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A study conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health indicated that people who eat from one to three chocolate bars a month live almost a year longer than those who do not eat chocolate.

In fact, chocolate is a quickly assimilated, nourishing energy food. Chocolate was taken on all the American and Soviet space flights, onto all modern battlefields and it was taken to Mount Everest on the Hillary expedition. Chocolate goes with many backpackers, hikers and hunters on their excursions.

Talk to anyone who’s lived through hard times, and they’ll tell you that certain basic commodities were hard to get. This usually includes such items as coffee, sugar, tobacco, alcohol and, yes, chocolate. These might seem like “vices,” but chocolate is the best of the batch, and you’d be able to trade chocolate for other items you need. After all, who doesn’t like chocolate?

Freshly broken fruits with white, unfermented seeds

WHAT CHOCOLATE IS … AND ISN’T

Chocolate is a valuable energy food for active individuals. As with coffee, tea and even tobacco, chocolate has the ability to enhance our lives when consumed moderately. For a food that is often regarded as a junk food or pleasure food, it’s really pretty good for you.

Chocolate pods are produced on a smallish tree, grown and harvested in a region 20 degrees below and above the Equator. The pods, maybe a foot long, contain white beans. Once picked, these beans are allowed to ferment for a few days or longer, at which point they take on their characteristic chocolate aroma and brown color.

Once dried, the beans are then exported and typically processed with modern machinery. However, it is certainly possible to process your own, as is often done today in Mexico. However, unless you live in the tropics, you won’t be growing your own chocolate.

Stock up and store it in a cool dry place. Don’t store it high up in a non-insulated cupboard. I learned that the hard way: Once, during a heat wave of more than 100 degrees (F), I found that all my chocolate had melted. At the time, I’d been storing chocolate nibs in glass jars, so I was left with a block of solid chocolate in each jar. So, if you purchase the unsweetened nibs (a good choice), store them in a solid container, and keep everything wrapped.

In time, chocolate develops a white coating and gets harder, but it is still edible. Properly stored, it will last almost indefinitely. Store it in the basement if you have one or in a low spot (remember: Heat rises).

Unsweetened baking chocolate is perhaps one of the best options for chocolate storage. It will keep the longest, and because it is unsweetened, you can melt or shred it and use it any way you wish.

The unsweetened blocks are also of a uniform size and are ideal for trading. If you don’t want to bother with unsweetened chocolate, 85 percent cocoa would be a good next choice as far as versatility and trade value are concerned.

During the normal manufacturing process, the beans are first “conched,” which means that heat and grinding pressure are applied to produce a thick liquid called chocolate “liquor.” When this chocolate liquor hardens, bitter “baker’s” chocolate results. This is, indeed, bitter; and most people don’t care for it because it has no sweetness.

When baker’s chocolate is subjected to great pressure, both a liquid and solid result. The liquid is cocoa butter, and the solid is cocoa. Cocoa butter added back to baker’s chocolate in greater amounts results in bittersweet, semi-sweet or sweet chocolate—three more grades or types of chocolate. The addition of milk creates milk chocolate. Sugar, vanilla and various other ingredients are also often added.

Some “designer” chocolates have hot chilies added, and we’re all familiar with the great variety of nuts, raisins, dried fruits and many other enhancements that make the available choices almost limitless.

“White chocolate,” however, is really a misnomer. If a product contains no cocoa, it’s simply not chocolate! Cocoa is the sine qua non of any true chocolate product. So-called “white” chocolate is made from cocoa butter. However, because it contains no cocoa, it is technically not “chocolate” at all. And, in some cases, if cocoa butter was not used at all but some cheaper oils instead, it has no business being called any kind of chocolate.

Several stages along the process of making chocolate from cocoa beans

BACK TO THE ROOTS

I made my first “authentic” chocolate drink by steeping the coarsely ground beans of the chocolate plant in warm water and adding a little honey. If historians are correct, this was the type of beverage (called “xocolatl”) that Cortez found Montezuma drinking.

He reported, “We found the whole beans quite oily. Once ground and made into a beverage, the drink had the color of weak coffee and was a bit oily. It had a pleasant bitter-chocolate flavor. One cup seemed as stimulating as two to three cups of coffee. It was good!”

Montezuma believed chocolate to be a food of the gods brought to the Aztecs by a healer or prophet who traveled over the waters (possibly Quetzalcoatl). To this day, chocolate is known to botanists as Theobroma, or “food of the gods.” It was widely regarded as an aphrodisiac (that probably gave Montezuma the stamina to deal with his many wives!).

Mayan priests perform a chocolate ceremony in Yucatán, Mexico, where the “Holy Eucharist” is a cocoa pod.

 

CHOCOLATE IS A VALUABLE ENERGY FOOD FOR ACTIVE INDIVIDUALS.

