Tag Archives: chocolate

Why chocolate is really, really bad for dogs

The only good chocolate for dogs is a chocolate fur, like is majestic lab is rocking. Credit: Pixabay.

Unlike cats, which lack the ability to taste sweetness, dogs find chocolate just as appealing as humans. But while the dark treat can be a euphoric delight for us, it can be poisonous to canines.

That’s not to say that all dogs get poisoned by chocolate or that a candy bar is enough to necessarily kill your pet canine. The dose makes the poison. The weight of the dog also matters, so large canines should be able to handle a small amount of chocolate whereas smaller breeds might run into serious trouble.

Although you shouldn’t panic if your dog accidentally ingests chocolate, candy and other chocolate sweets should never be offered to dogs. Generally, you should treat chocolate as toxic to dogs and should make an effort to keep it away from them.

Why chocolate can be dangerous to dogs

Among the many chemical compounds found in dark chocolate and cocoa is theobromine. Formerly known as xantheose, theobromine is a bitter alkaloid compound that acts as a mild stimulant for the human body.

The consumption of theobromine is generally associated with positive effects, such as reduced blood pressure, improved focus and concentration, and enhanced mood. That’s in humans. In dogs, theobromine, as well as caffeine, raise the heart rate and can overstimulate the nervous system.

Because dogs can’t break down, or metabolize, theobromine as well as humans can, the compound is toxic to dogs, over a certain threshold, depending on their body weight.

Mild symptoms of chocolate toxicity occur when a canine consumes 20 mg of theobromine per kilogram per body weight. Cardiac symptoms occur at around 40 to 50 mg/kg and dangerous seizures occur at doses greater than 60 mg/kg.

This explains why a candy bar may cause a chihuahua (average weight 2 kg) to run in circles while Great Dane (average weight 70 kg) might feel just fine.

Darker, purer varieties of chocolate tend to be the most dangerous because they contain the highest concentration of theobromine. According to the USDA nutrient database, various chocolate/cocoa products contain the following amounts of theobromine per 100 grams;

  • Unsweetened cocoa powder: 2634 mg;
  • Baking chocolate (unsweetened): 1297 mg;
  • Dark chocolate (70% cocoa): 802 mg;
  • Mars Twix (twin bar): 39.9 mg;
  • White chocolate: 0 mg;

As a rule of thumb, chocolate poisoning in dogs generally occurs after the ingestion of 3.5g of dark chocolate for every 1kg they weigh, or 14g of milk chocolate for every kilogram.

Signs that your dog may be suffering from chocolate poisoning

Chocolate poisoning mainly affects the heart, central nervous system, and kidneys. The symptoms of theobromine toxicity usually appear within 6 to 12 hours after your dog eats too much chocolate and may last up to 72 hours. These include:

  • vomiting,
  • diarrhea,
  • restlessness,
  • increased urination,
  • tremors,
  • elevated or abnormal heart rate,
  • seizures,
  • and in extreme cases collapse and death.

Can chocolate kill dogs?

In short, yes. However, fatalities in dogs due to chocolate poisoning are very rare. According to the Veterinary Poisons Information Service from the U.S., out of 1,000 dog chocolate toxicity cases recorded in its database, only five dogs died. 

What do if your dog eats chocolate

If you caught your dog eating chocolate or you suspect this may have happened, it is best to call your veterinarian and ask for advice on how to proceed going forward. Based on your dog’s size and the amount and kind of chocolate ingested, the veterinarian may recommend monitoring your dog for any symptoms of poisoning or ask that you immediately come to the clinic.

If there are good reasons to believe potentially dangerous chocolate poisoning may be imminent, and as long as your pet consumed the chocolate less than two hours ago, the veterinarian may induce vomiting.

Sometimes, the dog may be given doses of activated charcoal, which helps to flush toxins out of the body before they are absorbed into the bloodstream.

In very extreme cases of poisoning, the veterinarian might administer medications and/or intravenous fluids to provide additional treatment.

Keep chocolate away from dogs

There’s no reason to believe chocolate isn’t as tasty to dogs as it is to humans. Unfortunately, many dog owners are ignorant to the fact that chocolate can poison their pets and intentionally offer chocolate snacks as a treat.

Usually, this isn’t a problem for very large breeds when they ingest small amounts of chocolate, but smaller dogs can suffer greatly and even die in extreme cases due to theobromine poisoning.

If you are aware that chocolate can poison your pet, you have no excuse to keep sweets accessible. It is advisable to keep any chocolate items on a high shelf, preferably in a closed-door pantry. Guests and children should be kindly reminded that chocolate is bad for dogs and that they shouldn’t offer chocolate treats regardless of how much the pet begs for them.

Most chocolate poisoning in dogs occurs around major holidays such as Christmas, Easter, or Valentine’s Day, so these are times when you should be extra careful. 

Ruby chocolate: not just color, but actually a different type of chocolate

If you haven’t been paying attention, you may have missed the appearance of a new type of chocolate: ruby chocolate. Developed in 2017 by a Swiss chocolatier, this variety officially became the fourth type of chocolate, after white, dark, and milk chocolate.

The main ingredients of ruby chocolate are cocoa butter, cocoa mass, milk, sugar, and citric acid.

Chocolate fans, rejoice

Swiss chocolatier Barry Callebaut is a household name in the chocolate sphere. The company not only supplies chocolate to the likes of Nestle, Hershey, Unilever, and Mondelez, but many top restaurants and professionals use the Callebaut for its classic taste that has remained unchanged for decades — and the company still uses whole-bean roasting, instead of roasting cocoa kernels, just as it did 100 years ago. But Callebaut also likes to try out new things.

The variety has been under study for over 10 years, ever since chocolate experts at Barry Callebaut noticed that components of certain cocoa beans could produce chocolate with an unusual color and flavor. Like grapes for fine wine, these cocoa beans had to be selected and cared for under special climate conditions. According to Callebaut, these conditions can be found in Ecuador, Brazil, or the Ivory Coast.

Although the exact production method of ruby chocolate is a trade secret, some publications believe they’ve zoomed in on the source of ruby cocoa: beans from a variety called Brazil Lavados, which can have a natural pinkish color and a sour, delicate taste. The beans take a more intense color after being treated with an acid, and after they are defatted (a standard process in the chocolate industry), they revert to a truly pink color.

It’s the first new type of chocolate developed in over 80 years after white chocolate was introduced in 1936. The ruby chocolate also has a unique taste. It’s completely unlike dark or milk chocolate, and only bears a slight resemblance to white chocolate, but boasts a berry-type flavor and a slight tart aftertaste. It’s not overly sweet and carries an overall slight aroma.

“Ruby chocolate is an intense sensorial delight. A tension between berry-fruitiness and luscious smoothness,” they write in a press release. “Ruby chocolate is made from the Ruby cocoa bean; through a unique processing, Barry Callebaut unlocks the flavor and color tone naturally present in the Ruby bean. No berries or berry flavor is added. No color is added.”

A 35 gram broken Ruby chocolate bar containing caramelized almonds and pistachios, produced by Confiserie Bachmann in Lucerne, Switzerland. Image credits: Zacharie Grossen.

Of course, developing the first new type of chocolate in almost a century can bring in a lot of money, in addition to bragging rights. So many, including ourselves, were skeptical and thinking that this could be little more than marketing. However, several studies analyzing ruby chocolate noted its particularities.

Ruby chocolate science

A study from 2019 compared ruby chocolate to its dark, white, and milk counterparts. The researchers noted that ruby chocolate does exhibit a different phenolic content than all the other types of chocolate (phenols are mildly acidic aromatic compounds), ranging somewhere between milk and white chocolate. The researchers also added that ruby chocolate has a higher content of specific compounds (such as flavan-3-ols and proanthocyanidins).

However, when the researchers subjected the chocolate to a sensory assessment, they found that ruby chocolate was the least desirable type of chocolate of the attempted ones; it even fared worse than white chocolate with added berries.

