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Heavy Metal Chocolate

a.i. generated image of chocolate bar lifting metal bars

Craft chocolate: It’s not just healthier, fairer, and better for the planet than ‘big chocolate’, but it’s also SAFER.

Craft chocolate’s focus on flavour, transparency, and fairness means that the risks of cadmium and/or lead in your chocolate can be controlled far more effectively than big chocolate’s prioritisation of cost minimisation and efficiency.

Consumer Reports, in the US, published an analysis of twenty eight dark chocolate bars which revealed that the vast majority exceeded California’s “maximum allowable dose limits” for cadmium and/or lead in chocolate (European regulations on cadmium and lead are different, and mandatory, whereas in the US each state has different requirements, with California being the toughest, but even these aren’t mandatory). 

Even though the number of bars that were analysed is small given the MILLIONS of bars consumed every day, this sort of spotlight is very welcome. The original article by Consumer Reports is well written and researched.

The dangers of cadmium, and even more so lead, in chocolate (and other products), have been known for some time. So this isn’t new news, but it’s worth reflecting on what these problems reveal about the differences between ‘craft’ and ‘mass-produced’ chocolate’s respective approaches to sourcing, bean quality, and flavour.

Bottom line: The good news is that cadmium and lead should not, and need not be in, (craft) chocolate. The bad news is that the reaction from big chocolate is, yet again, a deafening silence and an attempt to ignore, and wish the problems away.

A brief background on lead toxicity

Consuming lead (or using it to whiten your skin) is NOT a good idea. The Romans used it for pipes and to sweeten their wines, and Elizabeth I whitened her cheeks with powder containing it, and it DEFINITELY did them no good!

Lead is highly toxic, and we’ve known this since Roman times. If you want nightmares about lead poisoning, just read the WHO (World Health Organisation) report on the topic! But the good news, to quote the WHO is that “Lead exposure is preventable“.

The bad news is that “There is no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects” and it’s still far, far too prevalent. It’s sobering to realise that it was only in 1978 that lead paint was banned in the US, and despite recent disasters like Flint, many US household pipes still contain lead. And as Consumer Reports showed, it’s still in many mass-produced chocolate bars.

A brief background on cadmium toxicity

Cadmium is also toxic and a poison. It destroys our kidneys, bones, and lungs. But unlike lead, cadmium poisoning is more of an ‘industrial’ and recent disease.

In the 1840s artists discovered how cadmium could create extraordinary reds and yellows (think Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Monet’s Haystacks). Unfortunately, cadmium is also highly toxic, so the amount allowed in paints is carefully controlled (indeed every now and again different countries, and the EU, have tried to ban cadmium pigments in paints). And cadmium was also used extensively in the industrial revolution in zinc smelting, galvanising steel, etc.

variations of cadmium paints

Today, the people most at risk from cadmium poisoning are workers where cadmium is used and can be inhaled (like smelting and welding, and zinc mining and extraction) and smokers (and passive smokers).

At the same time, cadmium is naturally present in soils all over the world and it can be a contaminant in phosphate fertilizers. So as part of wider efforts to stop heavy metal poisoning, governments in the US and EU have set maximum cadmium levels for different foods. Interestingly, although chocolate has been hugely impacted by these regulations, it doesn’t appear to be one of the worst offenders. For example, when the EU introduced standards for cadmium levels in chocolate a decade ago, the report noted:

“Foodstuffs are the main source of cadmium exposure for the non-smoking general population. …The food groups that contribute most of the dietary cadmium exposure are cereals and cereal products, vegetables, nuts and pulses, starchy roots or potatoes, and meat and meat products”.

And yes, there are all sorts of conspiracy theories about political machinations as to whether this is a super Machiavellian campaign to favour cocoa from West Africa against South America, given that the volcanic soil of South America does sometimes have higher levels of cadmium; but see below; it’s a LOT more complex than simply how much cadmium is in the soil.

The US FDA’s most recent analysis of American diets discovered cadmium in some surprising places:

“The foods with the highest mean cadmium concentrations are sunflower seeds and spinach, …likely due to cadmium in the soil where growing occurs, the nature of the foods, as well as cultivating practices …The next highest mean cadmium concentration was found in potato chips”.

It only analysed one sample of cocoa powder, but this did contain “worrying” levels of cadmium (though not as much as potato chips).

Toxic Heavy Metals in Chocolate: Cadmium

As a cocoa tree grows, some cadmium (as well as zinc, iron, magnesium, and more) is absorbed from the soil and seeps through into the seeds within the cocoa pods.

The amount of cadmium absorbed is hugely impacted by the acidity of the soil (i.e. its pH balance); to quote a study that examined cadmium levels all over the world’s cocoa belt;

the total amount of soil cadmium and pH that explained the amount of cadmium that ends up in the bean …When you get into more acidic pH values, cadmium is more soluble and more available to the plant“.

Please see the links below to Margenot and Wade’s work on this topic.

stand of cocoa trees on a farm

Cadmium, and soil pH levels, are both very, very localised. So blanket assumptions that “this country is fine, this country is a problem” are way too simplistic; one corner of a single field can be a massive problem, another corner be absolutely fine.

The age of the tree also determines how much cadmium is passed through to the cocoa seeds; with older trees generally passing on higher traces of cadmium.

There are also some suggestions that different cocoa varietals may differ in how they absorb cadmium. And to quote one expert here;

One could silence uptake pathways with CRISPR (gene editing) and stop the heavy metals migration into the tree, cacao pods and seeds [but] that’s a 3-5 year project with trees in the ground after that …10-15 years to scale“.

So short term, we are back to avoiding obvious ‘no-nos’ like drying beans on the side of busy roads. And we’re testing batches of beans, and controlling the pH of fields.

Indeed, craft chocolate has launched a number of initiatives not just to monitor for cadmium, but also to address, and reverse, any problems. For example, Original Beans has managed to reduce the amount of cadmium in the beans from Piura (Peru) by up to 75% through initiatives like adding lime to the soil to reduce soil pH levels.

And the governments of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia have numerous monitoring initiatives.

Cadmium levels in chocolate are also a result of how the cocoa is processed. Cocoa powder is higher in cadmium because it has less cocoa butter, and so the cocoa mass (i.e. the dark stuff that contains the cadmium) is a higher percentage, and also because the processing can also sometimes impart cadmium when, for example, the cocoa presses use galvanised steel parts, pipes, etc. This makes cocoa powders a particular problem. And it also means that certain manufacturing approaches are inadvisable. In particular, when big chocolate ‘bulks out’ its cocoa percentage by using (cheaper) cocoa mass rather than the full bean, this can create risks and potential problems.

The bottom line is that we know how cadmium is getting into chocolate. And we know how to stop this. The key issue is transparency: We have to know where the cocoa is coming from, and to ensure that the farmers, cooperatives, and agents are aware of the problem. And when possible, steps need to be taken to resolve the problem by, for example, adding lime to the soil.

At a minimum, you need transparency at a FARM AND CO-OPERATIVE level to remove sources of cadmium infused beans. This is where the transparency in craft chocolate is so important (as well as paying farmers far more, focusing on flavour, etc.). But contrast big chocolate, where in many cases they can’t trace where over two thirds of the cocoa they process is coming from, and have no easy ability to identify supply chain issues like cadmium (and lead).

The opaqueness of big chocolate’s supply chain here, along with their focus on costs and treating chocolate as “just another commodity ingredient” is also why big chocolate keeps being caught processing beans involving deforestation, child labour abuses, etc. (see the most recent Cocoa Barometer report for more on this).

Toxic Heavy Metals in Chocolate: Lead

The issue of lead in chocolate is simpler. Lead does not appear to get into chocolate from being sucked up by the cocoa tree from the soil. Lead gets into chocolate the same way most lead gets into us, via airborne particles that come from pollution, in particular car exhaust, smoking, industrial processes and the like (some lead does still bleed into us via lead pipes, lead paints, etc.).

Unfortunately in many parts of the world, roads are often used to store and dry cocoa beans. And this appears to be where the lead is getting into chocolate, from lorry exhausts and industrial pollution.

Again, the lesson here is that the issue of lead in chocolate can easily be avoided, but only if you have transparency and traceability. And only if you pay farmers enough so that they don’t have to leave the beans out to dry on polluted roads.

Other Considerations (and an argument against snacking)

Our absorption of cadmium and/or lead into our bodies via foods and drinks is also driven by a number of other key factors. In particular;

  • Both cadmium and lead are absorbed far more on an empty stomach.
  • Children are at far greater risk; they can absorb 30-50% more than an adult (hence why both the EU and California have different recommendations for kids).

So rather than ‘snacking and scoffing’ on an empty stomach, savour your chocolate at the end of a meal (and you’ll also delight your second stomach here). And this is particularly true, and important, with young kids.

Avoiding Cadmium and Lead in Your Chocolate: The Smart Approach

For consumers, the simplest means to avoid lead and cadmium in your chocolate is simple: Check where and how the bar is being made (avoid ‘reconstituted’ bars using cocoa powder), and above all make sure you know the name of the farm and/or co-operative.

Upgrade to craft chocolate: Join the revolution! Come to a virtual tasting to discover more!

Consumer Reports’ analysis included two bars with craft chocolate beans sourced directly, transparently and traceable from named co-operatives and farms by; 

And of the twenty eight bars analysed, only five bars were lower than the mandated levels for both cadmium and lead. And yes, two of those bars were those from Taza and Mast (the other three were from Ghiradelli and Valhrona).

Avoiding Cadmium and Lead in Your Chocolate: The Bizarre Approach!

There have also been some other pretty bizarre suggestions by various experts following on from the publication of the Consumer Reports study.

One of the most bizarre is the suggestion that consumers switch to milk or white chocolate and/or choose a low percentage dark chocolate bar. Without wishing to discourage people from consuming craft milk or white chocolate, in most cases they contain more sugar than dark bars. And in the case of most mass-produced chocolate, sugar comprises more than 50% of the ingredients of their milk and white bars (and many dark bars).

Eating too much sugar is a key cause of our current obesity epidemic, and also child and adult diabetes. So trying to protect people’s livers and kidneys from cadmium by switching to higher sugar alternatives is akin to asking a kid to stop playing with matches and instead play with loaded guns!


