Archive for the ‘Food and drink’ Category

Chocolate Week – Part 4

February 19, 2011

So far we’ve looked at the science of making chocolate, the effects it has on your brain, the reasons for cravings and how to overcome those cravings. For Part 4 of Chocolate Week we examine the health benefits of chocolate.

 

Because chocolate contains a high amount of sugar and fats it’s definitely a sometimes food. Not going to deny that at all – it’s important to eat it in moderation. But it is not entirely bad news, because there are some health benefits from eating chocolate, many of which are related to heart health.

 

In two studies released last year, eating around 6 grams of chocolate per day was shown to reduce heart failure and the risk of stroke. For a heart attack, the risk was reduced to around 75% compared to people who ate no chocolate, while the risk of a stroke was reduced by half. These effects were partially a result of reduced blood pressure in people who ate chocolate, however the reduced blood pressure was not the only reason for the reduced risk.

 

The reduced risk of heart failure, stroke, and lowered blood pressure is likely due to chocolate’s ability to thin the blood. Blood contains a type of cell called platelets, which when we cut a blood vessel will clump together and form a blockage to stop blood loss from the cut. However, if the platelets begin to clump together inside the blood vessels they increase blood pressure and cause a blockage in normal blood flow, leading to strokes or heart attacks. By reducing the ability of platelets to clump together inside blood vessels, chocolate can reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and is actually the same way that many pharmaceutical drugs act to achieve the same effect. Dark chocolate is especially effective, with milk chocolate and white chocolate having almost no effect.

 

Adding to this effect of inhibiting platelet clumping, chocolate also improves blood flow by causing blood vessel relaxation. This effect was especially seen in the blood vessels surrounding the heart, the health of which is vitally important in preventing heart attacks. The relaxing of the arteries allows proper blood flow and also further reduces the likelihood of platelet clumping. The pumping action of arteries, important for keeping blood moving around the body, was also found to be improved after eating chocolate. Again, these effects are more pronounced after eating dark chocolate than other types.

 

Chocolate also has effects on insulin, but not what you may expect. Diabetes is a result of insulin resistance, basically the body can’t extract sugar from your bloodstream. Dark chocolate however, in healthy people, increases the ability of insulin to remove sugar from your bloodstream. I’m not going to suggest that diabetics start eating dark chocolate – you should always follow advice from your doctor and not something you read from the internet – but in healthy people it will decrease insulin resistance and allow your body to take up more sugar from the blood.

 

You may think that the fat content of chocolate may increase cholesterol, negating any improvements in heart function. However, one third of the fat found in chocolate is a type which does not change cholesterol production. On the contrary, dark chocolate has actually been found to increase production of HDL, so-called “good” cholesterol, and prevent changes to “bad” cholesterol which would make it even more harmful. These harmful effects of “bad” cholesterol include the formation of plaques inside blood vessels which interrupt blood flow and can lead to heart attacks and strokes. So stopping these modifications to “bad” cholesterol and increasing the amount of “good” cholesterol is another way chocolate can prevent these from occurring.

 

Many of these effects are from chemicals found in chocolate called polyphenols. This group of chemicals are also found in other foods and drinks which have good effects on health, such as tea and red wine. The cacao bean is unusually rich in polyphenols. however much is lost during the fermentation and drying process, and more are lost during the changes in temperature during conching and tempering. Because these chemicals come from the cacao beans, dark chocolate has considerably more than milk chocolate, as would be expected given the higher cacao content of dark chocolate. One study found around 3 times as much polyphenol in dark compared to milk, so if you really wanted to get the benefits of chocolate, stick to the raw beans or dark chocolate. Having tasted raw beans, I’d recommend sticking to the dark chocolate.

 

There are health benefits from eating chocolate, especially for the heart, but there are also downsides from the sugar and fat content. So as with everything, it’s best to keep it in moderation as part of a balanced diet.

