By Professor Mike Gordon
University of Reading
What is chocolate?
Chocolate is made from the fruit of the cocoa tree. The cocoa beans are allowed to ferment before they are roasted to give the characteristic cocoa flavour. The cocoa liquor produced is combined with sugar, milk powder and a small amount of lecithin, which helps to make it flow smoothly in the mouth.
What nutritional value does it have?
Chocolate is an energy dense product, and excessive consumption without enough exercise could lead to an increase in weight. It contains about 30% fat, 60% of which is saturated fat. However, nutritionists have found possibly beneficial health effects of some components, especially the flavonoids, which may have effects on reducing the risk of developing heart disease.
Is it addictive?
Although cocoa contains many minor components, only caffeine and theobromine are present at levels that could possibly have effects on energy, sense of well-being, reaction time and concentration. However, the very desirable flavour and mouthfeel induces people to consume chocolate but this is in conflict with the knowledge that it could contribute to weight gain. This conflict causes anxiety, which is eased by attributing the effects to an addiction or craving.
Where did it come from?
Cocoa was an important drink in Central and South America from the 6th century. The Spanish brought the drink to Europe in the 16th century, and the noted scientist Sir Hans Sloane, a previous President of the Royal Society, devised the idea of improving the flavour of cocoa by mixing it with milk.