It’s great that Consumer Reports did this research and testing. And we hope that someone will do something similar here in the UK/Europe.

In the meantime, we’ve collected a tonne of studies by co-operatives, farms, makers, and craft chocolate distributors showing that their beans are not contaminated by lead or cadmium (thanks to Kokoa Kamili, Conexión, Tibitó, Original Beans, and many more).

Having said this, most of the other journalistic follow-up, missed the chance to learn a few deeper lessons, in particular;

  1. The positive angle here is that this discovery provides another great reason why you should only buy chocolate if you know where the beans come from and how the chocolate’s been made. Chocolate that is traceable and transparently traded is safer, as well as being far more flavoursome, ethical and environmentally friendly. So please tell your friends to upgrade to craft chocolate.
  2. The ‘elephant in the room’ question is; why has so little attention been paid to Consumer Reports’ work. Big chocolate’s silence has been deafening. Even the threat of legal cases hasn’t generated much of a response. Depending on where you live, 15-25% of people eat chocolate daily. And over two thirds of the people in most Western countries will have eaten chocolate in some form over the last week. There is no reason for us to run a risk of consuming chocolate with excessive amounts of cadmium and/or lead. Big chocolate knows full well what gives rise to cadmium and lead in chocolate, and in how to avoid this. But yet again rather than address this issue, and reflect on the inequities of many of their sourcing practices, big chocolate is hoping that if it says nothing, this issue will blow over. Sadly, big chocolate has learnt that silence can sometimes work (see how they stonewalled the criticism of all the ‘healthy heart studies’ sponsored by Mars in the 2000s).
  3. On a related note, why are we willing to have so much junk in our chocolate? Cadbury built its brand, in the 19th century, on selling the “purest cocoa powder”. Take a look at any supermarket chocolate bar and see how many ingredients you have in your kitchen cupboard. Granted these are ‘permitted’ ingredients. But why are we consuming them given that we don’t need these additives, vegetable fats, emulsifiers, palm oils etc. to make chocolate that really is worth savouring? How do we (re)create consumer appetite for “less is more” and “purity” of ingredients similar to the way Cadbury’s did this in the 19th century?

So please, please look at the label. Check where the bar is made (not where it’s ‘assembled’ or ‘reconstituted’). Check where the beans come from. Trust the likes of Simran and Bryan from Kokoa Kamili, and Alex Whitmore of Taza.

Craft chocolate bars taste better. They are better for the environment. They are better for the farmers. And they are better, and safer, for you and your families. Less really is more. Less lead and cadmium. More transparency.

Resources and further reading:

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Chocolate: A Cure for All Ills?

chocolate as medicine

Nowadays, we might think of chocolate as unhealthy, a contributor to the obesity crisis. However, what you might not know is that chocolate has a key place in the history of medicine.

In the past few decades, many health claims have swirled around chocolate. Unfortunately, lots of these are just too good to be true, as we found out when we chatted to Professor Tim Spector, an expert on these issues. The idea that chocolate might have health benefits isn’t new. In fact, for as long as chocolate has existed, people have believed in its medicinal benefits. Read on to find out more about the crucial role of chocolate in the history of medicine!

Medical Chocolate in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Although cocoa probably originated in the Amazon rainforest, the earliest records we have of its use come from central America, in modern-day Mexico and Ecuador. Frothed, spiced chocolate was a royally-approved drink in Aztec and Mayan culture, and played a central role in their societies. Chocolate was used in religious rituals, wedding ceremonies, royal feasts – and medicine. Yes, that’s right, chocolate’s place in the history of medicine starts not in Europe, but amongst indigenous people in the Americas.

We know that Mayan medicine involved chocolate. This means that chocolate has probably been part of the history of medicine for around 4000 years! The Mayan understanding of illness was deeply connected to the natural world. Healers would perform chants invoking the spirits of animals and types of tree. For skin problems, fever and seizures, these chants were combined with a medicinal drink. This drink contained chocolate mixed with peppers, honey and tobacco juice. (We probably wouldn’t recommend this combination, taste-wise…)

Chocolate as Aztec Medicine: The Florentine Codex

Most of our records about chocolate’s use in early medical history come from the medieval and early modern Aztec Empire. The Aztecs used chocolate to treat stomach problems and indigestion. They also mixed it with tree bark to cure infections, and with maize to relieve fever. We know much of this from the 1590 Florentine codex. This was a book about Aztec society written by a Franciscan friar named Bernardino de Sahagún, with illustrations by local Aztec artists. The book is bilingual, with text in both Spanish and Nahuatl, the Aztec language. The Florentine codex is one of the earliest books we have from the New World which includes information on history, medicine and chocolate!

Part of the Florentine codex records Aztec medical practice, and includes multiple recipes for pharmaceuticals made using chocolate. One cure for a cough includes a kind of tea made from opossum tail, followed up by a herbal drink made from chocolate mixed with pepper, vanilla, and sacred flowers. The Aztecs often used chocolate like Mary Poppins’ ‘spoonful of sugar’, mixing remedies into chocolate to help mask unpleasant flavours.

First Contact: Chocolate as Medicine in the New World

Europeans first encountered chocolate during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. During the early years of contact, they were struck by the local use of chocolate as a medicine.

In the second half of the 16th century, Friar Agustin Davila Padilla, a Spanish priest, wrote about a chocolate treatment administered to one of his missionary colleagues. This missionary suffered from kidney disease. To cure him, local doctors ‘ordered him to use a drink that in the Indies they call chocolate. It is a little bit of hot water in which they dissolve something like almonds that they call cacaos, and it is made with some spices and sugar’. According to Padilla’s account, the medicine worked! Then and there, chocolate entered into European medical history. In particular, the late 16th-century Spaniards were impressed by chocolate’s nutritious and fattening properties. It was good for restoring those who had lost weight and strength due to illness.

The History of Medicine in Europe: Chocolate and the Humours

You might remember the medieval humours from school, if you ever studied the history of medicine. Chocolate came into contact with the humours in the 16th and 17th century, and proved a bit problematic. For those who don’t remember their lessons, here’s a reminder.

In Early Modern Europe, medicine was based on the humoural system of the ancient Roman physician Galen. This categories different illnesses as wet, cold, hot and dry. The system was based on balance, so hot dry illnesses such as fever would be treated with cold wet medicines and foods. In Galenic practice, food and medicine were inseparable.

When chocolate came along, it scrambled the system. In bean form it was cold and wet, as powder, cold and dry. As a drink, it was hot and wet because it was fatty, but it was astringent, and often spiced with chilli and pepper which made it dry. Chocolate was impossible to categorise! Some scholars argue that chocolate, along with coffee and tea, were the last nail in the Galenic coffin, confusing the system and paving the way for its replacement. So you might argue that chocolate had a pivotal role in advancing medical history towards more modern theories than the outdated humoral system!

The Chocolate Cure in 17th-century Europe

During the 17th century, news of chocolate’s medicinal powers spread to continental Europe. Antonio Colmenero de Ledesmo wrote an immensely popular treatise on chocolate, published in 1631. His book records one of the earliest recipes for drinking chocolate, but it also contributed to the history of medicine. He noted that chocolate was good for aiding childbirth, helping digestion and curing gut diseases. It was also useful for treating jaundice, TB and ‘the green sicknesse’ (anaemia). Moreover, Ledesmo helpfully noted that chocolate ‘cleaneth the teeth and sweetneth the breath’. We’re not too sure on that one! 

In 1672, William Hughes, an American physician, described chocolate as ‘very nourishing’. He wrote:

‘Chocolate is good against all coughs, shortness of breath, opening and making the roughness of the artery smooth … it strengthens the vitals and is good against fevers, catarrhs, asthmas, and consumptions of all sorts.’

William hughes, 1672

Chocolate’s supposed health benefits led to it becoming a popular choice for well-to-do gentlemen who frequented coffee shops, as it was believed to be more nutritious and wholesome than tea or coffee. It was also enjoyed by their female relatives who drank it at home. Letters from the French aristocrat Madame de Sévigné, reveal that she wrote to her unwell daughter advising her to get a chocolate pot and take drinking chocolate for its restorative effects.

In the 17th-century version of what we might now call ‘wellness culture’, chocolate ranked alongside the sulphurous hot waters at spas such as bath, and the effects of seaside air in stylish resorts: it was a treatment, but it was also a treat!

picture of a chocolate house in london

Benjamin Franklin Recommends it! Medicinal Chocolate in the 18th & 19th Centuries

In the 18th century, one of the early proponents of medical chocolate in American history was, perhaps surprisingly, Benjamin Franklin. The American founding father was a big fan of chocolate. When he started out as a bookseller, he claimed that he sold lots of books ‘too tedious to mention’ and also ‘very good chocolate’. One of Franklin’s money-making schemes was Poor Richard’s Almanack, an almanac which included weather, astrological facts and axioms. In 1761, Franklin’s almanac explained the benefits of chocolate for treating smallpox!

As the years wore on, chocolate continued to be used to treat all manner of diseases and played a major role in the history of medicine’s modernisation. In 1796, it was claimed that chocolate could delay the growth of white hair, in an early example of myths about chocolate’s magical anti-aging properties! The following year, Erasmus Darwin, a physician who was the grandfather of Charles Darwin, treated himself for gout using chocolate.

Chocolate in Victorian Medicine

During the 19th century, medicinal chocolate was used to treat syphilis, cholera, and measles outbreaks. (We doubt it did much good.) 

Chocolate was seriously considered by medical professionals. In 1846, the pharmacologist Auguste Saint-Arroman published an English translation of his treatise Coffee, Tea and Chocolate: Their Influence upon the Health, the Intellect, and the Moral Nature of Man. Arroman thought chocolate was useful in many situations, but cautioned that it could have negative effects. This potent drink was, he believed, dangerous for the young. He also described a medicine called ferruginous chocolate, apparently used to treat anaemia, or, as he described it:

‘[a medicine that is] beneficial to women who are out of order, or have the green sickness, is prepared by adding to the paste of chocolate iron in the state of filings, oxide or carbonate.’

Auguste Saint-Arroman, Coffee, Tea and Chocolate: Their Influence upon the Health, the Intellect, and the Moral Nature of Man, 1846

Of all the treatments considered so far, this probably did work! Chocolate is a rich vegetable source of iron, and the iron filings would have helped! Some historians suggest that other treatments using chocolate may have worked because the chocolate was boiled, making it a sterile drink. Chocolate was therefore safer than water, which was often polluted, or alcoholic alternatives.

