Chocolate Unwrapped: The Surprising Health Benefits of America's Favorite Passion, by Rowan Jacobsen (Invisible Cities Press, Montpelier, Vermont, 2003)
Like chocolate, this delicious book goes down easily, and the facts about chocolate's health benefits are not hard to swallow. At a mere 126 pages from introduction through references, it's a quick and easy read—I read most of it on the way to and from church today—and yet manages to cover the history and production of chocolate, a good deal of detail on why chocolate—which begins as a fruit, after all—should be considered a health food, environmental and labor issues in the production of chocolate, unusual chocolate recipes, and list of great chocolate sources. It is necessary to ignore a few insults to Columbus, the Puritans, and anyone who likes milk chocolate, but on the whole these are minor annoyances.
Did you know that there are three types of cacao plant? The criollo beans of Mesoamerica have the best flavor; but the forastero beans of South America (transplanted to Africa) have taken over 90% of the market, because their trees are hardier and more productive. Trinitario, a hybrid of the two, was developed in Trinidad and though it supposedly carries the best characteristics of each, it runs a far-distant second. It is a familiar story, this choice of quantity over quality: think instant coffee, Velveeta cheese, cheap wine, Wonder Bread, and red-rock tomatoes. But as more and more people join the taste revolution, choosing to enjoy whole grains, local vegetables, and espresso, so also are the more flavorful varieties of cacao becoming popular. And as with wine and cheese, where chocolate comes from—the soil, the climate, the environment—makes a difference in the flavor.
It's not too surprising that the darker the chocolate, the more beneficial components it retains. The author recommends 70% cacao, as beyond that the melt-in-your-mouth effect is lost. I figure I'm close enough with my Ghirardelli 60% cacao chocolate chips. :)
And what are those beneficial components? Legion. Anti-oxidants galore—it blows away the competition, including blueberries, red wine, and green tea. "[O]ne good-quality dark chocolate bar can have more polyphenols than two whole days' worth of fruits and vegetables." You know how some doctors prescribe daily 81-milligram doses of aspirin for its clot-prevention effects? Turns out a couple of squares of dark chocolate have the same effect. Hmmm...I know what my choice would be.
Chocolate also contains a whole slew of low-dose, mood-altering chemicals, including anadamide, which is nearly identical to the THC found in marijuana. Seems those marijuana brownies of our college days did more than just disguise the illegal drug. (And no, I didn't partake, didn't even have the opportunity. But I can't follow President Clinton in saying I didn't inhale, because second-hand smoke of more than one kind was unavoidable back then.) There's a reason eating chocolate makes us feel better.
The section on environmental and labor issues is balanced, pointing out that the issues are complicated. In attempting to combat child labor on cacao plantations in Côte d'Ivoire, for example, one must take care not to do more harm than good.
For these cacao laborers, a poor-paying job is still better than none. And preteens working in agriculture alongside their parents has been part of African culture for centuries, if not longer. Of the one million cacao farms in West Africa, the vast majority are tiny (less than five acres) family affairs. The child labor abuses reported were confined to the few large plantations, but boycotting cacao from Ivory Coast would affect the family farms even more severely than the plantations.
Jacobson supports the Fair Trade program, which has grown beyond coffee to include cacao, and has two sets of standards, one for small farmers and another for plantations and factories. He also recommends buying organic chocolate, which is grown in a more environmentally-sustainable fashion—and also is more likely to contain the better-tasting criollo beans.
There's one more delightful side effect of Chocolate Unwrapped: last night I read a section of it out loud after dinner, and Porter immediately brought me a bowl of Publix Chocolate Trinity ice cream and a glass of red wine. :)