“The panel was formed of 20 trained personnel, 15 female and 5 male members, who had previous experience in the assessment of confectionery products,” the study reads.

“Semisweet and dark chocolate obtained the highest score in chocolate distinctive odour, while for the same attribute, Ruby chocolate was estimated as least preferable chocolate. White chocolate with strawberry was used because of similar sensory characteristics as Ruby chocolate, regarding taste and fruity odour, and was rated with a higher score compared to Ruby. The highest intensity of acidity was determined in Ruby chocolate, which is its main characteristic. All estimated sensory attributes were scored the best for the semisweet chocolate, while Ruby chocolate was least acceptable chocolate.”

Another study from 2021 confirmed the distinctive chemical components of ruby chocolate, analyzing its chemistry in unprecedented detail.

“The data show that a wide range of phytochemicals, present in the “conventional” dark and milk chocolates are present in ruby chocolate too. Most interesting is the finding that proanthocyanidins [a class of polyphenols found in many plants, such as cranberry, blueberry, and grape seeds] of the A-type appear to be characteristic for ruby chocolate, while B-type proanthocyanidins were found mainly in the dark chocolate,” the study read.

Researchers essentially confirmed that ruby chocolate is indeed a distinct type of chocolate.

“Ruby chocolate contained higher levels of epicatechin and procyanidin B2, compared to milk chocolate, which may be the result of a shorter, or no fermentation of the cocoa beans starting material used for the production of ruby chocolate. Moreover, the ruby chocolate was the only chocolate in which caffeic acid could be quantified,” the team noted.

However, the team made no claims regarding the quality or overall appeal of ruby chocolate. All in all, although genetically, the cocoa beans used to produce ruby chocolate are not genetically different from others used to create other types of chocolate, the way they are selected and processed leads to a product that is indeed chemically distinct.

The future of ruby chocolate

Ruby chocolate is already present in different types of products.

So where does this leave ruby chocolate? The product is still relatively new, but it’s been penetrating quite a few markets already. The first mass-market release was in January 2018, when it was introduced as a new flavor of Kit Kat in Japan and South Korea. Nestlé, the manufacturers of Kit Kat had an exclusive 6-month deal for the use of pink chocolate, but that has since expired and several companies in different countries have already started selling pink chocolate products. It’s not just straight chocolate, either. For instance, Magnum sells ice cream bars dipped in ruby chocolate, while Costa and Starbucks are each selling ruby chocolate-based drinks. It’s not exactly common, and its relatively low supply still limits production and distribution, but ruby chocolate seems to be catching on.

Regulators are also taking it seriously. The US Food and Drug Administration, for instance, set a standard for ruby chocolate — it must contain a minimum of 1.5% nonfat cacao solids and a minimum of 20% of cacao fat by weight. It also cannot contain flavors that mimic milk, butter, fruits, or additional coloring.

Whether or not ruby chocolate truly becomes a staple remains to be seen, but so far, the future looks promising. It will likely retain its novelty or delicacy status for some time, but it’s not unlikely for it to become as diversified as white chocolate.

However, it will likely be plagued by what many experts see as a chocolate crisis on the horizon. Cocoa beans require very specific conditions (and ruby beans even more so), and climate change is reducing their habitat more and more, basically pushing producers into a corner. If you ever needed another reason for fighting climate change, here it is: it’s coming for our chocolate.

Did the Maya civilization really use chocolate as currency? New study suggests so

Talk about black gold — chocolate was used as coin by the Maya people, and that may have a lot to do with the civilization’s decline.

A possible Maya lord sits before an individual with a container of frothed chocolate. Image via Wikipedia.

At the height for their achievements, the Maya developed in an area that encompasses southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. The culture is known for art, architecture, mathematics, calendar, and astronomical system, as well as its hieroglyphic script — the only known fully developed writing system of the pre-Columbian Americas. But we also owe something else to the Maya, something much more important in our day to day lives: chocolate.

The Maya elite prized chocolate, which they served as an unsweetened beverage. Spanish colonial accounts from the 16h century even mention that the Maya sometimes used cocoa beans — the basis for chocolate — as currency. But was this really the case?

To find out, Joanne Baron, an archaeologist with the Bard Early College Network, started analyzing Mayan artwork from about 250 C.E. to about 900 C.E. The objects she used — murals, ceramic paintings, and carvings — are a valuable source of information even when written accounts aren’t present.

She found that in the earliest periods, no mention of cocoa or chocolate as currency exists. The earliest reference of such goods being used for exchange comes from the mid-7th century: In a painted mural displayed in a pyramid near today’s Guatemalan border, a woman offers a bowl of hot chocolate to a man, in exchange for dough. However, this only shows that chocolate was being bartered — not that it was used as currency, Baron says.

However, things change from about 691 C.E. through 900 C.E. During this period, a number of artistic pieces show commodities delivered to Maya leaders as a tribute or tax. At some point, Mayan kings started receiving cacao and woven cloth as tax, showing that both had become a form of currency.

“They are collecting way more cacao than the palace actually consumes,” she says, adding that the surplus was probably used to pay palace workers or to buy things at the marketplace.

Since cocoa was universally loved by all Mayans, it makes a lot of sense. It’s not just that the drink was used in rituals and important ceremonies, but it was much more prized than maize since cacao trees are susceptible to crop failure and didn’t grow well near Maya cities.

Some researchers speculated that this may have caused significant problems — whenever there was a crop failure, it may have caused cascading economic problems. Baron’s research supports this idea, but while this would have been problematic, it’s unlikely that this was instrumental in the decline of the Maya. They used several types of currencies and would have likely been able to substitute one with the other.

The results have been published in Economic Anthropology.

Study analyzes the environmental impact of chocolate production — and it’s not pretty

For many people, chocolate is always in style. Especially with Easter fast approaching, chocolate is melting from the shelves just like it melts in your mouth. But while we don’t often think about it, chocolate isn’t cheap — not necessarily in terms of money, but in terms of environmental impact. A recent study by researchers at The University of Manchester has looked at the carbon footprint and other environmental impacts of product, and the results aren’t pretty.

The study analyzed lifecycle environmental impacts associated with chocolate products made and consumed in the UK, focusing on three products which make 90% of the market: ‘moulded chocolate’, ‘chocolate countlines’ and ‘chocolates in bag’. Yes, sadly, good old-fashioned chocolate seems to have fallen out of favor to its heavily processed competitors. But even so, chocolate is the UK’s favorite confectionary product, with the whole industry being worth over almost $6 billion.

The average British person consumes 8 kg per year, which is equivalent to around 157 Mars bars. Like most people, the Brits love their chocolate.

But here’s the thing: chocolate takes a lot of resources to produce. A kilogram of chocolate requires about 10,000 l of water to produce and emits 2.9–4.2 kg CO.Professor Adisa Azapagic, Head of Sustainable Industrial Systems at the Manchester University and study author, says:

“Most of us love chocolate, but don’t often think of what it takes to get from cocoa beans to the chocolate products we buy in the shop.

“Cocoa is cultivated around the equator in humid climate conditions, mainly in West Africa and Central and South America so it has to travel some distance before it makes it into the chocolate products we produce and consume in the UK.”

Cocoa, the main ingredient of chocolate (at least in good chocolate) is mainly cultivated around the equator in humid climate conditions. Countries like Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Ecuador, and Brazil are the major producers of cocoa beans. These are all quite far away from the UK, meaning that transportation also consumes a lot of resources. Packaging, and in some cases, refrigeration, are also significant.

But it’s not just the cocoa — the milk powder required to make milk chocolates is also very energy intensive, and the milk industry itself produces massive greenhouse gas emissions.

The bottom line is, chocolate takes a big toll on our planet. Researchers aren’t asking that people stop consuming it, but they’re urging people to at least be aware of this impact. Azapagic concludes:

“It is true that our love of chocolate has environmental consequences for the planet. But let’s be clear, we aren’t saying people should stop eating it.”

“The point of this study is to raise consumers’ awareness and enable more informed choices. Also, we hope this work will help the chocolates industry to target the environmental hotspots in the supply chains and make chocolate products as sustainable as possible.”