If you want to try a Victorian medical recipe yourself, look no further than ‘medicinal gluten chocolate’. This recipe was patented in England in 1855. It was made from equal parts cocoa and sugar, plus half that amount of gluten. The ‘gluten’ in question was bread reduced to a fine powder. Edible, but not particularly healthful, with that much sugar involved!

Cocoa: It’s Still in Our Medicines!

Nowadays, chocolate doesn’t turn up much in medicine, though it can still be found as a flavouring in supplements and diet replacement drinks. However, cocoa beans remain a common ingredient in pharmaceuticals! Cocoa solids (the chocolatey bit of cocoa) is mainly used for food. However, cocoa butter (the fat from the cocoa bean) is a cheap fat commonly used in ointments. So check the ingredients next time you reach for your topical creams! Chocolate is also still used in indigenous medicine, and it continues to attract health claims, though these are often dubious! Why not find out more about them in the health section of chocopedia?

Debunking Chocolate Health Claims with Dr Tim Spector

There are a lot of scientific claims about chocolate! So we teamed up with Dr Tim Spector to ‘review’ these claims. Similar to the way we encourage you to check the ingredients on a chocolate bar’s label for its ingredients, and the details of the farm where the beans are sourced, we STRONGLY suggest you review chocolate-related health claims and how many people were studied, who funded the work and your own potential ‘cognitive bias’…

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How much sugar is in your chocolate?

Sugar is a sticky topic. There’s a large swathe of people who lump all chocolate into the catch-all; “if it has sugar, it has to be bad”. We beg to differ!

Let’s start with a couple of questions: Which has less sugar; a typical breakfast cereal or a dark craft chocolate bar? Low-fat yoghurt or a dark craft chocolate bar? Most people will be aware that breakfast cereals contain more sugar than dark craft chocolate bars (and this is true even of most ‘no-sugar-added granolas’). But what not everyone realises is that a single serving size of low-fat vanilla yoghurt can have over five teaspoons of sugar (the sugar is used to replace the fat and so stabilise, preserve, and give mouthfeel). By contrast, an average craft dark chocolate bar (65g at 70%) has fewer than four teaspoons of sugar.

Now, let’s add a bit more context: A 330ml can of Coca-Cola has just over eight teaspoons of sugar in it. A bottle of red wine (750CL) has around six. However, A craft chocolate bar (65g, 70% bar) contains about three/four teaspoons of sugar. Usually, most people drink the full can of Coke in one sitting. Most people share the bottle of red wine. And most craft chocolate consumers share and savour the bar of chocolate over a few evenings.

So, the more useful question is “how many teaspoons per serving?”.

Additionally, not all chocolate is created equal. If you examine the ingredients of a mass-produced milk (or dark) chocolate bar you’ll notice it will have a far higher sugar content (over 60% in many cases). Even the lead ingredient in the new Cadbury’s Dark Dairy Milk is sugar. This is partly because sugar is a much cheaper ingredient than mass-produced cacao. It’s also because sugar is addictive and, when combined with fat, flavourings and salt, becomes irresistible (the so-called ‘bliss point‘). Even a 45g supermarket checkout bar can contain six teaspoons of sugar. And you are very likely to eat this whole snack bar in one go (hence why the packaging of mass-produced bars isn’t resealable).

By contrast, if you savour a craft chocolate bar with just three to five squares per session, you’ll be consuming less than a teaspoon of sugar per serving. Your taste buds will be stimulated. You’ll feel delighted. No games with the bliss point. Just the magic of the cocoa bean. Brilliant!

So firstly, savour. Indulge. No need to scoff.

Secondly, don’t worry too much about the percentages on a craft chocolate bar. Bean type and mouthfeel make a massive difference to how sweet a craft bar tastes. Below, we’ve assembled a bunch of ‘high percentage’ bars that will leave you guessing (and delighted). Try a couple blind and see if you can work out which has the higher percentage (including the 100% from Fossa).

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Too Good To Be True:

How to read the small print of chocolate and health studies, with Dr Tim Spector

There are a lot of scientific claims about chocolate! So we teamed up with Dr Tim Spector to ‘review’ these claims. 

Similar to the way we encourage you to check the ingredients on a chocolate bar’s label for its ingredients, and the details of the farm where the beans are sourced, we STRONGLY suggest you review chocolate-related health claims and how many people were studied, who funded the work and your own potential ‘cognitive bias’.

One of our mantras at Cocoa Runners is that “craft chocolate tastes better, is better for farmers, better for the planet and also better for you”.

This is one reason why we invited Dr Tim Spector to join us for a ‘Craft Chocolate Conversation’, and to discuss his latest book, ‘Spoon-Fed: Why almost everything we’ve been told about food is wrong‘. 

Tim is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, a craft chocolate aficionado, and one of the driving forces behind the crowdsourced covid-19 app (the one that works!). And his latest book is a passionate paean to the dangers and risks of ‘miracle cures’ and hyped scientific claims for all foods. At the same time, Tim has also spent the last 30+ years researching the microbiome of our gut, and he talks a tonne of sense about how different people respond to different foods (including chocolate).

A Quick History of ‘Scientific’ Claims for Chocolate

Throughout history, chocolate has been the subject of truly miraculous claims. Both the Aztecs and Marquis de Sade were convinced of its properties as an aphrodisiac. Earnest debates were held on its “humorous” properties by alchemists, doctors, barbers and quacks during the 17th and 18th centuries. And two of the first three US presidents (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) were keen that chocolate become the preferred drink in the US given it’s “nutritional benefits” (…and that it didn’t come from Great Britain).

Arguably, the modern fad for claiming that chocolate is somehow healthy can be sourced from a series of studies of the Kuna people in the late 20th Century, which highlighted their low rate of heart attacks and coronary problems. These health benefits were attributed to their predilection for a unique drinking chocolate recipe that is very high in flavanols (as well as eating lots of fish).

There may well be something in this. But it’s hard to translate their habits into ‘normal’ chocolate consumption, as the Kuna were drinking gallons (over 5 large cups or almost, 2 litres a day) of this beverage, which is crafted and fermented very differently to any normal chocolate bar.

But the genie was out of the bottle. The power of associating health benefits with chocolate was immediate. Loads more studies were launched all over the world. To journalists, the headlines from these studies are like catnip; after all, chocolate health studies make for great click bait.

‘Greatest hits’ from the “is chocolate good for you”? debate:

It’s fun (and also a little worrying) pulling highlights from the ‘chocolate-as-cure-all’ discourse. For those who want to read more, The Economics of Chocolate (ed. Mara P. Squicciarini and Johan Swinnen 2019), has a whole chapter entitled ‘Nutritional and Health Effects of Chocolate’ which collates various studies. Here are a dozen claims: 

  1. “…an average consumption of 10g/day of chocolate induced positive effects on cognitive performance, with maximum benefit depending on the variety of chocolate consumed (flavonoids-rich type) (Nurk et al 2009)”.
  2. “…a habitual chocolate consumption of 10g of dark chocolate per day (corresponding to 4.2g of cocoa) was associated with lower systolic blood pressure compared to no, or very low, cocoa intake (Buijsse et al 2006)”.
  3.  “…Almoosawi and colleagues (2012) found that 20g per day of dark chocolate improved cardiovascular risk factors in healthy, overweight and obese subjects”.
  4. “Research conducted in the Netherlands on young healthy women explored the relationship between appetites and levels of gastrointestinal hormones … results showed that smelling and eating 30g chocolate induced appetite suppression and were inversely correlated with levels of ghrelin, a hormone which stimulates appetite (Massolt, 2010)”
  5. 21 healthy men aged 25-30, were given dark or white chocolate for 28 days. They were given 25g three times a day (at 4,6 and 8pm). And those who were given dark chocolate saw a “decrease in blood sugar” (Rusconi, 2012).
  6. 15 women, aged 20-40 years, were given 100g of 70% dark chocolate (Di Renzo) in two 50g portions in morning and evening. “After chocolate consumption, a significant increase in HDL cholesterol level and a significant decrease of total cholesterol/HDL cholesterol ratio were observed”. And in addition “a reduction in abdomen circumference” was noted.
  7. Hermann and colleagues (2006) suggest that “70% dark chocolate improves vasodilation by 80% in young healthy smokers starting from two hours after chocolate ingestion and lasting for up to 8 hours”.
  8. “…people with an average age of 57 years who’d been eating chocolate five times a week for the last few years, and run 3-4 times a week, have a lower BMI that those who eat chocolate less often (Golomb and colleagues)”.
  9. In a study by Parker and Crawford in 2007, of 3000 people who described themselves as being depressed, 45% craved chocolate. “Chocolate is high in branch-train amino acids, and especially in tryptophan, which increases the blood level of serotonin, the neurotransmitter producing calming and pleasurable feelings”.
  10. “Chocolate was found to coat the teeth, thereby preventing tooth decay … Tannins in cocoa were found to promote healthy teeth as they inhibited the formation of dental plaque (Matsumoto, 2004)”.
  11.  “A double blind study of 30 healthy subjects divided into two groups one consuming a 20g per day of high flavanol level chocolate and one consuming a conventional dark chocolate … confirmed that a regular consumption of rich-in-polyphenols chocolate confers significant photoprotection and can be effective at protecting human skin from harmful UV effects (Williams et al 2009)”.
  12. “Chocolate is rich in theobromine (an alkaloid stimulant that acts on the body in ways similar to caffeine) and other compounds similar to caffeine) and other compounds similar to the cannabinoids, that act on the central nervous system, producing euphoric, aphrodisiac and stimulating effect (Di Tomaso et al 1996). It also contains phenylethylamine, a molecule  released during intimacy, when people are infatuated or fall in love, and it further promotes the release of serotonin … producing some aphrodisiac and mood lifting effects”. (No study quoted for this one, and to be fair, the authors say more work is needed on this).

It looks like if you smoke or are healthy, if you are male or female, looking to lower blood sugar, reduce the size of your “abdomen circumference”, end your cravings, cure your depression, think better or want to fall in love someone has done a study where the solution is “EAT MORE CHOCOLATE”!

Some scientific studies really are too good to be true.

