing, it might be because of disease. But what is a greater concern, a more immediate concern when it comes to the loss of chocolate is simply the fact that farmers are walking away from a crop that doesn’t treat them well, that pays them so little money that to grow this crop makes no sense when you could grow something far more lucrative like palm oil or rubber or any of the any of the other crops that thrive in these same environments.
TWILLEY: Basically, Simran is saying, yeah disease, climate change, monoculture, it’s all very scary. But the real chocpocalypse is being caused by us paying too little for our chocolate. According to Simran, if we’re paying 2 bucks for a giant Hershey bar, the cacao farmer who grew the chocolate is getting about 10 cents.
SETHI: So the choice that we actually have to make as consumers is: are we willing to consider different kinds of models?
GRABER: These models do exist. They’re the ones usually used by the more expensive, small company craft chocolate bars. The bars might have labels like fair trade or even direct trade. The companies pay the farmers more, and so the farmers can afford to grow traditional varieties of cacao trees in better conditions. And the resulting chocolate tastes better. But Carla says we’ve still got a long way to go.
MARTIN: So if we think about what part of the chocolate industry could be considered specialty or fine, it’s probably one percent, maybe even less than one percent. So ninety nine percent of chocolate that people consume is going to be commercial, mass manufactured, bulk chocolate.And when we compare this other specialty foods it’s actually striking how different it is. Coffee, for example, about 50 percent of the market is considered specialty, seven to eight percent is considered high-end specialty. Cheese has a significantly growing and robust specialty side of the market. Beer is another example. So chocolate is is on its way, but it’s going to require a lot more interest to do that.
TWILLEY: I am willing to eat much more specialty chocolate.
GRABER: Me too.
MARTIN: You’re both heroes.
TWILLEY: Yep, that’s me stepping up to do my part. Here’s the thing though. This kind of craft chocolate—it’s an expensive habit to acquire.
SETHI: And that’s kind of—I, you know, I understand people bristling at the idea of a $10 bar of chocolate or a $20 bar of chocolate. But the truth is we are not paying enough for these goods and until we as consumers are willing to put more money behind these things, until we are willing to explore some of these companies that are trying to reward farmers with money, you know, for sustaining these crops, I don’t think that we can relieve ourselves of the fear that chocolate will go away.
GRABER: And I do not want it to go away. To be fair to our wallets—I do love those $10 bars, but there are other great options, too. Two of my favorites are Taza and Theo. They’re leaders in the fair-trade chocolate world, and they’re like four to five dollars a bar.
TWILLEY: The other thing that I’ve noticed is that for my favorite good single origin chocolate, which is called Willy’s Cacao—it’s expensive, but I find I savor it more so I eat less. So I’m saving money. Kind of.
GRABER: Kind of. This is why you’re a podcaster and not an accountant.
TWILLEY: But really, cheap chocolate is not worth it. Especially when you think that you may might be supporting slavery.
GRABER: Just this month a judge ruled that six men now in their 20s and 30s can sue Nestle in court for having been enslaved on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast.
MARTIN: The most important thing to keep in mind about cacao and chocolate history is it’s one that has always been intimately linked with labor exploitation. And that goes all the way back to early Mesoamerican production, all the way up into the present day. Ultimately what’s going on here is that cacao is a commodity crop that requires, at least in the current structure of the way it’s supplied, requires cheap labor. And so until we actually structurally dismantle a lot of the ways that cacao is produced and fundamentally change how the money makes its way to people at the so-called bottom of the supply chain, we will continue to face these labor issues.
TWILLEY: So here’s your motivation for eating the good stuff: save chocolate and save chocolate farmers. And, if you need more encouragement, remember that the fancy dark chocolate bars are higher in flavonoids, so they’re better for you anyway.
GRABER: Carla says the idea of tasting and comparing dark chocolates can be kind of intimidating if you’ve mostly snacked on grocery store milk chocolate until now. So she has some suggestions.
MARTIN: There’s no sort of right or wrong way to taste. If you are interested in tasting it, like a lot of the chocolate connoisseurs taste today, one of the things that you can do is try to taste it in a more kind of mindful manner as people describe it. And that would include taking time to smell the chocolate, to snap it, to then let it melt on your tongue, and then once it has melted to think about the finish of the chocolate or the lingering flavor and whether or not that’s something that’s pleasant for you. And as you come to do that more and more you will become more comfortable with identifying what types of chocolate you like best, and also how you might then recommend chocolate to your friends and loved ones.
GRABER: We here at Gastropod are so concerned about getting more people to eat more of the good stuff in order to save chocolate for the future that we’re even going to have some with us at our live shows in April!
TWILLEY: Right. There’s so much we couldn’t cover this episode, and we’re going be able to squeeze that in in the live shows too—like the invention of the brownie! And the story of how the chocolate chip cookie become such an iconic American treat.
GRABER: Don’t miss it! Last time our tickets sold out in like an hour. We’re performing in April at the Boston Museum of Science and at Michigan State University.
TWILLEY: Details on our website and social media as always. Indeed, if you are on our mailing list, you will already have a code for special pre-sale access. Maybe it’s worth signing up if you’re not.
TWILLEY: Thanks so much to all our guests this week: Carla Martin, Simran Sethi, Eric Ding, Helen Veit, and Deanna Pucciarelli. We have links to their websites, books, podcasts, everything on our website.
GRABER: And don’t forget to mark your calendars for our live shows this spring: April 8th in East Lansing, at Michigan State University, and April 26 at the Boston Museum of Science. More information on our website, where you can also take our survey, sign up for our mailing list, support the show, and basically find everything you ever wanted.
TWILLEY: We’re back in two weeks with a topic that lots of people feel very, very passionately about: vegetarianism and veganism. Till then!