I don’t want to scare you (11 days early). But the world may be running out of the cacao bean used to make chocolate. Between changes in the climate and increasingly difficult growing conditions, cacao supply is running low. And demand is higher than ever, thanks to a wave of new research about its health benefits.
In one new study, a team of researchers asked 968 participants about their dietary habits, including their consumption of chocolate, alcohol, coffee, meat, pasta, rice, and water. Then, in multiple tests, researchers linked chocolate most strongly to improved cognitive performance in areas such as working memory, reasoning, organization, and visual and sensory processing. Chocolate consumption also protected against age-related cognitive changes. It also appeared to benefit cardiovascular function, confirming research I have reported before.
Previous studies dating back decades show chocolate helps treat fever, cleans the teeth, promotes restful sleep, boosts mood, and improves blood circulation. It also helps stimulate milk production in breast-feeding mothers. Research shows eating chocolate can even help with weight loss.
When it comes to chocolate, the darker the better
Of course, these studies all focused on dark chocolate. It is the only kind of chocolate I ever recommend eating. (Skip the milk chocolate with added sugar and fats.) And I’m happy to report that one popular chocolate maker now offers 90 percent “supreme” dark chocolate, beyond the 70 percent and 80 percent varieties previously considered dark.
As I mentioned earlier, chocolate comes from cacao beans, which have many similarities to coffee beans. Both contain methylxanthines, like caffeine. In the case of cacao, it is high in theobromine. These biological, non-drug stimulants naturally boost mood and brain activity. They also support blood circulation, which is good for the brain in addition to the cardiovascular system. Theobromine also stimulates cells to produce and release fluids, which perhaps explain why eating chocolate stimulates breast milk production in nursing mothers. And cacao beans also contain antioxidants, like polyphenols, and other natural, active ingredients that benefit brain, heart and other body systems over the long term.
The new “supreme” dark chocolate is about as pure as you can get. It contains a minimum 90 percent cocoa solids. And a one-square serving of 10 grams has just 60 calories, with 47.5 calories coming from essential fats, which means the calories don’t come from sugar. Total fat is 5.5 grams, of which three are saturated fats, with zero trans fats. In addition, it has just one percent of your total carb daily intake. It also has one percent of your daily calcium intake and four percent of your daily iron intake. This is good news as I always encourage you to get your calcium and iron through natural, dietary sources, never a supplement.
But just as we are getting better chocolate sources and eating more of it, the worldwide chocolate supply is being threatened.
Chocolate supply subject to reality of supply and demand
Chocolate originated from the Mayan civilization on the Yucatan Peninsula in modern day Mexico. When Spanish explorers arrived to the Peninsula, they noticed an amazing energy boost from eating chocolate, so they gave it to their soldiers for stamina in the field.
But cacao only grows within 20 degrees of the equator. And it was very difficult and expensive to bring chocolate from the Americas to Europe. So for centuries, people associated it only with royalty.
Since none of the European nations could grow cacao at home, they began growing it on their colonies during the 1800s. The Dutch began growing cacao beans on the “spice islands” of Indonesia to make the famous Dutch chocolate. The Belgians began growing it in the Congo for Belgian chocolate and the French followed suit.
Today, 70 percent of cacao grows in Africa in such places as Ghana and the Cote D’Ivoire on the coast of the former French West Africa.
Today’s demand for high-quality chocolate is estimated at 21,000 metric tons per year, whereas supply is only 8,000 tons per year. This dire situation leads chocolate makers to dilute the higher-quality sources.
African development authorities say changes in the climate where cacao is grown are also affecting the supply of cacao. And they anticipate further reductions by the year 2030.
So for now, while you can still afford it (and still find it on shelves in the U.S.), go ahead and enjoy a bit of dark chocolate every day. It is one food you can absolutely consider as a medicine.
And while you’re at it, at the end of the month, consider handing out healthy little squares of dark chocolate, instead of bars of milk chocolate, to the trick-or-treaters who come knocking at your door. (Then, for a little trick or treat of your own, watch their reactions when they eat it!)
“Chocolate intake is associated with better cognitive function: The Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study,” Appetite. 2016 May 1;100:126-32