So, to help you separate fact from (fantasy) fiction, here are some of Tim’s tips on seeing through the jargon:

  1. Just as we encourage you to check the ingredients in your bar of chocolate, check how many people the study has involved. In the above, I could rarely find the number of people ‘studied’.  
  2. Similarly, just as you want to know the farm/estate/co-operative where the beans in your bar are from, when checking a study it’s worth trying to find out who has paid for the research. Vox did some research in 2017 of 100+ studies carried out on chocolate by Mars and found “they overwhelmingly drew glowing conclusions about cocoa and chocolate … promoting everything from chocolate’s heart health benefits to cocoa’s ability to fight disease”. Similarly, when we dug into the health benefit claims for coconut sugar we discovered that the “proof” that Coconut sugar generates lower GI spikes was based on a study of 11 people financed by The Philippine Coconut Marketing Agency… Hmmm…
  3. Beware of what is variously described as ‘cognitive bias’, ‘motivated reasoning’ or ‘wishful thinking’. Psychologists warn us to beware that we all are more likely to notice what we want to notice. And this is very true when we see ‘justifications’ for savouring our favourite craft chocolate bars.
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Is Chocolate Addictive?

Chocolate is NOT addictive.

Unlike the likes of caffeine, alcohol and other drugs, theobromine (the primary stimulant in chocolate) doesn’t meet any of the standard definitions for addiction.

But various ingredients can be added to your chocolate bar that ARE highly addictive. Top of the list of these additives is sugar, especially if combined with a little salt and fat (e.g. cocoa butter, milk, etc.). And in excess, this added sugar creates highs, and lows, which are much faster-acting than caffeine, nicotine, theobromine, cocaine or alcohol; and addictive.

At the same time, sugar helps make chocolate palatable and reveals the myriad flavours in the cocoa bean. For most of us chocolate is too bitter and astringent to enjoy without some sugar (although come to a virtual tasting to explore how you can learn to handle the astringency of a 100% cocoa chocolate very easily).

To showcase how sugar (and salt) can enhance and reveal the flavours in cocoa, we’ve highlighted a few new bars (including some 100%s) below. And there is also a whole range of different sweeteners for chocolate bars, including the likes of dates, maple syrup and a few that don’t use anything other than milk to caramelise the chocolate.

What is addiction?

For a word that is bandied around so much, addiction is hard to pin down. The UK’s NHS offers a simple definition:

Addiction is defined as not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you. …There are lots of reasons why addictions begin. In the case of drugs, alcohol and nicotine, these substances affect the way you feel, both physically and mentally. These feelings can be enjoyable and create a powerful urge to use the substances again.

The American definition (DSM-5) is more complicated, and more granular, with 11 components. It differentiates “addiction” from “dependency” which can be confusing as (arguably) these two states are two sides of the same coin.

On a practical level, it’s helpful to see how industry experts approach addiction; for example, to quote Michael Szymanczyk, the CEO of tobacco giant Philip Morris:

My definition of addiction is a repetitive behavior that some people find difficult to quit”.

Or as his chief lawyer, Steven C. Parrish, says:

“…it’s easier …to quit (my) company’s cigarettes than it is chocolate cookies”. (For more on this, please see Michael Moss’ new book Hooked).

So when you can’t stop eating those chocolate biscuits, and really crave the sugar rush (or sugar, salt and fat “bliss point”) of mass market confectionery, you need to beware of ‘addiction’.

But it’s not chocolate itself that is addictive; it’s what is added to chocolate that is addictive. In particular when sugar becomes a, if not the, primary ingredient.

What is going on with chocolate?

Neither theobromine nor caffeine create an immediate craving for another fix. They don’t make you seek out that second slice of cake.

However, caffeine can create a dependency and addiction. For example, just one cup of coffee (100g of caffeine) taken daily for a few weeks can leave many people with withdrawal symptoms including headaches, irritability etc. without their daily fix. By comparison, scientists have tried to find how much theobromine humans would need to eat to start to develop withdrawal symptoms and estimate this to be over 1 kg (i.e. ten BIG bars) of 70% dark chocolate eaten daily for two weeks before you’d get cravings.

Note: Chocolate does also contain small amounts of caffeine (about a tenth of the amount of theobromine in the bar), and if you take a 70% dark chocolate bar of 70g, even if you ate the whole bar in one go, this would be less than chewing 3 coffee beans.

All chocolate contains some sugar (even 100% bars), and it’s in how much sugar, and how the sugar is being used, that the problems and crucial differences emerge.

Sugar’s Unique Qualities

From birth, humans are attracted to sweetness, and we recoil at the other basic tastes of bitterness and sourness (saltiness is more complex, and astringency, spiciness etc. aren’t ‘tastes’).

Sweetness is a way for humans to identify foods that are full of energy (like ripe fruit, cooked meats, etc). And our brains are hardwired to respond to sugar in foods with an immediate craving for MORE. We are evolved to gorge on these sweet foods until we are full of things like ripe bananas, for example. Our penchant for sweet and sugary foods helped us to find calories and survive.

For most of human history our craving for more sugar and sweetness hasn’t been a problem. There really wasn’t much sugar, let alone added sugar, in our diets until the modern era. In 1700s Britain the average sugar consumption per capita per year was less than 2kg. By 1850 this had doubled to 5kg. It’s now over 75kg!

But today the uses (and abuses) of sugar are becoming more and more problematic. Sugar is very cheap. It’s a great preservative. And it’s hard to resist when ‘gamified’ in ultra-processed foods, drinks and chocolate bars.

And the way sugar is used in modern day foods like breakfast cereals, biscuits, cakes and mass market chocolate bars is very different to the way sweetness in fruits etc. encouraged us to seek out these foods. The sugar in ultra-processed junk foods make us eat more and binge. We just want to eat more and more until the bag, bar, bowl is finished (and even then we may well come for more).

We don’t get sated in the same way as we do from eating a piece of fruit (or savouring a craft chocolate bar). We’re being ‘gamed’ via practices like the ‘bliss point’ where sugar is combined with salt and fat to the extent that it really is harming our health.

Sugar’s Highs and Lows

Sugar is remarkable for the the speed at which it gives us a ‘high’ followed by a ‘low’. And these attributes can be (ab)used to encourage scoffing and binge eating. Compare the speed at which sugar gives us a ‘buzz’ or ‘hit’ relative to other stimulants; along with how long it stays in our system to other addictive substances:

  1. Sugar takes between 6/10ths of a second to one second to “register and reward”, and then within another 10-30 minutes it will start to give you a ‘sugar high’ and energised feeling. Thereafter (normally 30-60 minutes later) you’ll get a sugar crash, and a craving for more sugar (note: this is highly dependent on the amount of sugar you consume),
  2. Tobacco (via a cigarette) takes 5-10 seconds to hit, and it has a relatively short half life of 2 hours (i.e. the amount of time the nicotine is still in your system is relatively short you’ll want another fix relatively soon, but not as immediately as sugar),
  3. Coffee (e.g. an espresso) requires 5-10 minutes to perk you up, and has a half life (i.e. half the caffeine is still in your system) of 4-6 hours, so you don’t get the same cravings for another fix as fast,
  4. Alcohol (e.g. a glass of wine) is a bit more complex and depends on lots of factors (what you’ve eaten, your size etc.) as after a drink is swallowed, the alcohol is rapidly absorbed into the blood (20% through the stomach and 80% through the small intestine). And the first effects are felt within 5 to 10 minutes after drinking, with the peak after 30-90 minutes and wearing off after 3-4 hours (again, depending on how much you’ve drunk).

Note: Theobromine (the stimulant in chocolate) is harder to find details for as it’s studied far less. However whereas caffeine peaks in the blood 30–40 minutes after ingestion, and has a half-life of 2.5–5 hours, theobromine attains peak blood concentration 2–3 hours after ingestion, and has an estimated half-life of 7–12 hours (which is why it keeps you feeling full for so long).

Mass Produced Chocolate Bars

The predominant ingredient of mass-produced confectionery chocolate is SUGAR. And it’s this predominance, combined with the bliss point, that creates problems, including addiction.

For example, a snack, pocket-sized Dairy Milk that is 45g contains 25g of sugar and 1g of salt. And it only has 20% cocoa in the bar. The Dairy Milk’s standard 85g bar contains 48g of sugar (12 teaspoons of sugar). And the so called ‘dark’ Dairy Milk 85g bar (which is still only 39% cocoa) contains 42g of sugar (10.5 teaspoons of added sugar).

A standard 100g bar of Bournville Dark Chocolate contains 58g of sugar (16 teaspoons of sugar), so if you compare this to an 85g bar of dark Dairy Milk it actually contains MORE sugar than a dairy milk (49 vs 48g).

And the main pleasure or ‘hit’ from these bars is their sugar rush and familiarity. There really isn’t that much to savour. It’s all about the dopamine ‘fix’ from that hit of sugar. And just as with caffeine (or alcohol or tobacco), you can become habituated to this fix. At the same time the sugar fix encourages binge eating to the point that people know they shouldn’t be consuming so much. And so sadly for some, the sugar in mass market chocolate can become addictive.

Hint: Look at the Packaging (and Check the Ingredients)

If you look at the packaging of mass market chocolate it’s not designed to be resealable. You can’t save the bar for later. The bars are all packaged with the expectation that you’ll eat them in one go. It’s about scoffing and bingeing.

In comparison craft chocolate makers use boxes and packaging that is resealable. They want you to savour their bars over a few sessions. And that’s why we send out resealable pouches with your first subscription kit (and following requests from subscribers, we’re going to include one of these every 3 months from now on, not just with your first box).

Sugar and Craft Chocolate

To be very pedantic, all chocolate bars (including craft ones) will contain some sugar. Even 100% bars. This is because there is a small amount of natural sugars in cocoa beans (depending on the bean, this varies between 0.2-0.7g per 100g of chocolate).

Thanks to the work of Martin Christie and his Seventy% club, most chocolate aficionados argue that dark chocolate bars should contain at least 70% cocoa and then 30% “other stuff” (which is generally refined cane sugar that is responsibly sourced). Milk chocolate bars are more complex; the vast majority of the milk chocolate bars we sell contain over 40% cocoa, and what we call “dark milk” chocolate bars contain more than 50% cocoa. And there are some dark milk chocolates where the main sweetener is the milk, not added sugar (note: milk contains lactose a sugar).