 

Chocolate Week recap:

Chocolate Week

Part 1 – Making chocolate

Part 2 – What chocolate does to your brain

Part 3 – Overcoming chocolate cravings

Thanks again to Brendan Somerville and Robyn Vast who provided their knowledge for Chocolate Week and my friends at the RiAus (www.riaus.org.au)

Chocolate Week – Part 3

February 17, 2011

Addicted to chocolate? Or wondering about how you can overcome those cravings? In Part 2 we looked at the effects chocolate has on the brain, including the effects that chocolate has on the brains of cravers and non-cravers. In Part 3 we’re looking at controlling those chocolate cravings.

 

Dieting has been linked to an increase in cravings for “forbidden foods” such as chocolate and people who diet show a larger response to just images of chocolate than non-dieters. The thinking is that by restricting food intake increases the desire for these foods and may also increase feelings of guilt and anxiety. Also, stronger cravings may increase the likelihood of breaking a diet or resuming unhealthy eating behaviour. That’s not to say don’t diet, but the need to learn an effective way to control cravings might be even more important.

 

A recent study by Dr Robyn Vast from the CSIRO looked at the relative effectiveness of self-control of chocolate cravings. Dr Vast recruited 110 self-confessed chocolate addicts and, showing a streak of pure evil, gave each participant a bag of chocolate. In a week’s time the participants had to return the bag for weighing, but were given strict instructions to not eat any of the contents. The difference in weight from the start to the end of the week would show just how successfully each participant had managed to control their cravings.

 

To investigate different strategies for self-control, Dr Vast divided the participants into three groups – one were left to their own devices, another were taught techniques to control their cravings, and the third were told to accept their cravings as part of who they are but realise their brain as a separate entity and their thoughts as just thoughts, identify their cravings as just unhelpful thoughts and to ignore them. Not control the thoughts, but accept them and realise they were just thoughts and not actually something physical. Around 80-90% of our thoughts are negative, and by accepting these thoughts but labelling them as a negative thought and then psychologically discarding them it prevents the thoughts from affecting our emotions.

 

The theory of group 3 is called cognitive defusion, and suggests that accepting thoughts as just thoughts and not something physical may be a way to overcome, or at least minimise, their impact. In a literal sense, when having a chocolate craving we experience it as if we really need chocolate. But if we consider our mind as a separate entity which just produces thoughts, we realise that that we don’t actually need chocolate, it’s just a thought. The next step is to discard a thought we deem as negative.

 

After the week, the success rates for overcoming their cravings and not touching the chocolate were around 43% for the group left to their own techniques and 56% for the group taught control techniques. Incredibly, 81% of the people in the group told to accept their thoughts then discard them as just a negative thought were successful in resisting eating any of the chocolate.

 

So what’s the best way to overcome a chocolate addiction? Not controlling your thoughts, but rather accepting them but think of your mind as a separate entity and not actually experience the thought.

 

There may be another option though. Research from last year suggested another way to overcome cravings – imagination. When people eat a lot of a particular food they begin to reduce their desire for that food and the amount they eat, this effect is called habituation. What has been found is that just imagining eating food will begin to replace the feeling that you actually need to eat it. This effect works for chocolate, if you repeatedly imagine eating chocolate, you will actually eat less of it. The trick is to imagine yourself eating the chocolate, just imagining chocolate by itself will increase cravings and appetite for it, but by imagining eating it, you reduce your desire for it.

 

The take home message from these strategies appears to be the need to accept the thoughts of craving, and that trying to ignore them is a flawed strategy. According to the experts at least, its better to acknowledge the craving and then deal with it.

 

Thanks again to Dr Robyn Vast from the CSIRO for presenting her study data.

Chocolate Week – Part 2

February 16, 2011

Part 2 of Chocolate Week and it’s time to think about what chocolate does to your brain, and chocolate addiction.

 

The effects of chocolate on the brain

Chocolate is thought to affect the brain in a few different ways. It contains compounds which may directly stimulate the brain, and also indirectly changes the way the brain functions.