The study has been published in Food Research International.

No, chocolate isn’t going extinct in 40 years — but we are set for a crisis

In recent days, a horrifying title roamed media outlets around the world: Chocolate is on track to go extinct in 40 yearsBusiness Insider reads. Similar ideas were echoed in Forbes, The Independent, and MSN, among others. Well, no need to bury your chest of chocolate just yet. While cocoa plants are indeed in dire straits and we are set for a chocolate crisis in the future, this is yet another case of blowing things way out of proportions.

Image credits: Thavlosk / Wikipedia.

The science

The main story was based on a joint effort by UC Berkeley Scientists and the Mars chocolate company to produce new GMO cocoa plants. The end goal was to make the plants more resistant in the face of climate change and fungal diseases, which are currently threatening most existing crops.

They are using a technique called CRISPR, which can make tiny DNA changes; these tweaks are expected to make the plants more resilient in a world that’s less and less able to provide the necessary conditions for the plants to thrive.

Basically, cocoa plants can only grow in very niched conditions, 15 degrees north and south of the equator, where temperature, humidity, and soil conditions are just right. As temperatures start to rise, the only possibility is to move cocoa plantations to higher and higher altitudes, but that triggers a domino effect where all the surrounding conditions need to be adapted. Simply put, that’s not very sustainable, and will make cocoa plants (and hence, chocolate) much more expensive — quite possibly, prohibitively expensive. Add the new fungal diseases running rampant across plantations and you quickly end up with a recipe for disaster.

Image credits: Innovative Genomics Institute / University of California at Berkeley.

However, moving from that scenario to saying that “chocolate will go extinct” is quite a big leap — and it’s one that’s not really based on reality.

The Clickbait

Everyone loves chocolate, that’s for sure. Writing a panicky, attention-grabbing headline like Chocolate is going extinct! is sure to draw people’s attention, but it’s simply clickbait. Even if we move past the technical definition of extinction, which is that there needs to be a complete absence of sightings for a minimum of 50 years, we’re still not set for extinction. For instance, the Business Insider article seems to contradict itself:

“Over half of the world’s chocolate now comes from just two countries in West Africa — Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

But those areas won’t be suitable for chocolate in the next few decades. By 2050, rising temperatures will push today’s chocolate-growing regions more than 1,000 feet uphill into mountainous terrain — much of which is currently preserved for wildlife, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.”

In essence, that’s true. NOAA warns that 89.5% of land currently used to cultivate cacao will no longer be suitable by 2050, which is largely compatible with the timeframe they are discussing. But even so, that leaves a fraction of usable lands, and while much of the future’s chocolate lands are protected areas, some new, higher-altitude areas are still available.

So it’s not really a problem of whether chocolate will go extinct — it won’t. But it will be cornered and struggling.

The problem

Unfortunately, saying that cocoa plants are greatly threatened by climate change isn’t as eye-catchy as saying that chocolate will go extinct. Future generations will still have access to the deliciously dark treat, the only question is: will they be able to afford it?

Most specialists believe that the answer is no.

In 2010, John Mason of the Ghana-based Nature Conservation Research Council predicted that “in 20 years, chocolate will be like caviar”. He said:

“It will become so rare and expensive that the average Joe just won’t be able to afford it.”

The crisis he predicted will take place even sooner, but again, there’s no talk of extinction.

Overconsumption is also an issue. We’re already eating more chocolate than we can sustainably produce. Long-term studies have already shown that cocoa plantations are having a negative environmental impact and in some places, they’re destroying ecosystems. Furthermore, while cocoa can improve the livelihoods of local populations, it often doesn’t. To add even more pressure to this already unstable system, people in developing economies like India and China are improving their living standards, and as a result, are demanding more and more chocolate. Whether we like it or not, the demand for chocolate is growing, while supply seems doomed to fall.

What we can do

If we want to protect cocoa plantations, the root of the problem is tackling climate change. That’s the main cause of the problem. But we can also take more direct action.

As consumers, we should always look for the chocolate with the shortest supply chain possible. By cutting out the middlemen, you’re removing room for potentially shady practices. Look for “direct trade” labels and for bars with single origins. Also, look for ethical certification labels — especially FairTrade. However, note that small companies might sometimes not afford such certifications even though they do have ethical practices. No certification is perfect.

Lastly, stay informed. It’s easy to not give a damn about it, and just eat your heart out. But as consumers, we also have a responsibility, and chocolate should be consumed responsibly. It’s also easy to fall into the other extreme, and think that there’s nothing we can do and chocolate is simply doomed. If anything, projects like the Berkley and Mars one show us that researchers are actively working and looking for solutions.

Chocolate seems to have a bitter future but at least for now, it does have a future.

A chocolate canine. Credit: Pixabay.

Vets caution dog owners about chocolate poisoning spike around Christmas

Dogs are four times more likely to visit the vet due to chocolate poisoning around Christmas time than in any other non-holiday period, according to a new study. The British researchers hope that their findings will raise awareness and help dog owners prepare by being more careful with what sweets they leave unattended around the house.

A chocolate canine. Credit: Pixabay.

A chocolate lab. Credit: Pixabay.

Both dogs and cats can quickly become poisoned by chocolate (Theobroma cacao), which contains a caffeine-like compound called theobromine. Although theobromine is harmless to humans, dogs can’t metabolize the substance nearly as fast as we can so it ends up building up in the body to toxic levels. Even small amounts of chocolate can cause problems, including vomiting and diarrhea.

The trouble with chocolate is that dogs love it (cats are typically uninterested because they can’t detect sweet flavors). As such, once they’ve acquired the taste, they’ll easily devour chocolate tablets and bars. You can see how this can become a problem around the holiday season when sweets abound virtually everywhere around you.

A dangerous treat

Researchers at the Institute of Veterinary Science at the University of Liverpool studied records from 2012 to 2017 supplied by 230 veterinary practices around the UK. They specifically focused on chocolate poisoning-related visits, finding 386 such cases involving 375 dogs. Apparently, judging from these figures, some sweet-toothed canines apparently didn’t learn their lesson from the first time around.

No particular breed seems to be more vulnerable to chocolate poisoning. The most common symptoms were vomiting, increased heart rate, agitation and restlessness, the researchers wrote in the journal Vet Record.

The team found that around Easter, dogs were twice as likely to have chocolate exposure than on non-holidays. Around Christmas time, canines were four times likelier to get chocolate poisoning. Surprisingly, there was no visible increase in such vet visits around Halloween or Valentine’s Day.

The most common types of chocolate sweets dogs devoured were chocolate bars, gift boxes, chocolate rabbits, Santa figurines, and also chocolate decorations.

“Chocolate ingestion has a unique seasonal pattern which merits highlighting this risk to clients, particularly in the run-up to Christmas and Easter as chocolate becomes more accessible within the household. Given the frequent use of emetics in animals with documented non-toxic doses of theobromine, further research into the risks and consequences of emetic therapy is indicated,” the authors wrote in their paper.

When a vet receives a dog exposed to chocolate, the usual course of action is to administer vomiting-inducing medication to flush the chocolate out of the stomach. Sometimes, administering activated charcoal to block absorption of theobromine into the body may be all that is necessary. Supportive treatments such as intravenous fluid therapy to help stabilize the dog and promote theobromine excretion are also common.

If you find your dog is acting suspiciously well behaved besides empty chocolate wrappers, researchers recommend you immediately call the vet. Preferably, you should offer the vet a description of the type of chocolate the dog ate. This can matter since milk chocolate has less theobromine than dark chocolate, for instance.

Swiss scientists say they’ve invented a new type of chocolate — the first one after 80 years

It may be the best thing in 80 years, or it may simply be an attention grab. I for one, want to believe.

Barry Callebaut’s new ‘ruby chocolate’. Source: Barry Callebaut.