Important side note: These percentage rules are “there to be broken”. As many chocolate makers will tell you; the exact percentage they choose is dependent on the bean, its fermentation, roast, conche, and how the makers want to showcase the flavours of the bean (see below for some great exceptions from Bare Bones and Chocolate Makers).

Putting this into context, the amount of added sugar in an ‘average’ (i.e. 65g bar that is 70% dark) is 21g, or about 4 teaspoonfuls of sugar.

4 teaspoons of sugar is quite a lot. It’s not insignificant given NHS guidelines are to eat less than 30g of sugar per day.

But very few people want to eat a whole bar of craft chocolate in one go. Most people savour the flavour in their craft chocolate bars. And there is a LOT of protein, carbohydrates and fibre in a craft chocolate bar. And this is very filling. So rarely does anyone scoff a full bar in one go.

Most people report being sated with 15-30g of craft chocolate (i.e. 4-8 squares). That’s about 5-10g of sugar, or 1-2 teaspoons of sugar. To put this in context, a low fat vanilla yogurt contains 6-7g of added sugar. Or a small glass of dessert wine contains 6-7g of sugar.

Bottom line: People aren’t savouring craft chocolate for the sugar fix. Hopefully you’ll fall in love with craft chocolate. But you won’t get addicted to it.

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Theobromine Versus Caffeine

diagram of caffeine and theobromine molecules

Back in 1841 the Russian chemist Alekasandr Voskresensky discovered an alkaloid in the fruit of Theobroma cacao (aka the cacao/cocoa tree). And he called it ‘theobromine’, reflecting the etymology of “food of the goods” (aka, the cocoa tree; called “Theobroma cacao” by Carl Linnaeus).

This discovery was part of a line of remarkable alkaloid discoveries starting with morphine (1804) that went on to include a range of other interesting stimulants and drugs such as caffeine (1820), nicotine (1828), and cocaine (1860).

Theobromine is one of the reasons why chocolate is so delightful and so stimulating. But despite being remarkably similar in composition to caffeine (see image the above), theobromine’s ‘stimulation’ is quite different. Unlike other alkaloids, theobromine is not addictive, you won’t get withdrawal symptoms from missing your daily fix but at the same time, it does wonders for your heart, blood pressure and general mood.

How do Theobromine and Caffeine Differ?

Theobromine is found in a number of plants and fruits; most notably in cocoa and chocolate, and also in tea (Camellia sinensis), carob, guarana, and yerba mate.

Caffeine is also found in a number of plants and fruits; in particular coffee, and also trace elements of caffeine are in cocoa and chocolate.

Chemically these two alkaloids are remarkably similar (see the above image). Theobromine is technically C7H8N4O2. And caffeine is C8H10N4O2.

Caffeine contains one more ‘methyl group’ than theobromine.  And this extra methyl group is hugely significant.

How do Theobromine and Caffeine Work?

Caffeine, thanks to its third methyl group, can cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to adenosine receptors. Caffeine blocks these adenosine receptors, stopping one feeling drowsy and boosting adrenaline. This is why caffeine “peps” one up; making one more alert and perkier (hence why it’s great for sports like cycling). It can also make you jittery as it promotes an adrenaline surge, and if you consume a reasonable amount regularly you may suffer withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking coffee/taking caffeine.

Theobromine does not cross the blood-brain barrier. It doesn’t boost adrenaline production or block adenosine reactors. So it doesn’t cause any jitteriness. And you don’t get any withdrawal symptoms (the cravings people have for mass produced chocolate confectionery is from the sugar).

As theobromine is absorbed in our bodies it stimulates the release of nitric oxide, and these in turn reduce enzymes in the blood that constrict our blood vessels. And as a consequence, theobromine causes our blood pressure to decline (note: This may also be due to phosphoesterase inhibition).

At the same time, theobromine interacts with enzymes in our heart and lungs promoting vasodilation and bronchodilation. And this is one reason why dark chocolate is often recommended to help asthmatics breathe more easily.

Theobromine (and caffeine) are also diuretics (or, more graphically; they encourage you to pee). Indeed back in the early 1900s chocolate was regularly prescribed as a diuretic and way to treat edemas (i.e. fluid build ups in the legs, hands, etc.).

Note: Many of the benefits that you get from theobromine you also get from caffeine as the body breaks down caffeine into theobromine. But given that only 10-15% of caffeine is converted to theobromine (the majority is converted into paraxanthine as well as theophylline), the magical impact of chocolate and cocoa as vasodilator, diuretic, etc. are a bit less.

Is Theobromine Poisonous?

At  very high doses, theobromine has been blamed for sweating, trembling and severe headaches in some cases. But it’s very hard to find large studies on this, and even anecdotal evidence here seems very rare.

However, there are some suggestions that for some (unlucky) people, over indulging in chocolate in massive binges may also cause heartburn as theobromine causes the oesophageal sphincter to relax and so some stomach acids go “the wrong way” (so you’ll need some antacids etc.).

More importantly for dogs (and cats), theobromine is far more dangerous because they metabolize it far slower than humans (humans metabolize theobromine over 5-8 hours versus three to five times this for dogs). So if you do have pets (especially dogs as they, unlike cats, have an affinity for sugar and sweetness), keep the chocolate out of the way.

Note: If you are one of those people who believes that dark chocolate etc. causes you headaches, it may well be that you are allergic to PEA (phenylethylamine; another chemical in cocoa/chocolate) rather than theobromine.

How can I access some these wonderful benefits from theobromine?

So the simple answer here is “eat some dark craft chocolate”. Or you can drink some good quality craft drinking chocolate where the prime ingredient isn’t sugar. Or you can add some cocoa nibs to your smoothie, porridge or whatever. And indeed you can even have a good craft chocolate milk bar (especially if it’s a ‘dark milk’ like Krak’s award winning bar below, as the high content of chocolate in these bars ensures the presence of lots of theobromine). And please see below for some suggestions of some great drinking chocolate and bars.

As you try the recommendations below, remember that there are also a host of other great benefits from savouring craft chocolate; everything from satisfying the second stomach so you’ll gorge less, to accessing valuable minerals like magnesium, zinc, selenium etc., whilst also releasing all sorts of wonders like serotonin, phenylethylamine, etc., which make you feel GREAT! And it’s far better for the farmers and planet.

Delight and relax without any jitteriness. Thank you THEOBROMINE: Food, and alkaloid, of the gods.

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Cocoa and Cacao… What’s the difference?

So the ‘smart Alec’ answer here is spelling. ‘Cacao’ has two As, one O and two Cs. ‘Cocoa’ has one A, two Os and two Cs.

However, all sorts of claims are made for the benefits of the likes of “raw cacao nibs”, “alkalinised pure cocoa powder”, etc. Almost all these claims are hogwash. And some are downright misleading.

And then there are a bunch of definitions in dictionaries, government departments, medical sites, etc., which are at best amusing and invariably confused and confusing.

Having said this, there are a couple of best practises for using the terms cacao and cocoa. And as long as these aren’t bowdlerised by nonsense terms like ‘raw’, the way we use the terms helps us think more about the magic of chocolate and that it’s so much more than a commodity or mechanic for half-baked health claims.

Bottom line: Think of “cacao” as to what the farmer does with the fruit of Theobroma cacao. Cocoa is what makers do with cocoa (or cacao) beans.

Cacao is what comes from Theobroma cacao (aka, the tree whose fruit gives us chocolate)

Most craft chocolate makers and “cacao sourcerers” (yes there really is such a term; it refers to people who source the cocoa beans used to make chocolate), use “cacao” to refer to the fruit of Theobroma cacao that is handled on the cocoa farm, i.e. the pods, the pulp inside the pods, the seeds, and the then fermented and dried ‘beans’.

But you can also refer to cocoa pods, cocoa seeds, cocoa pulp, fermented cocoa beans, dried cocoa beans, etc.

It really doesn’t matter too much. Both are correct.

Cocoa is what chocolate makers do with fermented cacao (or cocoa) beans

Many of us use the term ‘cocoa’ to refer to ‘hot cocoa’ (i.e. the drink) or ‘cocoa powder’.

These terms started to be extensively used in the early 19th century following the invention of the cocoa press (by father and son, the Van Houtens). And to demarcate the massive innovations following on from this invention (coupled with a few by Fry, Nestlé, Lindt, and Daniel Peter), the idea of makers processing the fruit of the cacao tree into cocoa, is a useful historical reminder.

The cocoa press kicked off a bunch of innovations and further inventions (if you want more details, and to taste loads of chocolates, please do come to an in person, or virtual craft chocolate tasting).

  1. Fairly soon after working out the mechanics of the cocoa press, the Dutch also realised that if you ‘washed’ the remaining cocoa mass in an alkaline solution you could remove some of its bitterness, lighten and redden its colour, whilst also improving its solubility in water, milk etc. Smart marketing was deployed for this alkalinised or ‘Dutched’ cocoa powder such that many consumers perceive Dutched or alkalised cocoa powder to be nutritionally superior; but in fact, natural cocoa powder retains far more of the nutritionally valuable minerals like magnesium, potassium, iron, etc. In the US, food labelling requires that manufacturers say whether cocoa powder is alkalinised. But here in Europe, and the UK, this isn’t a requirement (you can read more on the deficiencies of European labelling regulations and other issues on chocolate labels). And in Europe (and the US), most cocoa powder is alkalinised. So if you want some cocoa powder to make a great hot chocolate and/or to cook with, please can we recommend our Kokoa Kamili cocoa powder (and if you are near Nkora speciality coffee, check out their hot chocolate made with this).
  2. In parallel, this extracted cocoa butter also became a key ingredient for cosmetics. Cocoa butter is an amazing butter in a multitude of ways. It nourishes and moisturises. It doesn’t go rancid or ‘off’ for a VERY long time. And it can be crafted into a stable solid at room temperature which then can melt on contact with bits of the human body like lips (lipsticks), cheeks (blushes), arms and legs (moisturisers), etc. And so popular is cocoa butter for these purposes that cocoa butter is now far higher priced than cocoa mass (which is used to make confectionary, ice cream, etc.).
  3. Another use of the spare cocoa butter also (apocryphally at least) gave rise the transformation of chocolate from being consumed as a drink to being eaten in the form of stable, solid bar. Back in 1847, Joseph Fry had his eureka moment when he realised that he could add back cocoa butter to the cocoa mass used to create drinking chocolate to create the first stoneground chocolate bar (try a Taza bar to explore the very different textures of these stone ground bars).
  4. Over the next fifty years the Swiss then fine tuned the idea of the chocolate bar into smooth and moreish chocolate bars thanks to Rodolphe Lindt (conching), Jean Tobler (tempering), Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé (milk chocolate); learn about these developments at a tasting.
  5. At the same time, advertising and trading standards here in the UK can be partially traced back to “hot cocoa”. Cadbury are, again, coming in for criticism of their sourcing with child labour etc. But they were (and arguably still are) amazing marketers. And amongst their marketing genius was their use of the advertising for their Dutched cocoa essence drinking powder in the 1860s as “Absolutely Pure. Therefore Best”, alongside medical testimonials, which helped shape the idea of which gave rise to the modern day trading and advertising standards authorities.

