It is spelled "love", but pronounced "chocolate". This classic for lovers is one of the most popular treats in the world. Made from cocoa, cacao, or both, its consumption has been associated since ancient times with pleasurable sensations, and has even been considered an aphrodisiac.

Although the subject is still a source of controversy - it is debated whether the "chocolate effect" is chemical or psychological - it is believed that the ingredients of this sweet treat have a positive influence on our brain, activating the production of endorphins (the famous "happiness hormones"), which improve our mood and generate pleasure.

Chocolate is and tastes good

Chocolate, contrary to what many people think, is not "junk food". Instead, it is a food rich in a wide range of nutrients. Depending on its recipe -each brand has a different formulation-, we can find fats (which in turn contain fatty acids that do not increase "bad" cholesterol in the blood), carbohydrates, vitamins A and B (thiamine, for example), minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and copper, folic acid and the famous polyphenols, chemicals present in plants that help counteract tissue oxidation. Not to mention theobromine, a relative of caffeine that helps to "activate" our organism, with diuretic and blood flow stimulating properties.

What's the downside of this delicious food?

Its high energy content. Regardless of the formulation, chocolate contains sugar (or sweeteners, in the case of "sugar-free" products) as one of its main ingredients. Therefore, its abuse, combined with a sedentary lifestyle or an unbalanced diet, can contribute to weight gain, because, as we know, the energy that is not "burned" becomes reserves, taking the form of body fat and causing serious complications if it continues to accumulate. As with other foods and beverages, the best way to consume this product is in moderation and taking into account our lifestyle.

Its ingredients - which vary depending on the formulation of each product - include milk, sugar, fruit, creams or liquors (as fillers), flavorings, and even compounds such as theobromine and caffeine, which act as stimulants in our bodies. In Mexico, this product is regulated by Mexican Official Mexican Standard NOM-186-SSA1/SCFI-2002, Products and Services. Cocoa, products, and derivatives. I. Cocoa. II. Chocolate. III Derivatives. Sanitary specifications. Trade name, which states that, regardless of the type of chocolate in question, the fat of the product must not contain vegetable fat other than cocoa butter in a proportion greater than 5%.

Fat content and type

Mexican Official Standard NOM 186-SSA1/SCFI-2002 establishes specific criteria to determine whether a food can be considered chocolate. It is important to note that the composition of chocolates varies depending on the ingredients with which they are made. In cocoa butter, for example, saturated fatty acids predominate, to which butterfat can be added when milk is part of the recipe. It can also contain polyunsaturated fats from seeds added to the product, such as peanuts, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, etc.

The Mexican Official Standard NOM 186-SSA1/SCFI-2002 establishes specific criteria for the use of vegetable fats other than cocoa fats, however, the official standard establishes a limit of 5% of the total fats in the finished product. This is because some manufacturers use them to adulterate the product, passing it off as chocolate food that is not. In addition, hydrogenated vegetable fats, as well as saturated fats, can raise the "bad" cholesterol in the blood.

Sweetener content and type

Sugar is the main ingredient in chocolates, which is all the more reason to quantify the total sugar content (sucrose, glucose, fructose, and lactose) of each product. This result varies according not only to the type of chocolate but also to the formulation of the different brands. Chocolate, unlike other foods, is not a significant source of protein. Regardless of its formulation, one of the main ingredients in chocolate is sugar. Take it into account before taking the first bite.

Caloric value

As you may have noticed, chocolates are rich in fat and sugar. No one is surprised that their caloric intake is high. Even in the case of "sugar-free" presentations, where the energy intake may not decrease - or at least not as much as we might expect. In some of these cases, sugar is simply replaced by fructose, which provides the same amount of calories (4 kilocalories per gram); in others, it is replaced by polyols, which provide approximately 2 kilocalories per gram; and in still others, the reduction in sugar is compensated for by adding fat. Whatever the formula, all products are obliged to declare their ingredients and nutritional content in one serving.

Sugar-free chocolate?

Depending on the brand, "sugar-free" chocolates contain non-caloric sweeteners such as aspartame or acesulfame, and/or polyols such as isomalt, maltitol, or lactitol, among others. Polyols are absorbed slowly and incompletely in our small intestine. They then pass into the bloodstream and, using very little insulin, are converted into energy. Thanks to this detail, they do not raise blood glucose (concentration of free glucose in the blood) quickly but produce a much slower response.

For this reason, associations such as the Mexican Diabetes Federation, A.C. recommend these products for people suffering from diabetes. However, there are limitations in their consumption, since they can react with the bacteria we harbor in the large intestine, starting a fermentation process. Hence, excessive consumption of this product may cause gastrointestinal pain, flatulence, or temporary diarrhea in people. For this reason, the law requires that all products containing polyols must indicate in their labeling that these discomforts may occur in some people.

The origins of chocolate

When they transformed the cocoa bean (Theobroma cacao) into chocólatl or chocolate, the pre-Hispanic peoples of Mexico gave this plant an extraordinary value by producing a product of exquisite aroma, flavor, and nutritional, dietary, cosmetic, and medicinal properties, which has been and continues to be enjoyed all over the world.

Although scientific research places the wild origin of this small tree in the Amazon basin, it was not in that region where it was given the added value that we know today of the "food of the gods", but in Mexico, where to date the indigenous communities of Chiapas and Tabasco cultivate the cocoa tree.