Really, does it need a caption? It's a brain.

Studies have been done to examine the areas of the brain which become active after eating chocolate, and there are specific regions of the brain which become activated after eating chocolate. These include regions which control pleasure and reward. In fact, people who crave chocolate have higher activation of the pleasure and reward centres than those who do not crave chocolate, even when just seeing chocolate. Areas which control motivation are also increased in activity after eating chocolate, as are areas which control memory storage and retrieval.

Strangely, eating chocolate also causes an increased activation of the motor cortex – the area of the brain which controls voluntary movement. This may not mean however that after eating chocolate people can move better or faster – even just reading a verb which relates to the arm, face or leg will increase activation of the motor cortex.

It is interesting to compare some areas of the brain which are activated by chocolate with those activated by an addictive substance, for example, nicotine. The pre-frontal cortex (the very front area of the brain) is associated with memory and learning, and is potentially involved in the development of addiction. Unsurprisingly nicotine causes activation of this area of the brain. However, there are similarities in the activation of this area when eating chocolate, with activation of this area occurring when eating the chocolate is thought of as being particularly good. Given the addictive nature of nicotine and the adaptations which occur in memory and learning centres of the brain during addiction, this points to a similarly addictive nature of chocolate.

The brain functions by producing chemicals called neurotransmitters which transmit messages from one part of the brain to another. Increased brain activity is due to increased levels of these neurotransmitters. Three major neurotransmitters are called dopamine, serotonin, and opioids – all are commonly affected by drugs and both have been found to be affected by chocolate.

Serotonin has many roles in the brain, including regulating sleep, appetite and mood. There has been evidence that chocolate increases serotonin levels of people who are deficient, including people with seasonal affective disorder or non-typical depression. This increase in serotonin is through an indirect mechanism using the carbohydrates in chocolate (such as sugar); however this effect is counteracted by protein and fat. There is a limit at how much protein or fat a food can contain before it stops this increase of serotonin, and, sadly, chocolate has too much of both, suggesting thatchocolate does not in fact increase serotonin at all.

When activated, opioids cause the release in the brain of endorphins, a chemical which causes a pleasurable feeling. Opioids can be released in the brain in response to sweet foods, including chocolate, and this opioid release caused by sweet foods can lead to an analgesic feeling from endorphin release.

Dopamine is involved in “reward” signalling in the brain, being increased when experiencing favourable things. This increased dopamine makes the brain remember that that was a good thing, and makes you want more; in fact dopamine is increased in anticipation of a good experience, making you want it more and more. Possibly, the sugar content in chocolate causes changes in the dopamine which make this reward signalling stronger, and a stronger reward signal may result in cravings to revisit that feeling. Also, one of the most brain-active chemicals in chocolate activates the dopamine system, further suggesting that dopamine signals may be involved in the effects of chocolate.

There have been suggestions that as chocolate contains a type of chemical called cannabinoids, that it may have a mild effect similar to marijuana. However, while chocolate does indeed contain very low levels of cannabinoids, not enough is absorbed by the body to produce any sort of effect on the brain. Similarly, other compounds which can act on the brain are present in chocolate, however do not contribute to any euphoria caused by eating chocolate, nor do they contribute to cravings as they are found in greater amounts in other foods which do not cause cravings.

 

Mood eating

Unsurprisingly moods do affect the amount of chocolate people eat, but the effect may be the opposite of what you think. When people were happy, they actually ate significantly more chocolate than people were unhappy, and the chocolate was reported to taste better and be more stimulating. While there is evidence that eating chocolate may temporarily improve bad feelings, there is a slump back afterwards and the improvement is very minor. This minor temporary relief can be extremely short, with some studies showing the improvement can be only while you’re actually eating, and as soon as people stopped eating they slumped back. This effect goes however for any sugary foods, not just chocolate.