What about raw caca nibs, raw cacao, etc.?

Cocoa (or cacao) nibs are wonderful to nibble on, add to porridge and smoothies, use for cooking (both sweet and savoury), etc. Try them from our shop.

And they are also very nutritious. And they can be packed with flavour. They also are less astringent to consume than 100% chocolate bars; so many chocolate connoisseurs worried about additives and sugar will opt for a handful of nibs rather than a few squares of 100% chocolate. To somewhat oversimplify, this is technically because the finer particles of the ground cocoa nibs in your smooth 100% chocolate bar can deliver the tannins in your chocolate faster and more effectively to dry out the proteins in your saliva which is what creates that puckering sensation of astringency.

But these nibs aren’t ‘raw’. Please read our longer rant on “raw”. But raw cocoa (or cacao) nibs are nonsense (as are raw bars). All cocoa nibs are made with fermented beans, not unfermented cocoa seeds. And as cocoa beans can’t germinate, they shouldn’t be called ‘raw’, at best raw should be confined to cocoa seeds. And these aren’t very pleasant to eat (they are super bitter and astringent). And fermentation and drying of cocoa goes above 42 degrees which effectively kyboshed another often quoted characteristic of raw foods; i.e. they’ve not been cooked or heated above human body temperature.

Almost all cocoa nibs for sale direct to consumers, are also roasted. This roasting is partly to impart flavour; just as roasting coffee beans differently imparts different flavours, the Maillard reaction does the same for chocolate. Roasting is also used to kill off any bugs and nasties in the chocolate (cocoa beans are a notorious source of anthrax). And almost all raw chocolate is ‘flash roasted’. This is true of many of the ‘raw’ bars we sell (e.g. Minka) where these bars are roasted similarly to the “virgin roast” of Conexión’s bars, i.e. a flash roast for 1-2 minutes rather than 18-25. We do have a few exceptions, e.g. Raaka and Forever Cacao, who don’t roast their beans (and they are very careful to test all their beans for any nasties). But these makers are careful not to confuse the loose definition of raw with their ‘unroasted approach.

And on a final note: Cocoa nibs are super healthy and nutritious. But the extra claims that go along with raw cocoa nibs are scientifically unfounded. For example, the oft quoted claim that these raw cocoa nibs are higher in anti-oxidants because of their ORAC score is technical tosh. And the same is true for raw chocolate bars’ health claims. Indeed many of these supposedly super healthy raw chocolate bars are packed with sugar and other ultra processed additives, so you’d be FAR, FAR better off with a craft chocolate bar that has ‘cleaner’ ingredients, tastes far better and is far better for the farmers and the planet.

So bottom line: If you do want to draw a sensible line between ‘cacao’ and ‘cocoa’, this processing by makers is as good as any line to draw. But don’t fall for the marketing nonsense about raw, alkalinisation, etc. Having finished this rant, we’d love to ask you readers with an interest in chocolate a couple of questions:

  1.  Why do so many people continue to believe so much tosh about chocolate?
  2. What do we have to do to get more common sense into the industry about not just misleading health claims but also disingenuous sourcing claims (such as Cadbury’s Cocoa Trace programme)?

Let us know your thoughts here (please comment on the blog here, or send an email to

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Why We SHOULD Add (a little) Sugar to Chocolate

spoon full of sugar

Sweetness and sugar are hugely complicated. And they are also hugely controversial.

As far as chocolate is concerned, Epicurus was right. As he advised: “Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance”. The addition of sugar to chocolate IN MODERATION can be wonderful.

But too much sugar (as in most ultra-processed, mainstream chocolate) is really, really bad, and addictive.

There is also a huge amount of nonsense talked about some sugars (and artificial sweeteners) being ‘better’, causing lower ‘sugar spikes’ etc. that should be debunked (‘hat tip’ to Professor Tim Spector, who covers this in his book, and who will be joining us for another Craft Chocolate in Conversation session).

So whilst you read this post (and apologies for the length), please do try some bars sweetened with alternatives to refined cane sugar. And do try some approachable 100% bars too. Savour them from a texture, flavour and taste perspective. Revel in being moderate.

What is sugar?

To quote from Wikipedia: “Sugar is the generic name for sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. Table sugar, granulated sugar, or regular sugar, refers to sucrose, a disaccharide composed of glucose and fructose”.

So far, so simple.

Historically most of the refined sugar we’ve added to our foods we’ve extracted from sugar cane and, more recently, sugar beet. These two plants contain 14g and 17g of sugar per 100g; not much more than mangoes, for example, which contain 12g, and even oranges with around 8g per 100g. Of course consuming refined sugar is very different from eating fruit; all the fibre, protein, etc. is removed as sugar is extracted from sugar cane/beet. However, until recently, adding refined sugar to our foods and drinks was a luxury and didn’t cause huge problems.

This has dramatically changed in the last few decades with a series of scientific developments, in particular:

  1. Innovations and new techniques for processing sugar from unexpected sources (in particular something called “high fructose corn syrup”), combined with continuing subsidies for refining sugar (not just from sugar beet and sugar cane, but also now corn),
  2. The discovery of new lower-calorie sweeteners from coal tar and chlorine (via accidents involving poor hygiene and scientists not washing their hands before eating!),
  3. The development of ultra-processed foods and the ‘bliss point‘. It’s the bliss point that underpins the explosion of junk food and why we just can’t put down foods that are engineered with additions of fats, salts and SUGARS to make them irresistible.

What’s the difference between sugars and other sweeteners?

This gets a little more complicated. Many things can be sweet (e.g. the amylase in your saliva can make bread taste ‘sweet’ as it breaks down starch into sugars). So for the purpose of simplicity, we’re going to talk about ‘sweetener’ additives, like sugar, that are combined with chocolate, and many (most?) other foods and drinks, to make them sweeter (and also cheaper, last longer, have different textures, etc.).

The NHS suggests a couple of ways to segment “sweeteners”:

One way is to loosely group sweeteners as: sugar or sugar substitutes … One of the most useful ways of grouping sweeteners is to look at those that have nutritive value, i.e. nutritive sweeteners, and those without nutritive value, i.e. non-nutritive or ‘low-calorie’ sweeteners”.

And here is how the NHS further breaks down different types of sugars and sweeteners:

  • Nutritive sweeteners are defined as sweeteners containing carbohydrate and provide calories”. Think of these as sugars.
    • The largest category here is what most people think of as sugars; e.g. glucose, fructose, sucrose (a combination of sucrose and fructose, and basically the sugar we buy in the supermarket), maltose, lactose, honey and maple syrup, etc. (note: this isn’t an exhaustive list), etc.
    • Over the last few decades scientists have also bioengineered new low calorie “sugars” that have fewer carbohydrates, especially a category known as polyols or sugar alcohols. When you read a label and see ingredients like erythritol, isomalt, maltitol (see the sugar-free bar from La Reine Astrid), mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, you are experimenting with these ‘low calorie’ sugars.
  • Then there are ‘non-nutritive’ sweeteners, i.e. sweet tasting additives that have no (or very few low) calories, carbohydrates or much else.
    • The first of these sweeteners, saccharine, was discovered by a university student way back in 1897 who, after experimenting with coal tar, forgot to wash his hands. And when he licked his fingers was amazed by how sweet they tasted, and realised this was from the coal tar (bizarrely cyclamate a.k.a. Sweet’N Low, and aspartame, were also discovered after similar accidents).
    • Most of these no calorie sweeteners are chemically and biologically synthesised from the likes of coal tar, chlorine, etc. But recently scientists have managed to extract a plant based non-nutritive sweetener called stevia from the Stevia rebaudiana plant. So just to add to the confusion there are some “plant based, natural” “non-nutritive” sweeteners too!

Why do we like sugar (and sweetness in general)?

Returning to why we like sweetness; from birth humans are genetically wired to enjoy the sweetness in our mother’s milk, and as we get older we seek out ripe fruit, cooked meat and vegetables (they are sweeter), etc.

Evolutionary biologists suggest that this is because sweetness is a great predictor of calories (a.k.a. energy) in food. And most of human history has been about getting enough calories to survive and reproduce. At the same time most foods with lots of sugar have many other nutrients and benefits (vitamins, fibre, etc.).

Until very recently indulging our sweet tooth hasn’t caused many health problems (although it has caused many socio-economic issues, read elsewhere in Chocopedia for more on the very dark history of sugar and slavery). Indeed even today hunter gatherer tribes like the Hazda in Tanzania obtain 15% plus of their annual calories from honey (far higher than any Western dietician would recommend).

But as we’ve created more and more sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners for lower and lower costs this has caused massive problems. We are now gorging on ultra processed breakfast cereals, confectionery and mass produced chocolate. Our sweet tooth is now helping fuel an obesity epidemic. We are eating more and more calories from natural and artificial sugars added to foods which are designed to make us want to gorge more, more and more.

So, is it bad that we add sugar, and other sweeteners, to craft chocolate?

Having said all this, a little sugar can be a great addition. And we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water in our disdain for sugar while also being very sceptical about ‘miracle’ new sugars.

As with many matters concerning food and cooking, Brillat Savarin, almost 200 years ago, hit the nail on the head:

The centuries last passed have also given the taste important extension; the discovery of sugar, and its different preparations, … have given us flavors hitherto unknown“.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste.