Some things in life are simply sublime. Like a walk in the park on a sweet summer morning. A glass of wine after a hard day’s work. Or you know… chocolate. Chocolate has changed quite a bit since it was first brewed by the Aztecs but nowadays, the main types of chocolate are pretty well established: you get the classic milk chocolate, the exquisite dark chocolate, and the mild white chocolate. But what if there was a new kind, a new sensorial experience?

That’s exactly what the chocolate engineers at Barry Callebaut claim to have done: invented a new type of chocolate. They call it Ruby Chocolate.

Ruby Chocolate

“Ruby chocolate is an intense sensorial delight. A tension between berry-fruitiness and luscious smoothness,” they write in a press release. “Ruby chocolate is made from the Ruby cocoa bean; through a unique processing, Barry Callebaut unlocks the flavor and color tone naturally present in the Ruby bean. No berries or berry flavor is added. No color is added.”

Barry Callebaut’s new ‘ruby chocolate’. Source: Barry Callebaut

What makes this type of chocolate unique is not only the reddish color, but the fact that the berry fruity taste emerges naturally, from the Ruby cocoa bean. The texture is also reportedly different, more creamy and refreshing than other chocolates. But not everyone is convinced.

British chocolate expert Dom Ramsey told The Independent that he is “sceptical” of the claim, since Barry Callebaut didn’t really say much about their recipe.

“A few years ago, French chocolate company Valrhona launched a caramelised white chocolate that they also sold as the ‘fourth type of chocolate’, and that turned out to be little more than marketing.”

“Barry Callebaut are not giving much away about what this new chocolate is, or how it is made, but as I understand it, they’ve used a combination of processing techniques and specific cacao varieties to produce a milk chocolate that has lightly fruity colour and flavour.”

It remains to be seen whether this is really a new type of chocolate or just a marketing gimmick. I, for one, can’t wait to taste this Ruby Chocolate.

Speaking of enjoying chocolate, we should do it while we still can. The world is heading towards a chocolate crisis by 2020, with no simple solution in sight.

Chocolate files: from the early days to today’s dark pleasure

Chocolate is… who am I kidding — we all know what chocolate is. It’s sweet, delicious pleasure. But chocolate, this seemingly simple product has a rich and complex history which stems for almost 4,000 years. Before it took the beloved form we know today, chocolate had medicinal and ritualistic uses.

Image via Wikipedia.

The Early Mesoamerican days

The Aztecs and the Maya believed that chocolate was discovered by the gods in the mountains and given to the people — and many people would agree with its divine nature. The Aztecs prized seeds so much they could be used as currency, while the Maya had a cacao god called Ek Chuaj. But the first mentions of chocolate go way back, much more than the Aztecs and the Maya.

This Maya representation of the two gods Chac and IxChel exchanging Cacao provides evidence for the mesoamerican idea of divinity in Chocolate. Image via Oregon State University.

The first ground beans of the Theobroma cacao (cacao tree), can be traced to the Mokaya and other pre-Olmec people, with evidence of chocolate beverages dating back to 1900 BC, almost 4 millennia ago. However, the warm, liquid form of chocolate they enjoyed back then is very different to what we’re familiar with. Back then, the drink wasn’t sweet and was laden with chili powder and other strong spices; yes, the drink — chocolate was prepared as a drink for most of its history.

The Mayan glyph for cacao.

The Mayan glyph for cacao.

There are indications that from the very beginning, chocolate was regarded as curative and played an important cultural role. While researchers don’t agree which Mesoamerican culture first domesticated the cacao tree, it seems safe to say that people have been doing this since at least 1900 BC.

In November 2008, anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania announced the discovery of cacao residue on pottery excavated in Honduras that could date back as far as 1400 B.C.E. But what’s even more spectacular about their discovery is that the sweet pulp of the cacao fruit, which surrounds the beans, was fermented into an alcoholic drink – that’s right, people got drunk on chocolate over 3,000 years ago!

“Who would have thought, looking at this, that you can eat it?” said Richard Hetzler, executive chef of the café at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, as he displayed a fresh cacao pod during a recent chocolate-making demonstration. “You would have to be pretty hungry, and pretty creative!”

We don’t have much information about what happened to chocolate after that, until the Aztecs and the Maya. We know that people enjoyed it, because archaeologists have found chocolate residue on numerous pots and vases, but little evidence remains as to how the beverage was prepared. The Olmecs used it for religious rituals or as a medicinal drink, with no recipes for personal use. But they, like the Aztecs, left almost no little written evidence behind. So almost everything we know about it, we had to infer from indirect evidence. The Aztecs actually couldn’t grow cacao themselves, so they had to import

The Aztecs actually couldn’t grow cacao themselves, so they had to import it or ask for it as tribute from the people they conquered. It seems that they drank their chocolate cold, using as an aphrodisiac or as a treat for men after banquets. It was also included in the soldiers’ rations.

Chocolate was consumed by most Mesoamerican civilizations. Notable are the Pueblo people, who unlike the others, considered chocolate a common drink and enjoyed it often, without any deeper purpose.

Ritualistic and medicinal use

Rio Azul Chocolate Pot (glyph for cacáo at left on vessel lid; color courtesy of Denver Museum of Natural History; B&W, George Stuart)

But with the Maya, there’s a different story — the Mayans actually do leave some surviving writings about cacao which confirm the identification of the drink with the gods. They also explain how they prepare it: seasoned with chile peppers and cornmeal, transferring the mixture repeatedly between pots until the top was covered with a thick foam. We know this from glyphic writing found in burial grounds. The Maya prepared bowls of chocolate to be enjoyed in the afterlife. In fact, priests would often prepare chocolate for ritualistic purposes — chocolate and blood were among the most common offerings for the gods. In some festivals, priests would cut their ear lobes and kings would cut their penises with obsidian blades; the blood would drip, covering the chocolate and honoring the gods (Rissolo per. comm. 2005). Baptisms of newborn babies also often included a chocolate ritual, and for different events, there was a different cocoa recipe.

But it wasn’t just for rituals – chocolate was given medicinal credit as well. Both the Mesoamericans and the Europeans who then adopted and changed chocolate believed in its curative properties – everything from reducing fever to helping clean the teeth was attributed to the cacao wonder.

The Florentine Codex (1590 AD) is one of the richest resources on chocolate history. The ethnographic research project was created by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, who lived and worked in the ‘New Spain’ for 60 years, collecting valuable recipes and documenting chocolate’s properties. Here’s a translated excerpt:

“[Green cacao] makes one drunk, takes effect on one, makes one dizzy, confuses one, makes one sick, deranges one. When an ordinary amount is drunk, it gladdens one, refreshes one, consoles one, invigorates one. Thus it is said: ‘I take cacao. I wet my lips. I refresh myself’ (Sahagun 1590, 119-120)”.

But the Europeans had a different take on chocolate, and Sahagún’s motivation was to convert locals to Christianity. Sahagún conducted research for several decades, edited and revised it over several decades, created several versions of a 2,400-page manuscript, and addressed a cluster of religious, cultural and nature themes. Ironically, the document didn’t play much of a role in the evangelization of the Mesoamericans, but it is a valuable source of chocolate recipes. The book was forgotten for some 200 years before it was rediscovered by Italian scholars.

But the Europeans found little pleasure in the original chocolate — they couldn’t even chug it down; they hated it. It wasn’t until they took it back to the continent and sweetened it that they started to see its appeal.

European Chocolate

We’re getting there. Image via The Dish.

Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés may have been the first European to encounter chocolate when he observed it in the court of Montezuma in 1519. He didn’t like it. Neither did Columbus, when he encountered it on his fourth expedition to the Americas. So they changed it.

Some would argue that the Europeans actually ruin chocolate, and we may never know if that’s true or not. Upon their return to Spain, they also brought home some chocolate. Respiced with honey and cane sugar, it became a different drink — one that the Europeans loved. But not all of them did.

Typical 17th-century scene showing the preparation of chocolate. Image via Wikipedia.

