Warning: The following contains information disturbing to chocolate-lovers. Reader discretion is advised.
I hate to break it to you just as you nibble on your chocolate Easter bunny’s ear, but we’ve been misled.
Happily and willingly misled, but misled nonetheless.
Those expensive, for-adult-consumption-only Easter eggs you stashed out of the kids’ reach? They aren’t going to keep your teeth from falling out.
The dark chocolate bunny (85 per cent cocoa) you selected to help stave off the heart disease that lurks in your DNA? It won’t.
Neither will it help you out-debate your belligerent brother-in-law at the festive table this evening, nor remember the names of his three — or was that five? — ex-wives and their abundant broods that he’s invited along.
For two decades, we’ve heard that the taste-good, feel-good, go-to food we turn to for a legal dopamine fix when our bosses, brothers-in-law and kids infuriate us can help keep us healthy. Popular media celebrated every study that hinted at links between chocolate consumption and decreased tooth decay, improved memory, improved circulation, decreased risk of heart disease and strokes, lower body mass index, etc.
The reports provided hope — and justification for indulging.
We licked it up.
Dark chocolate became the darling of the candy world — the higher the cocoa content, the better.
Bound by laws that protect consumers from unfounded health claims, chocolate manufacturers spouted the usual nonsense about common sense and moderate consumption, while launching new dark-chocolate product lines. Suddenly, discerning consumers had their pick of cocoa concentrations, from sweet 35 per cent up to medicinally bitter 99 per cent.
Despite the reticence, it seemed our belief in the claims might be warranted. After all, Mars Inc. — maker of Mars Bars, Twix and Snickers — patented the use of cocoa compounds called flavanols against gum disease, cancer and other ailments. The company also funded a new line of laboratory and clinical research into flavanols, which are also found in red wine, coffee, and dark-coloured fruits and vegetables.
Our euphoria crescendoed. We nibbled on bonbons.
Then the first hints of dark chocolate’s dark secrets emerged.
(The faint of heart might want to turn to the Sports section.)
The flavanol compounds found in cocoa beans may indeed protect against gum disease, dilate our blood vessels and improve our memories. Alas, it appears few flavanols survive the processing that turns cocoa beans into luscious chocolate. That is, the chocolate we eat contains few, if any, of the healthy compounds we’ve been celebrating so enthusiastically.
Cocoa beans taste wretched. Their flavanol levels are high but impart an extreme bitterness. Research into our tolerance for flavanol flavour effects indicates we can stomach chocolate with at most 20 per cent high-flavanol cocoa content. This caps the potential healthfulness of our Easter bunnies.
Manufacturers use heat, fermentation and alkalinization to transform the gag-inducing cocoa beans into the food of the gods. However, each step reduces the beans’ health rating. The step that really strips out bitter flavanols is alkalinization or “Dutching.”
This means cocoa-content labelling is a marketing gimmick. The higher and darker the cocoa content, the more sugar, the more saturated fats and typically the fewer flavanols contained therein. Sigh.
Furthermore, it appears some chocolate — especially dark chocolate — contains amounts of lead and cadmium exceeding U.S. Food and Drug Administration targets. These heavy metals can lead to brain damage and other unwelcome outcomes.
The toxins likely come from contaminated soil and water.
And — more bad news — one compound found in some varieties of cocoa plants seems to survive processing just fine. However, research suggests it might increase a person’s likelihood of developing Parkinson’s disease.
When confronted with bad news like this, I usually seek solace in chocolate. Now what do I do?
Ah, well, as Mars Inc. and its corporate brethren say, everything in moderation.
That applies to disappointment, annoying brothers-in-law and chocolate.