We add sugar to craft chocolate as it helps us appreciate the myriad of flavours in a craft chocolate bar. As anyone who has tried a fresh cocoa seed, or indeed a 100% chocolate bar, can attest there are A LOT of tannins in chocolate. And these tannins are very bitter and very astringent. Adding sugar counters astringency and bitterness. It makes the chocolate more palatable. And it’s like adding salt, or umami, to meat; it brings out the flavour. Without the sweetener, most of us only experience bitterness and astringency. We can miss the amazing variety of flavour brought out by fermentation, roasting, conching, tempering, and of course the beans themselves because we are so overwhelmed by the astringency.

Side note on 100% bars: Most people can learn to appreciate (and even love) craft chocolate which doesn’t have any added sugar (indeed we even have a 100% subscription offering). Coffee provides a great parallel: The first time most people drink an espresso or a black coffee they too are overpowered by the tannins. But you can get used to it. Hence why so many people come to love espresso and black coffee. And as anyone who has been to a virtual tasting can testify, chew on a coffee bean and then trying some 100% completely changes the experience. Astringency is something that the brain can switch on and off. Try some great 100% bars below from Firetree and Karuna. Try them over a few days. Possibly after chewing a coffee bean. They are amazing!

Why sugar added to mass produced chocolate isn’t such a good thing:

Sugar in mass produced confectionery is added for very different reasons.

Firstly, sugar is not added to enhance the flavour of the underlying chocolate in a mass produced chocolate bar (or chocolate confectionery). Sugar is added to make the mass produced candy and ultra-processed chocolate sweet. These are then marketed as a sweet treat and reward that act as a pick me up (sadly also with a sugar crash).

Secondly, sugar is also added as it’s an incredibly cheap ingredient. Given all the health issues too much sugar is now seen as causing, this is ironic as sugar’s cheapness is in part thanks to massive government subsidies coupled with new technologies. Indeed, sugar is far cheaper than the chocolate in any mass processed bar. And far cheaper even than ultra-processed, artificial sweeteners. To quote the R&D Department of Callebaut in North America:

Any [sugar] replacement or change in sweetening…typically will mean a cost increase with the raw materials … polyols such as the low-calorie sugar alcohols erythritol and maltitol are more expensive than cane sugar”.

That’s why when you check the ingredients of many mass produced bars, sugar is the primary ingredient (for example; a snack sized 45g of Dairy Milk contains 25g of sugar).

What are the consequences of adding sugar and sweeteners to mass produced chocolate?

Put our desire for sweetness together with this cheap added sugar and it’s a problem. For the first time in human history many of us have too many calories and not enough fibre, protein and nutrients in our diet.

Ironically ‘calorie counting’ doesn’t help here: It over simplifies how nutrition works at both an individual and general level.

For example, refined sugar has less calories than the chocolate it is added to. Craft chocolate contains lots of carbohydrates, fats, minerals and even fibre (cocoa is after all a fruit). So if you just look at the calorie count, gram per gram, a mass produced chocolate bar will have LESS calories than e.g., a 100% or even 70% craft chocolate bar.

But this is very misleading.

Craft chocolate is about savouring. The fibre, carbohydrates and fat in dark chocolate are all REALLY filling. Especially if you savour SLOWLY. You rarely eat that much craft chocolate in one go; say 4-6 squares, or around 20g. Come to a virtual tasting and you’ll be sated, but you’ll have savoured less than a third of a full bar of chocolate.

By contrast, sugar is what is often described as an ’empty calorie’. In its refined form, sugar packs a lot of calories and is a great source of immediate energy. But refined sugar doesn’t have any nutrients. And sugar isn’t very filling. Its sweetness means that when you add it to cereals, biscuits, or mass chocolate bars, you want to eat more. And more. Indeed, for most people they keep eating more of a sugar filled mass produced chocolate bar until it’s all been scoffed (hence the packaging, which we’ve discussed before).

And sugar can become addictive, and this helps sales.

Does the type of sweetener (and sugar) make a difference?

So the simple answer here is YES. The type of sugar added will change flavour, mouthfeel and taste. And the source of the sugar also makes a HUGE socio-economic difference (see the our article on sugar and slavery).

But it’s far more complicated to answer whether any sweeteners are ‘healthier’. Honey has been shown by more and more studies to have various health benefits. And eating sugary fruits (like figs, oranges, apples, etc.) is clearly healthy.

But the suggestion that some refined sugars are healthier than others is, to put it mildly, unproven. In particular claims that certain added sugars (e.g., coconut sugar) cause a lower ‘GI spike’ (sugar rush) have never stood up to scrutiny (the original study was done by the Philippine Coconut Sugar Marketing board on only 11 people, and never been replicated). And different peoples’ blood sugar is impacted dramatically differently by different products. In Tim Spector’s upcoming book he points out that:

  • My blood sugar hardly moved with a bowl of white rice which has a GI of 95/100 and shot up to the diabetic range with ten red grapes which have a GI of only 46/100. I tested my long suffering wife, and she had the opposite result .. studies from … our UK twins are showing that our individuality in the gut microbiome determines how quickly we absorb glucose and the speed of our insulin response. Microbes were much more important than carb content or GI index”.
  • Note: I used a blood sugar monitor to experiment on myself a few months ago and was delighted to discover that chocolate and red wine DON’T cause my blood sugar to spike. But sadly black coffee does cause huge spikes.

And the idea that artificial (or natural) sweeteners are healthier is also under increasing challenge from discoveries about how we taste. Again, Tim’s upcoming book has more on this, but one intriguing insight from Tim’s work is that we have taste receptors not just in our mouth, but also all the way through our gut. So while you can fool the receptors on your tongue with the likes of aspartame and stevia, your gut isn’t as fooled, and so it may well rumble and demand more (if you have some maltodextrin, which is a sugar but doesn’t taste sweet, that will satiate your stomach, but it causes other issues).

How do sugars and sweeteners impact mouthfeel, flavour and taste?

The GREAT attribute about refined sugar is that it has no flavour. It’s just a sweet taste.

This changes when sugar is heated above a certain level; it then caramelises, and develops various flavours (note: this is at high temperatures, above 320 degrees Fahrenheit). So refined sugar’s great asset for the craft chocolate maker is that when properly applied, the sugar is flavourless and allows the complexities of the bean, fermentation, conching and tempering to shine through. ‘Fancy’ sugars (like coconut blossom sugar, lacuna, or honey, maple syrup, etc.) are not just a sweet taste, they also have flavour which, to purists, diminishes the flavour of the bean.

This isn’t to say don’t try some sugars refined from the likes of dates or mango, or with maple syrup (see Raaka’s bar below, or some of Zotter‘s new range). But as you try these chocolates, you may want to go in thinking of them as more like an inclusion bar.

Indeed to expand your horizons, try some bars that are sweetened using lower calorie sugars such as La Reine Astrid’s sugar-free milk bar which uses maltitol; it’s very distinctive.

Then try some chocolate bars which are sweetened with milk. The natural sweetness of the milk, plus it’s texture, gives them an intriguing mouthfeel and temper (see below for bars from Chocolat Madagascar and Zotter).

Finally do try the eminently approachable and intriguing 100% bars from Firetree and Karuna.

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Why Do I Crave Chocolate During My Period?

We have all seen that stereotypical image of the menstruating woman; the emotional wreck slumped on the sofa with a hot water bottle, tissues and, yes, a huge slab of chocolate. Whilst she’s sometimes a sight of pity, more often she’s the butt of a joke.

But as those of us with wombs will contest, PMS is no laughing matter, and, for many, chocolate is a key part of combating period blues.

But why? Is it scientific fact that chocolate fills some biochemical gap caused by menstruation, or is there a more sociological explanation behind this phenomenon?

“Period Cravings”: Fact or Fiction?

To get the other 50% of the population up to speed; menstruation entails a 28 days long succession of hormonal changes regulating ovulation, starting on day one of your period, and ending the day before the next.

No two cycles are the same, but during the final days the levels of the reproductive hormones progesterone and oestrogen drop significantly, triggering a whole host of biochemical horrors, also known as PMS or premenstrual syndrome. This can include a reduction in serotonin, a surge of the stress hormone, cortisol, and a release of prostaglandin, causing nausea and digestive discomfort. This is not to mention the bleeding and abdominal cramps that kick in when progesterone is at its lowest!

But are these hormone changes the direct cause of monthly chocolate cravings, or is this just one of many coping strategies to deal with the hormonal battle within?

A 2003 study conducted by Zellner et al. found that 60% of American women who craved chocolate did so while they were premenstrual, suggesting a correlation. However, when the same study was conducted on a sample of Spanish women, the figure dropped to 24% despite them having similar oestrogen and progesterone levels.

There may be a positive trend between chocolate craving and menstruation, but so far research has only suggested that this is a culture-bound correlation, not universal causation.

Yet, there is reason to think that this mythologised hypothesis would make sense. For example, the drop in oestrogen and progesterone can cause fatigue which in turn makes us turn to caffeine and simple carbohydrates. Where can these be found? Chocolate.

Additionally, cocoa’s rich array of minerals could help PMS symptoms: potassium to ease cramps, iron to boost haemoglobin levels and magnesium which has been shown to alleviate nausea. But again, there is no scientific evidence that consuming chocolate alleviates PMS pain. You would have to consume a dangerous volume of chocolate to notice any change!

A Self-fulfilling Prophecy

But why has chocolate become our default period snack? Dietitian Melanie McGrice believes the answer may rest in a complex history of social conditioning; the pseudo-scientific theory being perpetuated by the media, film, television and advertising industries.

Firstly, ‘classical conditioning’, a psychological theory based on association, comes into play. Think Pavlov’s Dog but with chocolate. When we are regularly exposed to images of chocolate and menstruation together, we encode the information as one. Subsequently, when our period comes, the idea of eating chocolate is cued up in our brain, triggering the craving.

A process called operant conditioning then enters the scene, for when we eat that chocolate we are rewarded with that delicious taste and silky texture we love so much. If this brings us joy for even for a brief moment, the behaviour is positively reinforced and, naturally, we want more!

Yet, there is a strange, sociological double standard lurking in the background of this argument. While the media perpetuates the image of the chocolate guzzling hormonal woman, it also demonizes ‘empty calories’ and demands adults watch their weight.