In his History of the New World (1575), Girolamo Benzoni ingloriously states:

“It seemed more like a drink for pigs than a drink for humanity………But then, as there was a shortage of wine, so as not to be always drinking water, I did like the others. The taste is somewhat bitter, it satisfies and refreshes the body, but does not inebriate, and it is the best and most expensive merchandise, according to the Indians of that country (Benzoni 1575)”

Chocolatière_style_empire

“Pocillo» chocolate with its “grinder” (a wooden stick). A common way to make chocolate in Spain during the eighteenth century. Image via Wiki Commons.

Again, chocolate became a drink for the upper classes. The Spanish and Portuguese explorers kept it well hidden from the rest of the world, praising its medicinal capabilities. While the Aztecs and the Maya were in full decline, conquered by European explorers, chocolate was living a different kind of glory.

Fast forward one century and chocolate is now enjoyed by many Europeans. A newly found craze for chocolate brought it (still as a drink) to the Netherlands, England and France. But there was a dark side to this development — the lucrative industry of chocolate brought with it a lucrative industry of slavery, the remnants of which can still be seen today. With the depletion of Mesoamerican workers, largely to disease, cacao production was handled mostly by African slaves. Wind-powered and horse-drawn mills were utilized to speed production, but there was only so much that could be done. The world had discovered chocolate, and it wanted more.

Innovating chocolate

It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that chocolate could be produced at acceptable speeds, thanks to the steam engine. The first steam-driven chocolate mill was created by a man named Debuisson in the early 18th century. But the real chocolate innovation came in 1815, when Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten introduced alkaline salts to chocolate, significantly reducing its bitterness. A few years later, he created a press that removed half of the natural fat (cacao butter) from chocolate, which made it easier and cheaper to produce, while making it easier to obtain a consistent quality. You could even call Van Houten the father of modern chocolate.

Chocolate melanger mixing raw ingredients. Image via Wikipedia.

After that, the innovations kept pouring. Most notably, in 1875 Daniel Peter invented milk chocolate. He used a powdered milk developed by Henri Nestlé, and this very invention ultimately led to Nestlé being the biggest food company in the world today. But Nestlé isn’t the only man who’s early experimenting with chocolate left behind huge companies. In 1893, Milton S. Hershey purchased chocolate processing equipment, and a man named Cadbury was manufacturing boxed chocolates in England by 1868. Even today, they are some of the biggest chocolate companies in the world – their legacy is extremely strong to this day.

Chocolate and modern slavery

Not much has changed in the past decades when it comes to chocolate. We mass produce it now, so the entire process has become much more efficient – and cheaper. There are more varieties, plenty of non-chocolate chocolates, but the basic product has remained the same. However, as much as we like chocolate, we should open our eyes and see the truth behind the product.

Yes, your chocolate likely comes from here. Image via Confectionery News.

Some 70% of global chocolate production comes from West Africa, which hosts some of the poorest and underdeveloped areas in the world; half of that comes from Côte d’Ivoire, a country with a saddening history of child exploitation and modern slavery. Kids work on cacao farms in Côte d’Ivoire; about 200,000 of them do. Thirty percent of children under age 15 in sub-Saharan Africa are child laborers and more than 1.8 million children in West Africa are involved in growing cocoa. Major chocolate producers, such as Nestle, buy cocoa at commodities exchanges where Ivorian cocoa is mixed with other cocoa. Generally speaking, they have little interest in maintaining a fair trade and eliminating child labor and exploitation – after all, that’s what keeps the prices down.

A 2006 investigation revealed startling figures: 90% of cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire use some form of slave labor. When cocoa prices drop, farmers can’t afford to pay workers, so they just buy them; and cocoa prices can vary dramatically, from £500 ($945) to £3,000 ($5,672) per ton in just a couple of years.

All these factors, a poor area where people are desperate to work, high market volatility and a lack of ethics from big producers, have created a new, modern type of slavery. We, the end consumers, are as much to blame for this as anyone.

The future: a chocolate crisis?!

Take a good look at it - it may become a rare sight. Image via Pixabay.

Take a good look at it – it may become a rare sight. Image via Pixabay.

Yes, the world is running out of chocolate, and fast. We may be experiencing a major chocolate shortage in less than a decade. As we wrote in a previous article, the Swiss Barry Callebaut Group, the world’s largest chocolate producer, has joined a host of industry experts in expressing concerns about “a potential cocoa shortage by 2020”. We are already seeing the effects, as chocolate prices have gone up by more than 25% in the past couple of years alone. The Barry Callebaut Group sold more than 1.7 million tonnes of chocolate in 2013/14, an increase of over 11% from the past year; they also announced that they expect to continue this growth, but that the cocoa shortage is becoming more and more imminent.

For the first time in human history, chocolate is no longer a luxury, an expensive product that only some people can afford. Today, most of the planet’s population – pretty much everyone except for the very poorest – can afford it, and that’s quite a problem. We’re simply eating more chocolate than is sustainable. In South America, the market for chocolate expanded by a massive 7 per cent just in 2013! Brazil went from being one of the world’s leading exporters to consuming more than it produces. There is also the political turmoil in West Africa where the cocoa is grown, the recent Ebola outbreak, El Nino predictions and also financial speculation.

The demand is growing more and more. Couple that with the factors above and you get a pretty dire picture. In Europe, the price of cocoa butter is up 70 percent from the beginning of 2014. The same thing is happening in the Americas, and in Asia. In Asia, chocolate prices are up 30 to 40 percent this year. Just as we got used to it, chocolate may become rare and expensive once more.

Chocolate used to be a special, expensive treat, with no sugar and chili powder. Soon, it might become like that again, except with sugar and no chili.

If you want to encourage the sustainable production of chocolate, pay attention where you buy it from. Don’t support child labor and exploitation. Try to buy fair trade products, from workers that have been properly paid. I know it costs a bit more, but you’ll help develop a better for people working in the chocolate industry – and for chocolate itself. For all its past, it definitely deserves a rich future!

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we need to discuss snortable chocolate

The latest snuff craze sweeping through America is not even that worrying; it’s just silly.

Razor blades and mirrors: no longer snorting coke, but chocolate. Image credits: Sarah R. / Creative Commons.

Some words just go together like peanut butter and jelly — just hearing one makes your brain want to churn the butter I mean the other. This is the case with “snort.” You hear someone is snorting and you immediately think cocaine. Or some other drug. But a recent craze is forcing us to rethink that association because nowadays, kids are snorting… chocolate.

Legal Lean, an Orlando-based supplement company, introduced Coco Loko, an “infused cacao snuff,” taking the country by storm. Several products have already emerged, though Coco Loko is definitely the big boy here. The product promises to give you a 30-minute legal buzz which involves “euphoric energy,” “calm focus,” and a “serotonin rush.”

So what does Coko Loko contain?

Well, in the words of its founder — and I’m not making this up — “chocolate and other crazy stuff.” He also said that he didn’t talk to any doctors or health professionals, and he just sort of saw there was no negative publicity around it so he just went with the flow.

“There’s really no negative publicity, so I felt we’re good to go,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Thursday.

In real life, it features cacao powder, as well as gingko biloba, taurine, and guarana, ingredients commonly found in energy drinks.

Nick Anderson, the 29-year-old founder of Legal Lean, says it all started when he heard about something similar happening in Europe.

“At first, I was like, ‘Is this a hoax?,’” he recalled. “And then I tried it and it was like, okay, this is the future right here.”

So he set out, developed his own product, and now it’s selling like hot cakes — so much that Senator Charles Schumer, the Senate minority asked for an investigation.

“This suspect product has no clear health value,” he said in a statement. “I can’t think of a single parent who thinks it is a good idea for their children to be snorting over-the-counter stimulants up their noses.”

Should we worry?

Ehh, probably not. The thing is, the concept is so new that doctors just don’t know what to say.

“The question is, what are the risks of doing it?” said Dr. Andrew Lane, director of the Johns Hopkins Sinus Center, in an interview with the Washington Post. “There’s no data, and as far as I can tell, no one’s studied what happens if you inhale chocolate into your nose. When I mention it to people, nobody’s ever heard of it.” (“Maybe,” he added, “I’m not in the in-crowd.”)

