Cheer of chocolate

The calorie count of chocolates need not make you feel guilty. They have health benefits too, claims Mohinder Singh

"YOU could leave me in a room quite safely with your husband, your tiara or your cheque book, but not with your open box of chocolates," says a young lady member of Chocolate Unanimous ó an appreciation society, not a self-help group.

The societyís recommended technique for eating quality chocolate:

Let it melt in your mouth for a few seconds so that you can detect the basic aromas and flavours. Crunch it between five and six times. This allows access to secondary aromas. Then let it melt slowly while you rub it gently across your palate.

And the best recommended time to taste chocolate is at 11 in the morning or between five and six in the afternoon. You need to be a little hungry so that your taste-buds can get to work properly.

Chocolate isnít just another sweet. Itís promoted variously as a stimulant, comforter, aphrodisiac, let alone making an ideal present.

What actually accounts for the cheer of chocolate?

Some scientists believe it is a sex substitute because every 100 gm contains up to 660 mg of phenylethylamine, a stimulant closely related to the bodyís own dopamine and adrenaline. It induces a high; similar in kind if not in intensity to that experienced in sexual activity. No wonder, chocolate ads in some countries often show a young man or woman happily alone with a bar of chocolate.

Chocolate is surely a stimulant, like coffee or tea. Every 100 gm of it contains 5 mg of methylxanthine and 160 gm of theobromine. Both are caffeine-like substances. They stimulate kidneys rather than the brain. One reason why cocoa makes a good bedtime drink.

Chocolate consumption is known to go up in affluent countries in times of economic recession and unemployment. Apparently the increased stress and depression makes people seek some comfort in chocolate.

And, of course, chocolate has food value. It is rich in carbohydrates and thus an excellent source of quick energy. Soldiers carry a bar or two in their knapsack and so also high-altitude mountaineers.

Fortunately for chocolate lovers, it has little effect on serum cholesterol levels. Cocoa butter ó the fat squeezed out of cocoa beans and then added to impart chocolate its unique qualities ó behaves differently from other fats. Cocoa butter, despite being one of the most saturated fats known, has this property of getting poorly absorbed in the system. That way, cocoa butter can be viewed as a "good" dietary fat. Itís another matter, this butter is too expensive for everyday use.

Right from their childhood, people get conditioned to regarding chocolate as a coveted reward. They start liking chocolate not only for the taste and caloric value but also because of the situation in which chocolates are given.

The British Journal of Cardiology has assembled the most recent data to bolster the case that flavanols may have therapeutic potential for those afflicted with various cardiovascular diseases. The understanding is that flavanols help the blood flow through stimulating the production of nitric acid and thus relaxing the arterial lining.

A majority of commercially available dark or milk chocolates do not have significant levels of flavanols and it would be a job making flavanol-rich chocolate tasty, since flavanols impart bitterness and astringency.

Yet chocolate companies are busy researching products that can combine high levels of flavanols and taste acceptability of chocolate for the common consumer.