In a sense, the media presents being on your period as a get out of jail free card for the social pressure of weight-loss it tries so hard to maintain. When, according to a 2019 YouGov study, 1 in 5 UK adults report worrying about their body image due to social media, no wonder the opportunity is taken up.

Perhaps if we encouraged more food freedom, and more blissful moments of savouring our favourite chocolate, we would feel less need to find excuses, like periods, to enjoy chocolate.

Should I be eating chocolate on my period?

Chocolate is no magic cure and, period or not, over indulgence will impact your health. But, like all things in life, moderation and quality is key. You want to enjoy chocolate, not regret it!

Research has shown that consuming excess chocolate during your period could actually exacerbate PMS symptoms. The high percentage of fats and sweeteners present in most mainstream chocolates can trigger nausea, particularly when you eat too much too quickly. Additionally, cocoa’s natural caffeine can cause your abdominal muscles to contract, intensifying period cramps while excess sugar plunges your hormones into even more chaos!

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Opting for a 70% or above dark craft chocolate may be your key to reaping chocolate’s comforting rewards without the adverse impacts!

Craft chocolate doesn’t contain all the hyper-processed fats found in mass chocolate suppliers and is generally lower in sugar, relying on the quality of the cocoa bean rather than the intensity of the sweetener to deliver amazing flavour! The more pure the chocolate, the less risk of abdominal inflammation. As craft chocolate is also often richer and less diluted with oils and additives, portion control becomes easier. You can eat less and still kick the craving, saving you from the discomfort of bingeing.

Whether or not there is a scientific link between chocolate craving and menstrual cycles, biochemical or socio-psychological, the bottom line is this: you don’t need a hormonal excuse to ‘deserve’ chocolate; you just have to enjoy it!

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Myths about Calories

chocolate unwrapped

One of the most misleading dietary rules is “count the calories and you’ll lose weight”. Today, calorie calculations are still based on experiments made over a century ago. Quite how a unit of measurement originally applied to steam engines was adapted to become a nutritional mainstay is peculiar.

Calorie counting isn’t a path to healthy eating or even losing weight. Focussing on it distracts from the difference between ‘food-like substances’ and ultra-processed food. In this vein, the difference between mass-produced chocolate and craft chocolate is strikingly clear.

Chocolate is demonised for its caloric value. Indeed it’s true, that a craft dark chocolate bar will contain more calories than a bar of ultra-processed, mass-produced chocolate. Those bars are packed full of additives, preservatives, and sugar, which is not calorically dense. But this certainly doesn’t mean that ‘low calorie’ snacks (including confectionery and chocolate) are ‘healthier’ or good for your waistline.

To unwrap these misconceptions, it’s worth understanding the history of the calorie before unpicking the challenges posed by diet culture’s calorie-counting obsession.

The History of The Calorie in France

Given France’s culinary tradition, it’s ironic that the man credited with first coining, and then defining the calorie was a Frenchman: Nicolas Clément. Nicolas was not a chef or nutritionist. In fact, he was an entrepreneur who also held one of the first chairs in industrial chemistry at Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, in Paris. His students record him using the term ‘calories’ to measure how steam engines convert heat into work. Specifically, he defined a calorie as the quantity of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 kg of water by one degree.

Whilst Clement is now credited with inventing the term calories another French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier, worked to enable its rapid adoption. Back in 1780, Lavoisier designed a tool to measure how guinea pigs’ breathing would heat up ice. Calling this device a “calorimeter”, he then adapted it to measure the heat from various mechanical experiments and chemical reactions.

In the late 19th century scientists in Germany, keen to improve farming efficiency, used calories and calorimeters to measure how different animal feeds impacted cattle’s weight gain. They weighed the animals and monitored their respiration. Note the link between nutrition and respiration is key; we lose weight and burn calories via breathing. Yes, that’s right – we lose weight almost entirely via breathing and Lavoisier was definitely onto something.

In the USA…

Turning this work on cattle and animal feeds to modern calorie counting and diets involved a couple of extraordinary hops.

The man generally credited with putting calories at the heart of human nutrition and dieting is an American, Wilbur O. Atwater, who also studied in Germany. Atwater generously credits Voit, Rubner, Henneberg and Stohmann, in much of his work. His study initially helped inform people to spend their “hard-earned wages” on morecalorically and nutritionally effective foods”. As far as we understand, dieting was not on his agenda.

Atwater’s Experiment

Firstly, using a ‘bomb calorimeter’ (a chamber-like device) to experiment, Atwater burned food samples to heat up surrounding water. From here, Atwater had a benchmark: the amount of burned food needed to raise the temperature of the water by one degree, thus counting its caloric value. Hence, we ‘burn’ calories because of Atwater’s framework.

Obviously, measuring food energy in a bomb calorimeter is vastly different to the way a human body uses food. We do not consume everything we eat and indigestible foods are excreted. Atwater called the difference between what we consume and what we excrete ‘available energy’. We know this as metabolisable energy, and it’s still calculated by simple subtraction.

In his “respiration chamber”, Atwater performed thousands of experiments on volunteers on over 500 different foods. The respiration chamber sounds somewhat like a prison, and not much fun. Volunteers were asked to spend a week in a “box of copper encased in walls of zinc and wood [where] he lives – eats, drinks, works, rests, and sleeps. …the temperature is kept at the point most agreeable. …in the chamber are a small folding cot-bed, a chair, and a table. …[the chamber is] 7 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 6 feet high. Food and drink are passed into the chamber through an aperture which serves also for the removal of the solid and liquid excretory products, and the passing in and out of toilet materials, books, and other things required for comfort and convenience“.


With both results from the bomb calorimeter and the respiration chamber, Atwater could calculate the calorie count of different foods. In 1894, Atwater published “Foods: Nutritive Value and Cost” in the USDA Farmer’s Bulletin. His findings categorised food into three basic types: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Each group had different values: proteins and carbohydrates (4 kCals per gram), and fats and lipids (9 kCals per gram).

The simplicity of the calorie system proved irresistible. During the First World War, caloric value helped work out which agricultural crops to plant and animals to rear. This was quickly adapted, and articles and books were written to help people diet. Diet and Health, by Dr Lulu Hunt Peters, consistently stayed in the NYT Top 10 best-seller list between 1922 and 1926. Amazingly, it still reads like an article or blog from any current dietary magazine or website.

Looking at the calorie count on any food, it will still be based on a simple calculation of the amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fats multiplied by Atwater’s factors.

Why a calorie may not really be a calorie…

From the get-go, the problems of Atwater’s calculations were apparent and he himself did a lot to acknowledge them. His calculations were not intially designed for dieting.

Let’s look at some of the problems with calorie counting as a dieting mechanism:

  • Different foods naturally have different metabolic rates. To quote Dr Giles Yeo: “Atwater’s calculations never took into account the energy it takes our cells to metabolise food in order to use it. …a calorie of protein makes you feel fuller than a calorie of fat, because protein is more complex to metabolise. For every 100 calories of protein you eat, you only ever absorb 70”.
  • And in 1973 Merill and Watt of the USDA revised the Atwater Factors, noting variations of digestibility in carbohydrates could mean you can absorb between 32% to 98% depending on which carbohydrate you ate. For some carbohydrates, only 32g of a 100g portion will be digested, for others, it’s 98g.
  • Food preparation and cooking method also drastically affect how food is metabolised. Different processes can add or nutrients or take them away. It can also make things harder or easier to digest.
  • Genetic makeup also contributes to your metabolic rate. Dr Yeo’s book includes some pretty sobering studies from Professor Clare Llewellyn of UCL, showing how socio-economic status impacts the heritability of body weight, variable from 40% for middle-class families to 70% for those who are “food insecure”.
  • Your microbiome similarly makes a huge difference (read any of Tim Spector’s books for more on this).

In summary, the food group, its preparation, other ingredients, your genes, your microbiome, and your socio-economic circumstances are all variable factors in your caloric intake. A food listed as having 100 calories, for example, could effectively generate anywhere between 20 to 99 calories.

So What to Do?

It is very clear that some foods and drinks are unhealthy. And fattening. But you won’t be able to work this out by looking at their calorie count.

A far better approach would be to avoid ultra-processed foods, including almost all mass-processed chocolate and confectionery with their additives, preservatives, hydrolyzed added fats, sugars, etc.

The best advice is to first check the ingredients. If there is an ingredient listed that you don’t have in your kitchen and/or if your grandmother wouldn’t recognise the ingredient, why are you considering eating this? Go one step further, make sure you know where the bars and beans come from.

And don’t fixate on calories.Variable by so many factors, they are ultimately as much use as the proverbial chocolate teapot:

Far better to follow this sage advice: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants“; and in particular focus on the first two words: “eat food“. Not low-calorie foodstuffs that are ultra-processed and mass-produced.

Micheal Pollan

Chocolate and Calories

Gram for gram, sugar is lower in calories than chocolate (and many artificial ingredients and additives are lower still). So mass-produced chocolate appears ‘better’ than craft chocolate in terms of calorie count; for example:


Maltesers (37g)187
Creme Egg187
Kit Kat (4 fingers)233
Mars Bar (58g)260
Bounty (57g)268
Snickers (58g)296
Mass-produced chcolate calorie table


Menakao 45% Milk and 72% Dark (70g)391-451
Standout Coconut Milk (50g)316
Amaro Piura Peru, 75% Dark (70g)390
Craft chcolate calorie table

Gram per gram, craft chocolate bars contain more chocolate, which is far more filling and nutritious. So, craft chocolate has a higher calorie count (note: the bars are also bigger in most of the cases above). But (normally) you savour a few squares of craft chocolate at a time. In contrast, we eat as much ultra-processed, mass-market chocolate as we can. The ability to override our brain’s satiation mechanism is at the crux of its design. So you end up eating the whole bar and, depending on the time, mess up your appetite for lunch, dinner, etc.

Reducing foods to comparative numbers on supermarket shelves leads to counting calories. It superficially provides an impression of control. It’s imperative to realise that calories are misleading. Just because an ultra-processed chocolate bar has fewer calories, it does not equate to a healthier option. Note all the other (preservative) numbers on the packaging!

Don’t let calorie counting preoccupy you. Check the ingredients and read the other small print. Know where both your bars and beans are coming from. Here are a great range of different craft chocolate delights that you can savour instead.