The good thing is, this is extremely unlikely to turn into a gateway drug. It’s not like one day you’re snorting chocolate and the other you’re doing coke in the bathroom.

“If you’re going to do drugs, you probably don’t start with chocolate,” he said. “Certainly this is better than using an illicit drug.”

But still, there are some risks. For starters, since it contains some of the ingredients common in energy drinks, it raises similar concerns to those. Secondly, the snorting process is not exactly the most hygienic and healthy — when’s the last time your doctor told you to snort some aspirin? There’s a good reason we don’t do that.

“There are a few obvious concerns,” he said. “First, it’s not clear how much of each ingredient would be absorbed into the nasal mucus membranes. And, well, putting solid material into your nose — you could imagine it getting stuck in there, or the chocolate mixing with your mucus to create a paste that could block your sinuses.”

At the end of the day, it’s probably not dangerous, it’s just silly. Colo Loko just doesn’t do what it says it does. If you want the “ecstasy-like buzz” it promises, you can just chug an energy drink — add in a smidge of chocolate for good measure, and you’re good to go.

Ironically, although Anderson says he took inspiration from Europe, the old continent has much stricter regulation when it comes to nutrition and labeling.

Cocoa.

Chocolate can keep your brain in good working order — but don’t overindulge

As if you didn’t have enough reasons to eat it already, chocolate could also help maintain your brain’s processing power from the effects of age and fatigue.

Cocoa.

Image credits Justyna Kunkel.

A team of Italian researchers from the University of L’Aquila and the University of Rome has news which I’m sure will delight everyone. They recently performed a meta-analysis (a study of pre-existing studies) of the effects chronic and acute cocoa doses have on the inner workings of the brain. Esentially, they wanted to see what we know up to now of what happens in the brain a few hours after you eat chocolate, and how it behaves when you keep chocolate in your diet for longer periods of time.

Neuroprotection

The work was prompted by a class of natural chemical compounds that cocoa is rich in, flavonols. These are known to have good neuroprotective properties, meaning they help maintain neuron’s health and function. Since chocolate is one of the best sources of flavanols, the team wanted to see if these neuroprotective properties would still hold in the finished product.

While randomized controlled trials looking into the effects of acute flavonol doses were sparse, the team reports that the majority point to a beneficial effect on cognitive performance. Participants usually showed a greater performance in working memory, an improved ability to process visual information, and other similar ‘upgrades’ in cognitive abilities after consuming cocoa flavanols in the form of chocolate. Women, in particular, seemed to benefit from the mental pick-me-up: the team writes that eating chocolate could counter the cognitive effects of a full night’s sleep-depravation for them, opening an interesting (and tasty) new avenue of research for those suffering from chronic sleep deprivation or those who work shifts.

The effect, they detail, comes down to flavanols, not “other functional ingredients, such as the methylxanthine caffeine and theobromine, with the potential to influence neurocognitive function,” which, relative to total flavonols content, are found in concentrations “lower than those required to exert significant pharmacological actions.”

Still, there is a caveat. The team reports that acute doses of flavanols’ observed effects directly depend on the length and mental load of the tests used in each study — in other words, they might not make a difference for short, easily solvable tasks. For young adults, a highly demanding cognitive test was needed to spot the subtle effects acute doses of flavonols had the participants’ behavior.

On the other hand, the effects of long-term consumption of flavanols (from 5 days up to 3 months) have largely been investigated in elderly individuals. These studies report that a daily intake of flavonols led to an improvement in cognitive performance, citing improvements particularly in areas such as attention, processing speed, working memory and verbal fluency. The greatest effects, however, were seen in older adults who were already experiencing mild memory or cognitive decline.

“This result suggests the potential of cocoa flavanols to protect cognition in vulnerable populations over time by improving cognitive performance,” the authors write. “If you look at the underlying mechanism, the cocoa flavanols have beneficial effects for cardiovascular health and can increase cerebral blood volume in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. This structure is particularly affected by aging and therefore the potential source of age-related memory decline in humans.”

So why don’t we just chow on chocolate all day long if it’s good for our brains? Well, the team points out that there are potential side-effects to eating chocolate, “generally linked to the caloric value of chocolate, some inherent chemical compounds of the cocoa plant such as caffeine and theobromine, and a variety of additives we add to chocolate such as sugar or milk.”

The best middle ground, the authors say, is to go for dark chocolate — a little bit every day should be enough.

The full paper “Enhancing Human Cognition with Cocoa Flavonoids” has been published in the journal  Frontiers in Nutrition.

We knew it! Coffee and cocoa cocktail boosts your attention and mood

OIt always seemed like a match made in heaven, but now we have the science to back it up: a mixture of brewed coffee and chocolate’s main ingredient, cocoa, can boost both your productivity and your mood.

Together, hot chocolate and coffee make you feel better and perform better. Image via Wiki Commons

Clarkson University researcher Ali Boolani recently completed a year-long study in which he analyzed the effects of two of the world’s favorite delights. He devised a double-blind study in which some participants got brewed cocoa, others got cocoa with caffeine, caffeine without cocoa, or a placebo with neither caffeine nor cocoa (double blind means neither the subjects nor the researchers knew what they got until after the experiment was over). Before the drinks, they were asked to complete some simple tasks such as watching groups of letters float on a screen and noting when an “X” appeared after an “A.” They also did some pretty simple math. After the drink, they were asked to complete tests to evaluate their cognitive skills and mood.

Perhaps surprisingly, the best results came from the participants who drank the coffee mixture. It’s not clear why, though Boolani has an idea.

“It was a really fun study,” Boolani says. “Cocoa increases cerebral blood flow, which increases cognition and attention. Caffeine alone can increase anxiety. This particular project found that cocoa lessens caffeine’s anxiety-producing effects — a good reason to drink mocha lattes!”

Of course, this was just an observational study, with no mechanism formally proposed. But for coffee and hot chocolate fans everywhere, this is good news.

“The results of the tests are definitely promising and show that cocoa and caffeine are good choices for students and anyone else who needs to improve sustained attention,” says Boolani.

However, even though this study was published in a serious journal and peer-reviewed, it has to be said there is a shadow of a doubt floating above it — as it was funded by the Hershey Company, one of the largest chocolate producers in North America. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the study is biased or that there’s anything wrong with it, but I’d generally look at this type of study with a bit more skepticism than usual. When a study funded by a chocolate company finds that chocolate’s main ingredient is good for you, it’s always a bit questionable. It’s also very hard to quantify the effect that this has on people and there’s also not a clear cocoa/coffee ratio that yields optimal results. Still, Boolani says he’s planning further research on this matter:

“I’ll be doing some related and follow-up studies at Clarkson to look at differences in natural vs. synthetic caffeine, and other cocoa studies” Boolani adds. “I’m excited about them.”

Journal Reference: Ali Boolani, Jacob B. Lindheimer, Bryan D. Loy, Stephen Crozier, Patrick J. O’Connor. Acute effects of brewed cocoa consumption on attention, motivation to perform cognitive work and feelings of anxiety, energy and fatigue: a randomized, placebo-controlled crossover experiment. BMC Nutrition, 2017; 3 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s40795-016-0117-z

Chocolate-inspired technique helps researchers develop better polymer shells

For centuries, chocolatiers have been trying to develop the perfect chocolate coating for bonbons, honing their skill to the point of artistic performance. But scientists believe they can take things even further. A group of MIT researchers believe they’ve come up with the perfect chocolate coating technique, a technique that could have many applications outside the food industry.

Tartufo, a desert covered in chocolate. Photo by Anna Fox

Bonbons can come in a large variety of shapes, sizes and tastes – but the most loved ones are without a doubt small candies coated in chocolate. The first reports about bonbons come from the 17th century, when they were made at the French royal court.