In total, the evidence points to chocolate having no effect on improving mood or providing any kind of psychological benefit, and it may actually prolong a bad mood!

 

Chocolate cravings

The texture, aroma and fat and sugar content have been thought to be the predominant factors in causing chocolate cravings. And let’s be honest, they are pretty good. Chocolate does have a perfect combination of sweetness, creamy texture, aroma and taste. Indeed, there have been some studies which show that cravings can be ‘cured’ because of just the sensory experience. However there are other factors, such as magnesium content, and also the release of neurotransmitters, which together with the sensory pleasure of chocolate contribute to chocolate cravings.

 

It tastes, smells, looks and feels awesome, but its not the only reason you crave it.

Some of the areas of the brain may explain why people become addicted or crave chocolate so strongly. The areas of the brain activated include the pleasure, reward and memory centres, and non-stimulation of these areas may result in cravings as the brain seeks to return to that activated and pleasurable state. Also, the dopamine and opioid signalling increased by chocolate contributes to this effect.

Cravings have been suggested to be more a way of seeking the dopamine reward than preventing the negative consequences of not eating. The increased activation of the pleasure and reward centres of the brain in cravers supports this, that the effect on cravers is an increased reward rather than a lower level when not eating chocolate.

Finally, magnesium is found in chocolate at relatively high levels. Cravings may be a way of your body saying it is low in magnesium and it needs more, and the magnesium intake from chocolate has been suggested as being a large factor in satisfying chocolate cravings.

 

So while the pleasure of eating chocolate plays a role in cravings, there are sometimes actual physiological reasons for why you feel a craving for chocolate. Tomorrow – how to beat those cravings.

Chocolate Week – Part 1

February 15, 2011

For Part 1 of Chocolate Week we look at chocolate itself and some of the science behind how it’s made.

 

The cocoa, or cacao bean

The cacao bean, the key ingredient of chocolate, originates from South America and was originally brought to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th Century. The bean itself is found within a pod growing on the Theobroma cacao tree, with each pod containing between 20 and 60 beans. While originally found in South America, the major cultivators of cacao are now Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Indonesia.

Cacao pod

Chocolate as we know it is a relatively recent innovation. The original chocolate, as produced by the Aztecs and brought to Europe by the Spanish, involved the cooking of cacao beans with hot peppers, vanilla and corn flour. The amount of hot peppers was reduced upon introduction to Europe to better suit tastes there, and it eventually evolved into a sweetened drink, which spread throughout Europe in the 17th century. To produce this new form of chocolate, rather than using the cacao beans whole as the Aztecs did, the beans were ground and formed into bars of what is now known as cocoa mass.

Beans in the cacao pod

When cacao pods are first picked, they are left to ferment for several days to help extraction of the beans. The beans are then left to ferment for several more days, with the process causing the formation of new chemicals in the beans, and then dried. Tasting a cacao bean at this stage, the taste does not resemble chocolate as we know it. In fact it is an almost sour taste, while the fermentation process gives the bean a rather “off” tangy smell. The flavours we recognise as chocolate are a result of a roasting process carried out prior to the grinding of the beans. Indeed, tasting the nibs of the roasted beans gives some idea of the chocolate tastes.

Roasted cacao beans

The cacao beans contain high amounts of fat, starch and protein, and in early forms of chocolate this fat content was generally disliked. To overcome this problem, presses were developed to remove the fat, which forms cocoa butter. However, during the grinding process used today, the fats coat the ground cocoa powder and produced chocolate liquor, a mass which when tasted does reseamble something closer to chocolate, however I found to be quite bitter. Modern chocolate normally contains at least 30% chocolate butter.

 

From cacao to chocolate

The chocolate liquor is combined with more cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids and ground to an extremely fine powder. The finer the grinding, the smoother the resulting chocolate will be, however will produce a thicker chocolate.