The cacao tree: kakawa, in the Mixe-Zoquean voice of the ancient Olmecs, or kaj (bitter) and kab (juice) in the Mayan language, with the passage of time, became cacahuatl, without knowing exactly how and when the plant arrived in Mexico, whether by pollinators or introduced as a plant.

As if that were not enough, this species of the Malvaceae family provides environmental services, since when grown in the shade it favors the development of a large number of plants, animals, and fungi is suitable for the reforestation of areas that have been cut down and helps in the conservation of vegetation that provides greater connectivity of habitats.

Most of the national volume is produced in Tabasco (67%) and Chiapas (31%). Other states such as Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Veracruz grow it on a low scale. Eating chocolate has always been associated with health benefits, such as increased energy, resistance to hard work, and low temperatures.

Cocoa
Cocoa, the base element of chocolate. Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay

Cocoa, the main input for chocolate production

Chocolate generates a feeling of well-being due to the substances that compose it, regardless of whether it is bitter, white, dark, with milk or without milk, its characteristics make it a natural stimulant. It is attributed to benefits such as memory enhancement, which helps prevent heart attacks, lose weight, improve the flexibility of the arteries, prevent the accumulation of white blood cells, and even reduce stress and wrinkles.

This food is made with a paste of cocoa powder and sugar, it comes in different forms and varieties, it is used in desserts, salty foods, cold drinks, hot drinks, or simply in the form of a bar. The base element of chocolate is cocoa, a crop native to Mexico, berry-shaped, medium to large, yellow, purple, or white, its cultivation is concentrated in lowlands and tropical lands.

It should be noted that in 2016 the Denomination of Origin was attributed to cocoa grown in the Grijalva region of Tabasco, without forgetting that the main producing states are Tabasco, Chiapas, and Guerrero. The main input for the production of chocolate was obtained in 2017 from an area of 60 thousand hectares planted with cocoa, contributing to Mexico's 11th place worldwide as an exporter of chocolate products.

Recommendations

Moderate yourself

According to the results of the study, 100 grams of chocolate can contain up to 597 kilocalories; that is, approximately a quarter of the daily caloric intake a person needs. Therefore, we recommend you check the net content of the package and ration it in such a way that all that energy does not turn into "extra kilos".

Frothy and sugary

Due to its use, table chocolate contains more sugar than the rest. Keep this in mind when preparing it or if you consume it as a treat.

No guilt

Contrary to what many people think, chocolate is not a "junk food". Its moderate intake in the context of a balanced diet brings exquisite health benefits, as it contains antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and helps the production of serotonin and endorphins.

They contain phenylalanine

Is your body sensitive to phenylalanine? Pay attention to labels. Among the chocolates that do not contain sugar, there are products containing non-caloric sweeteners such as aspartame and acesulfame K. The latter is not recommended for people with phenylalanine sensitivity. The latter is not recommended for people with phenylketonuria, that is, people whose bodies cannot degrade the amino acid known as phenylalanine.

Bitter or sweet?

If you want to know how bitter or sweet chocolate is, check its labeling. As with other foods, its ingredients should be listed in descending order (i.e., from most to least present in the product). If cocoa appears first, you can be sure that it will be more bitter than those where sugar or fructose appears.

How much is "sugar-free"?

Sugar-free chocolate, to be considered as such, can contain a maximum of 0.5 g of sugar per serving. Check their nutritional table to make sure you are getting one of these products.

Conservation tips

Chocolate has four enemies: humidity, heat, odors, and time. Do you know how to fight them?

Store it in its closed package in the cupboard or in any other cool place, protected from light, away from heat sources and sudden changes in temperature.

Although the ideal temperature to keep chocolate varies according to the composition of the products, it is best to keep it between 13 and 18 °C (55 and 64 °F).

Despite its low temperature, humidity in the refrigerator can affect the appearance of chocolates, making them less shiny and favoring the formation of a whitish layer on their surface (blooming of the fat contained in the cocoa butter). This physicochemical phenomenon only affects their appearance, not their flavor or safety.

Due to its high-fat content -and its capacity to absorb odors-, it is best that, once the package is opened, the chocolate is stored in a Tupper, wrapped in aluminum foil or far from any source of intense odors.

Although they are long-lived products under the right preservation conditions, it is advisable to check the expiration date.

Five typical foods with chocolate that will win you over

Chocolate is also used to prepare various dishes and drinks that represent the varied Mexican gastronomy, which owes its incomparable delicacies to cocoa.

Mole

Mestizo dish that was born in colonial times. It consists of pieces of chicken or turkey bathed in a sauce that mixes chocolate with chiles, spices, and other ingredients such as peanuts and ground almonds.

Oaxacan Enchiladas

They are filled with chicken and bathed in mole sauce. Cream and cheese are added on top.

Chocolate Tamales

Made with cocoa powder mixed with nuts, raisins, or almonds. They are wrapped in corn husks and bathed in red fruit sauce.

Pozol

It is a refreshing drink originally from Tabasco. It has been consumed since pre-Hispanic times, and its main ingredients are ground cocoa, cooked corn, and vanilla.

Chorote

Another drink native to the Tabasco region is also made with cocoa powder and cooked corn. It is also prepared with honey, coconut, and even chiles.

Which one do you crave the most?