“Think of this formula as a recipe,” says Pedro Reis, the Gilbert W. Winslow Associate Professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at MIT. “I’m sure chocolatiers have come up with techniques that give empirically a set of instructions that they know will work. But our theory provides a a much better, quantitative understanding of what’s going on, and one can now be predictive.”

Reis and his team were inspired by videos of chocolatiers making bonbons and other chocolate shells. They pour the chocolate into molds, allowing excess chocolate to flow out, creating a shell of uniform thickness. But Reis was curious: was there a way to accurately predict the thickness of the resulting shell? He set out to explore this seemingly frivolous question, alongside lead author and graduate student Anna Lee, postdoc Joel Marthelot, and applied mathematics instructor Pierre-Thomas Brun, along with colleagues from the team of François Gallaire at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Initially, Lee and Marthelot used an analogous technique to experimentally create their own shells, using not chocolate but a polymer solution that they drizzled over dome-shaped molds and spheres.

They found that again and again, the coating had equal thickness on all sides (they cut the balls in half to test this). So they set out and determined the mathematical formula for the thickness of the shell, which is basically the square root of the fluid’s viscosity, times the mold’s radius, divided by the curing time of the polymer, times the polymer’s density and the acceleration of gravity as the polymer flows down the mold.

It sounds like a complicated formula, but it boils down to this: the bigger the mold, the thicker the shell, because it takes the fluid longer to flow to the bottom. The longer the curing time, the thinner the shell will be. Armed with that knowledge, they could go crazy with polymer models and see how to obtain shells of the desired thickness.

“You could go in the lab and lay down tons of ping pong balls and test various initial conditions, which is what Anna and Joel have been doing to some extent, but with numerics, you can get really creative,” Brun says.

Ultimately, they found that by tampering with the curing time, they can create much thicker coatings, which can be significant not only for the materials industry, but also for medical purposes

“By waiting between mixing and pouring the polymer, we can increase the thickness of a shell by a factor of 11,” says Lee.
“This flexibility of waiting gives us a simple parameter we can tune, depending on what we want for our final goal,” Reis says. “So I think ‘rapid fabrication’ is how we can describe this technique. Usually that term means 3-D printing and other expensive tools, but it could describe something as simple as pouring chocolate over a mold.”

Nestle’s cocoa linked to child slavery

The world’s largest food and water producer will be sued for allegations that it used child slaves to harvest cocoa beads in the Ivory Coast in Africa.

Image via Wikipedia.

Nestle continues to show us again and again why they are one of the most hated companies in the world – after taking money from a drought-suffering California, Nestle will likely be held accountable for using child laborers for its chocolate products. The US Supreme Court has rejected the appeal from Nestle to dismiss the lawsuit.

Abby McGill, campaign director from the International Labour Rights Forum, which filed the initial lawsuit declared:

“We have fought for a long time to bring accountability to supply chains and to bring redress for the victims.”

According to data from McGill, the average cocoa farmer has six children and survives on a real income of 40 cents  per day – way below the global poverty line. It’s not the first time the Swiss company has been linked with this type of abuse. The 2010 documentary The Dark Side of Chocolate brought attention to purchases of cocoa beans from Ivorian plantations that use child slave labor. All in all, it’s estimated that 1.8 million children in West Africa are involved in growing cocoa. Patti Rundall, policy director at campaign group at International Baby Food Action Network, has challenged Nestle’s practices for over 30 years:

“Every time you eat their chocolate you are benefitting from child slavery,” she said. “There is very little cocoa production that isn’t sourced in a bad way and it will take a long time to change that due to the nature of large corporations.“

This is a good reminder that we can all play our part. The Harkin–Engel Protocol, an international agreement aimed at ending the worst forms of child labor and forced labor is constantly being breached so we should pay attention where we buy our chocolate from.

 

Science finds the most and least addictive foods

Scientists from the University of Michigan have found which are the most and least addictive foods in the world. They gathered data from over 500 participants and found that the most addictive foods are (no surprise) pizza, ice cream and chocolate, while the least addictive ones are cucumbers, carrots, beans and rice.

Pizza was the most addictive food, according to questionnaires answered by 400 people.

 

It’s been debated for years whether or not food addiction actually exists; naturally, we are all addicted to food in the sense that we have to eat in order to survive. But can you actually be addicted to certain foods, like hamburgers? There is still no general consensus on this, but biologists seem to dismiss this idea, while many psychologists claim that food addiction is a real, serious problem – there are documented cases with people going through withdrawal-like symptoms when living without certain foods. With this in mind, a researcher from the University of Michigan and one from the New York Obesity Research Center, the Department of Medicine set out to find what are the most addictive foods.

For this, they asked participants to answer questions based on the Yale Food Addiction Scale. The scale was designed in 2009 by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and asks people to answer 25 questions on how much they like a certain food. The scale asks participants to count the number of times they’ve agreed with sentences like, “I eat to the point where I feel physically ill” or “I spend a lot of time feeling sluggish or fatigued from overeating,” to help them identify the biggest offenders. Scientists emphasized that “foods” doesn’t mean only unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables, but can also apply to processed foods.

However, when the same study was conducted on undergrads, chocolate turned out to be the most addictive food.

Study 1 – the undergraduates

They conducted two separate studies to see what foods are considered problematic – how much is a certain food overeaten or eaten up to the point where it causes physical discomfort. The first study was conducted on 120 undergraduates. who were recruited from flyers on campus or through the University of Michigan Introductory Psychology Subject Pool. Students received either financial compensation or study credit for their time.

No surprises there, chocolate took the top spot, with over 1 in 4 people considering chocolate problematic. Ice cream, french fries and pizza followed, again, rather expectedly. But there were also some surprises: breakfast cereals were more problematic than soda or fried chicken, while water was considered to be more problematic than cucumbers or beans… I guess no one really loves beans.

journal.pone.0117959.t002

“As hypothesized, highly processed foods (with added fat and/or refined carbohydrates) appeared to be most associated with behavioral indicators of addictive-like eating,” the study writes.

Study 2

Ice is always one of the favorites.

The team also conducted a second study, on almost 400 participants.

“A total of 398 participants were recruited using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) worker pool to complete a study about eating behaviors and were compensatedfor their time”.

journal.pone.0117959.t003

So this is the chart of what can be considered the most addictive foods. Interestingly enough, results were slightly different. Pizza took the top spot and chocolate had to settle for second. Chips, cookies and ice cream come closely after. Breakfast cereal dropped significantly, and the least popular food is… the cucumber.

I was surprised to find bananas close to the bottom of the list, even under water. But what’s really the takeaway here is that virtually all the addictive foods are processed.

“In summary, the current study found that highly processed foods, with added amounts of fat and/or refined carbohydrates (e.g., sugar, white flour), were most likely to be associated with behavioral indicators of addictive-like eating. Additionally, foods with high GL were especially related to addictive-like eating problems for individuals endorsing elevated symptoms of “food addiction.” Individuals endorsing symptoms of addictive-like eating behavior may be more susceptible to the large blood sugar spike of high GL foods, which is consistent with the importance of dose and rate of absorption in the addictive potential of drugs of abuse,” the study concludes.

Nutrients in chocolate improve memory in seniors

Scientists have found that cocoa flavanols, substances found in chocolate, and to a lesser extent in blueberries, red wine, parsley and black tea have a positive impact on the memory of elders.

chocolate memory

Image via commodity online

Flavonoids are a class of plant secondary metabolites. Flavonoids were referred to as Vitamin P until 1950, but the term fell out of favor. Though there is ongoing research into the potential health benefits of individual flavonoids, neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has approved any flavonoids as pharmaceutical drugs. However, this new study shows definite promise in that field.

Researchers have shown that flavonoids have a positive impact on the memory formation ability of seniors. They do this probably by improving the activity of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a major component of the brains of humans and other vertebrates. Humans and other mammals have two hippocampi, one in each side of the brain. The area plays a key role in making new memories – as experiments have shown in the 1950s, people without the hippocampus can’t form new memories.