The mixture is then heated during a process called “conching”, where the temperature is increased above 55°C, stirred constantly, and exposed to circulating air. This process removes many of the volatile chemicals in the mixture, reducing the tart flavours and developing the flavours we normally associate with chocolate. The constant stirring also makes a smooth emulsion (particles suspended in liquid), with a smoother emulsion resulting in a smoother chocolate.

Conching chocolate. The rollers are producing a smooth emulsion while the open vat allows chemicals to evaporate away.

Following the conching, the mixture is cooled to crystallise the cocoa butter and form solid chocolate. While this may sound a straight forward process, it does require care. When substances crystallise, they can form several different types of crystals, and cocoa butter can form six, and the formation of these crystals will change the chocolate’s properties. Some crystals will result in chocolate being extremely hard, while other types will affect the melting temperature, making it either too high or too low. Small crystals are also preferred as large crystals will give the chocolate a gritty feel, with smaller crystals also giving chocolate the shine that makes it so appetising.

Controlling the formation of these crystals is called tempering, and involves careful control of the chocolate temperature and principles learnt from chemistry. The crystals which produce the perfect chocolate form between 18-25°C, however the process is much more complicated than just a single temperature.

 

Tempering chemistry

To begin tempering chocolate, it must be heated to a temperature which melts any existing cocoa butter crystals, above 44°C. However raising the temperature too high will ruin the emulsion formed during the conching process, making the chocolate coarse and gritty.

A small-scale tempering machine.

Once the cocoa butter crystals have melted, the liquid is cooled to below 28°C to begin the crystal reformation. At this temperature there are two types of crystals forming, but while the crystals are forming the mixture is constantly stirred which breaks up these crystals into small pieces. As more crystals form and are broken the liquid thickens, and just before it can set the temperature is raised to 31°C. At this temperature, one type of crystal which has a low melting point will melt, however the other type of crystal, which has a melting temperature of about 33°C, will remain. These higher melting temperature crystals are the most desirable form to have, producing all the best qualities of chocolate.

Because the tempering process has resulted in only the best type of crystal for chocolate, when the chocolate liquid is then set, the crystals will grow still in the most desirable form. And because the constant stirring has made lots of small crystals, the crystals will not become overlay large. This means that after going through the tempering process, the chocolate will have only the crystal type that gives the best melting temperature, the perfect smoothness and the deepest shine.

After this process however, some cocoa butter crystals may not be completely stable. When heated to above 20°C, small amounts of the cocoa butter may slowly melt and seep out of the chocolate. When the cocoa butter reaches the surface of the chocolate it recrystallises and forms those white areas sometimes found on chocolate.

 

Thanks again to Brendan Somerville, chief taster at Haigh’s.

The Sweet Taste of Science – Chocolate Week

February 14, 2011

I love topics like this; I can carry out my own “experiments” while I write the article. Many bags of Maltesers were harmed in the making of this series.


Chocolate is serious business, not only for an industry worth nearly $5 billion a year in the US, but also for consumers. In fact, people take chocolate so seriously it has even lead to riots. The Spanish town of Chiapa Real was so enamoured with chocolate that the locals were asking their maids to bring them chocolate during Mass at the local church. The bishop, who was strongly opposed to chocolate (as were several churches of the time), made moves to stop the practice, leading to swords being drawn in the church. The situation was only resolved when the bishop was suddenly taken ill and died – the suspicion being he drank a glass of poisoned chocolate.

 

So what is it about this simple food which makes people so fanatical? This series of articles will look at the science behind making chocolate, why people are so enamoured with it, and the health benefits it provides.

 

Welcome to “Chocolate Week”.

 

nom nom nom

 

Acknowledgements

Big thanks to my good friends at the RiAus (www.riaus.org.au) for allowing me to crash their “Gluttony – The Science of Chocolate” lecture, and their speakers; Brendan Somerville, the chief taster from Haigh’s, and Dr Robyn Vast, postdoctoral fellow at the CSIRO. It was just lucky timing – I had planned to write about this topic before they announced their event