Chocolate and coffee provide a luxurious and indulgent element in the lives of many. Some call them foods, others drugs; some deem them to be healthy, others a risk. No matter your perspectives these two products, each derived from a bean of sorts, provide endless fascination and debate as to their qualities. Let’s take a look at what makes these foods what they are.
Chocolate and coffee: the good, the bad and the ugly
By Glenn Ashton

Chocolate and coffee provide a luxurious and indulgent element in the lives of many. Some call them foods, others drugs; some deem them to be healthy, others a risk. No matter your perspectives these two products, each derived from a bean of sorts, provide endless fascination and debate as to their qualities. Let’s take a look at what makes these foods what they are.

Chocolate: soul food
This bean, together with the surrounding fruit derived from the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, has been consumed by humans for at least 2 000 years, possibly longer. Cocoa is endemic to Central and South America and the two main varieties, the criollo and the forestero, respectively provide 10% and 90% of global production. The former provides a pale product, the latter the dark cocoa with which we are so familiar.
The name of cocoa, theobroma, provides a clue as to its main psychoactive component, theobromine. Theobroma means food of the gods, a sentiment with which many would agree. While it may be a good food it also has many proven and anecdotal health benefits.
Traditionally the cocoa plant had several uses, including the control of parasites, as an antiseptic, and even as a remedy for snakebite. While it may be a bit extreme to go on a chocolate binge if a cobra bites you, nevertheless several clinical trials have shown the usefulness of cocoa and its active ingredients for other applications.
The most notable of these is as a potential cough suppressant. Double-blind studies show that cocoa is far more efficacious than normal cough remedies such as codeine.1 Cocoa also has a high number of anti-cancer phytochemicals (theobromine itself is a phytochemical) and related compounds such as antioxidants.2 Theobromine also has marked diuretic properties, useful in cases of fluid accumulation. It also has dilatory effects on the circulatory system, helping to reduce the effects of high blood pressure, and it is thought to reduce the likelihood of heart attacks and strokes.3
Then there is the drug aspect of cocoa. As a confirmed chocoholic I, like millions of others, can attest to its addictiveness. This may possibly be related to both its sensuous eating qualities and to its effects on the brain. Chocolate is a comfort food, with high fat and sugar levels. But it is also a dopamine stimulant, similar to caffeine in its properties, although somewhat milder. Beside theobromine, cocoa contains other psychoactive compounds such as methylxanthines, biogenic amines, and cannabinoid-like fatty acids that could all contribute to increasing its addictive potential, but the latter most likely derives from a combination of its pleasant eating qualities and its psychoactive compounds. There are no universal withdrawal symptoms.
But is chocolate good for you? Well, as we have learned, it has many beneficial properties but again we get back to the old bugbears, namely industrial processing, the use of chemicals in growing cocoa, and the additives introduced into the cocoa mixture.
Milk chocolate has very few good qualities remaining; it has almost no theobromine, compared with dark chocolate. Chocolate syrups and other chocolate-flavoured foods are similarly depleted of much benefit, as tasty as they may be. Milk chocolate contains high levels of milk, fat, sugar and emulsifiers such as soy lecithin. Much of the world’s cheap chocolate is grown intensively in plantations that rely on chemicals to control pests. Slave and child labour is also allegedly used in cultivating cacao.
It is best to eat your food as close to its natural state as possible. Good chocolate contains cocoa butter, the natural theobromine-containing fat found in the cocoa bean. Cheap chocolate contains vegetable fat that may even be hydrogenated. Buy organic when possible; failing that eat dark chocolate; it has less sugar, no dairy, and a far higher cocoa content. It may be more expensive, but hey, you gets what you pays for….
And then there is that cup of hot cocoa to put you to sleep, until morning when you wake up and smell the fresh aroma of….

Coffee, the fuel of workers
Compared with cocoa, coffee has a far more chequered health pedigree. Its higher caffeine content makes it a far more potent drug than chocolate. It energises industry, and is the legal upper of the office worker; without coffee, overworked and underpaid employees would almost certainly be far less productive.
Coffee was mentioned by Homer and originates from Ethiopia. It spread through Europe in the time of the Ottomans and has since become a globally important crop; around 10 species are grown, with Coffea arabica and C. robusta the most widely cultivated. Arabica has a lower caffeine content and constitutes around 75% of the global crop.
Numerous studies have proven that caffeine, the main psychoactive component in coffee, helps to keep exhausted individuals sharp. It can also make people jittery, nervous, anxious and even paranoid, as well as increasing the risk of hypertensive coronary heart problems. It is just the thing to keep the office on its toes, in fact.
More worryingly, coffee raises our levels of homocysteine, further upping the heart risk. Accordingly, coffee is not a good idea for people who are stressed, smoke, don’t exercise or have other risk factors present for coronary or circulatory disease. It can also lead to anaphylactic shock in sensitive individuals.
Coffee should not be consumed in pregnancy or when trying to conceive as it has been linked to stillbirths and difficulties in conception. On the other hand it has been shown to assist survival of premature babies! I wonder who paid for that study?
The caffeine in coffee, and in other beverages such as tea, guarana and colas, is often rapidly tolerated and addictive. Mild withdrawal symptoms such as headaches and irritability are typical.
On the other hand, should Koeberg blow up, two studies have shown that high caffeine levels increase survival rates of mammals exposed to otherwise fatal doses of radiation!4 While we all hope that we will never need coffee for this eventuality, it does have other benefits. For instance it has been shown to contain higher levels of beneficial bioflavonoids and antioxidants than either green tea or cocoa; the relative bioavailabity of these compounds remains disputed in each of these beverages.
A direct relationship has been found between coffee consumption and a decreased risk of contracting type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes.5 Three independent studies have individually come to the same conclusion, showing a marked reduction in risk of type 2 diabetes in proportion to the amount of coffee consumed. To a lesser extent this has also been found to be the case with tea, indicating that caffeine may be the active factor in this regard.
Asthma sufferers have also been shown to benefit from moderate coffee consumption; they may even be able to use coffee in emergencies to reduce the severity of attacks.
Coffee has also been linked to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s6-7 diseases, possibly by stimulating the nervous system and increasing dopamine levels. It has also been found to be statistically linked to a reduced risk of gallstones.8
As with cocoa, coffee is also likely to be seriously adulterated. The dairy and sugar in double lattes and cappuccino, and the whisky and cream in an Irish coffee probably involve more risk than a smidgen of caffeine. Production methods must be watched; highly processed instant coffee certainly contains fewer benefits than pure, ground coffee.
Pesticides and treatment chemicals are also a problem. This can be overcome by using organic and natural-grown coffees, which are increasingly available, as are fair trade coffees. These all increase the social, environmental and health benefits of consuming this popular zippy beverage.
On the whole both coffee and cocoa are healthy. Those with compromised health systems should be aware of the risks but when enjoyed in moderation, and taking into consideration all other personal health factors, most of us would benefit from enjoying these two treats as nature meant us to, in their purest possible state.

1. New Scientist, 22 November 2004.
6. Leitzman M. Willett WC, Rimm EB, et al. A prospective study of coffee consumption and the risk of symptomatic gallstone disease in men. JAMA 1999; 281: 2106-2122.
7. Webster Ross G, Abbott RD, Petrovitch H, et al. Association of coffee and caffeine intake with the risk of Parkinson disease. JAMA 2000; 283: 2674-2679.

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By | 2017-04-11T08:17:19+00:00 April 10th, 2017|Categories: Blog, Issue 70 April 2011, natural|Tags: |