The thing is, just how a country can be divided into states or other areas, the hippocampus can also be divided into “geographical” areas. Some areas are particularly prone to degradation in old age – when Alzheimer’s becomes a distinct possibility; one of these areas is the dentate gyrus (or DG). It shows the most consistent changes as we age. Inspired by a study done on mice, Adam Brickman and his colleagues in Scott Small’s lab at Columbia University decided to pursue the question of whether adding cocoa flavanols to the diet of adults aged 50-69 could improve DG functionality.

Image credits: Brickman et al, 2014.

They split participants into 2 groups – one which was given 900 mg of cocoa flavanols per day, whereas others took only 45 mg per day. After three months, they put the groups take the same test, designe specifically to assess DG functionality.

The results were pretty clear. The group who was consuming more cocoa flavanols performed considerably better on the test – with reaction times that were almost a full second quicker than adults in the low-flavanol group. Furthermore, subjects within the high-flavanol showed higher cerebral blood volumes in the DG, which also indicates an increased activity in the area of the brain. Big increases in blood supply meant big decreases in reaction time.

It’s not yet clear if the effect is strong enough to justify the development of a new drug based on flavanols – but in the meantime, it’s pretty clear: chocolate is your friend.

Reference: Enhancing dentate gyrus function with dietary flavanols improves cognition in older adults (2014) Adam M Brickman, Usman A Khan, Frank A Provenzano, Lok-Kin Yeung, Wendy Suzuki, Hagen Schroeter, Melanie Wall, Richard P Sloan & Scott A Small. Nature Neuroscience, 17 1798-1803.

Hot Chocolate

Drinking hot chocolate from an orange or creme colored cup makes it taste better

Hot Chocolate

A group of researchers from Polytechnic University of Valencia and Oxford University asked study participants to sample hot chocolate contained in variously colored cups. Their results suggest that drinking hot chocolate and other similar brews from orange or creme colored containers enhances its flavor.

The scientists asked the 57 participants to taste the same hot chocolate from four differently colored cups – orange, blue, red and creme – and of white interior. Almost unanimously all participants stated that the chocolate drank from the orange or creme cup was tastier, while some even stated the creme cups tasted sweeter and was more aromatic. All of this despite the fact all types of cups were filled with the same chocolate.

The idea that taste is significantly influenced by external visual cues is far from being new – corporations know this very well and exploit this fact in their marketing ploys –  but the present study adds further weight to the idea. For instance, it’s been shown that food that has a red appearance will most likely be perceived as more spicy than an equally spicy dish of a different color. A 2007 study in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that the color of orange juice had a greater impact on taste perception than actual differences in samples

“The color of the container where you serve food and drinks can enhance some of its attributes, like flavor and aroma. There’s no fixed rule to tell which color enhances what food. This varies depending on the type of food but the truth is that the effect is there. Companies should pay more attention to the container because it has a lot more potential than what you imagine.” said  Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, one of the study authors.

via Gizmodo

2,500 year-old Mayan chocolate suggests it was used a as condiment, not just as a beverage

Anthropologists believe cacao beans and pods were mainly used in pre-Hispanic cultures as a beverage, a practice which can be traced traced as far as some 3,500 years ago . The resulting beverage would have been reserved for the Mayan elite. Now, a recent archeological find shows  traces of 2,500-year-old chocolate on a plate in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula — suggesting it may have also been used as a spice or a condiment.

The discovery was made by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and offers a broader picture of how chocolate was used in ancient Mexico.

“This is the first time it has been found on a plate used for serving food,” archaeologist Tomas Gallareta said. “It is unlikely that it was ground there (on the plate), because for that they probably used metates (grinding stones).”

Subsequent tests of the samples brought in for analysis at the lab revealed a “ratio of theobromine and caffeine compounds that provide a strong indicator of cacao usage,” according to a statement by the university.

“These are certainly interesting results,” John S. Henderson, a Cornell University professor of Anthropology and one of the foremost experts on ancient chocolate, said in an email Thursday.

“[…]the presence of cacao residues on plates is even more interesting … the important thing is that it was on flat serving vessels and so presented or served in some other way than as a beverage,” Henderson continued.

Although the present cacao traces date back from 500 BC, this isn’t the oldest evidence attesting chocolate use in the Yucatan.  Beverage vessels found in excavations of Gulf coast sites of the Olmec culture, to the west of the Yucatan, and other sites in Chiapas, to the south, have yielded traces around 1,000 years older.

source: AP

Eat chocolate and you’ll be thinner – but only if you exercise

I love chocolate, and to be frank, I don’t really care if it goes directly to my hips or not, but millions of women and men all across the world believe differently. For them this study is godsend.

A research letter published by the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that healthy people which exercise regularly and eat chocolate tend to have a lower body mass than those who keep the rich sweets off their table. The survey analyzed over 1000 adults, aged 20 to 80, who on average exercised once every two days and ate chocolate twice a week, and those who ate chocolate more than the average tended to have a lower ratio of weight over height.

The body mass index or BMI is calculated by taking a person’s weight and dividing it by their height times two. The normal BMI is somewhere between 18.5 to 24.9, anything lower than that is considered underweight, and anything higher than that is considered overweight.

“Adults who consumed chocolate more frequently had a lower BMI than those who consumed chocolate less often,” said the study led by Beatrice Golomb and colleagues at the University of California San Diego. “Our findings — that more frequent chocolate intake is linked to lower BMI — are intriguing,” she added, calling for more detailed research and perhaps a randomized clinical trial of chocolate’s metabolic benefits.

However, experts urge for moderation, especially before establishing a well-understood pattern.

“Before you start eating a chocolate bar a day to keep the doctor away, remember that a chocolate bar can contain over 200 calories which mostly come from saturated fats and sugar,” said Nancy Copperman, director of Public Health Initiatives at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in New York. “Consider limiting your chocolate fix to a one ounce (28 grams) portion of dark chocolate or adding cocoa powder which is very low in fat to your food once a day,” said Copperman, who was not involved in the study.

Aphrodisiac plants examined in new study

Cute lady munching off a chocolate tablet. Little does she know that it doesn't have any aphrodisiac effect whatsoever.

Aphrodisiacs  have been used to improvement sexual performance and desire for thousands of years now, but which of them are really effective or simple old waives’ tales? Researchers from University of Guelph claim they’ve conducted the most elaborate study to date as far as aphrodisiacs are concerned.

“Aphrodisiacs have been used for thousands of years all around the world, but the science behind the claims has never been well understood or clearly reported,” said researcher Massimo Marcone. “Ours is the most thorough scientific review to date. Nothing has been done on this level of detail before now.”

This is actually a meta-study, meaning that researchers have went through hundreds of studies that tackle aphrodisiac, selecting only those that qualify under some very exigent scientific criteria, before compiling them in a list.

What really works? Well, researchers are pretty convinced that improvements in sexual function can be made with three plants: panax ginseng, saffron and yohimbine (a compound from yohimbe trees in West Africa). Regarding aphrodisiac plants that enhance sexual desire, only two such plants were found: muira puama and maca root (both from South America). When talking about drugs like Viagra, researchers warn that while they indeed treat erectyle disfuctions, they don’t increase ones libido whatsoever.

“There is a need for natural products that enhance sex without negative side effects,” co-researcher John Melnyk contends. “Drugs can produce headache, muscle pain and blurred vision, and can have dangerous interactions with other medications.”

Convinced that chocolate gets you going where you need to? Well, I hate to break to you, but chocolate, researchers say, has absolutely no aphrodisiac effect. “It may be that some people feel an effect from certain ingredients in chocolate, mainly phenylethylamine, which can affect serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain,” Marcone said.

Marcone said that the findings support the use of plants for sexual enhancement but urged caution as “there is not enough evidence to support the widespread use of these substances as effective aphrodisiacs.” He also warned people to stay away from other supposed aphrodisiacs such as Spanish fly and Bufo toad. “While purported to be sexually enhancing, they produced the opposite result and can even be toxic,” he stressed.

The paper will be published in Food Research International.