Pieces of chocolate in cocoa powder.

Chocolate blocks

Cocoa pod

JUNK FOOD?

A woman I know saw me trying to select chocolate at a store.

“Chocolate!” she exclaimed.  “Why are you looking for chocolate? I thought you only ate health foods.  Chocolate is junk food!”

Was she right? Is chocolate a worthless food—something to be avoided?

Because there are so many factors involved in making chocolate products, no two have exactly the same properties.  In other words, when you try to answer the question, “Is chocolate good or bad for me?” you cannot do so without precisely defining what you mean by “chocolate.”

Is it even remotely possible that chocolate might have some redeeming qualities? Fortunately, when you read medical studies of various “good” or “bad” effects from chocolate, they tell you what type of chocolate was fed to the test subjects, and in some cases, the brand of chocolate, as well.

Certainly, chocolate is fattening if you are sedentary and consume a lot. A small, 12-ounce candy bar typically contains about 220 calories. A couple of those a day will add up fast.

The raw bean does contain high amounts of theobromine and caffeine, but these oil-soluble, stimulating alkaloids are largely lost during the processing.  An average ounce of bittersweet chocolate contains from 5 to 10 milligrams of caffeine, compared with 100 to 150 milligrams of caffeine in an average cup of coffee.

So, what about cavities and acne—two often cited negative results of chocolate consumption?

Although it is commonly believed that eating chocolate causes an increase in the incidence of acne, there is no scientific data to support this. Numerous tests with acne sufferers who were fed large doses of chocolate showed that chocolate did not increase the incidence of acne. It is much more likely that people are simply eating chocolate at the age when they are getting acne.

As for cavities, at least three separate research centers have revealed that the cocoa powder within chocolate contains a substance that actually inhibits cavities—not a bad thing to know when you’re looking for something to eat from your survival pantry.

The fruit of the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao). The cocoa beans are removed from the cocoa pod and dried before production.

Prudence Daniel of Los Angeles shows her popular “pie ball,” which is a combination of chocolate and peanut butter. Daniel, founder of Prudent Pastries, uses only natural and healthful ingredients in her pastries and chocolate products.

Some of the many chocolate bars available

A woman in Yucatán, Mexico, demonstrates the old way of grinding cocoa pods on a metate in order to make a traditional drink.

She then cooks the freshly ground cocoa nibs with water and honey to make a traditional drink

THE BAD

The culprit in this case is not chocolate; it is sugar. Sugar is clearly a cause of cavities.  Milk chocolate, for example, contains 55 percent sugar by weight. And most often, chocolate is made with “white” sugar, which is the “cocaine” of the food industry. White sugar is a foodless “food.” In most cases, the worst thing about chocolate is that it contains so much white sugar. Most commercial chocolate products list white sugar (in any of its various guises) as the primary ingredient.

When planning your food reserves, one way to sidestep the detrimental effects of so much white sugar in chocolate is to make your own by mixing cocoa (or bitter or baker’s chocolate) with honey or other natural sweeteners. There are a few commercial chocolate bars that contain no white sugar, but these are not yet common and cost up to three times as much as others made with white sugar.

The Mayan glyph for cocoa: kakaw

Grinding chocolate is shown in an old Mayan glyph.

THE UGLY

More-common chocolate bars often contain more sugar than chocolate. That’s OK if that’s what you like, but because of the high sugar content, you’ll get the bad with the good. And some people might want a quick sugar rush in certain emergency situations.

So, we now know that it’s the sugar, not the chocolate, that’s the cause of chocolate’s sometimes bad reputation. Is there anything good to say about chocolate?

Farmer Serafín Guzmán checks his cocoa plantation near La Hormiga, Putumayo Department, Colombia.

ACTIVE COMPOUNDS IN CHOCOLATE

SEROTONIN: A neurotransmitter that plays a role in regulating mood. Although found in chocolate, it’s found in much higher amounts in other carbohydrates.

CAFFEINE: This stimulant is found in very small amounts in chocolate.

THEOBROMINE: Cocoa beans are about 2 percent theobromine, a central nervous system stimulator that stimulates and dilates the blood vessels of the heart and brain, as well as the bronchii of the lungs.

PHENYLETHYLAMINE: An amphetamine-like substance also found in the brains of people “in love.” Although found in chocolate, it’s found in much higher amounts in meats (such as salami).

POLYPHENOLS: These antioxidants (also found in green tea and red wine) might prevent heart disease by preventing the clogging of arteries and lowering cholesterol levels.

CANNABINOIDS: These chemicals, which are the active ingredients in marijuana, are found in very small amounts in chocolate and might influence the brain’s own production of painkilling compounds. By “very small amounts,” you’d have to eat about 22,000 pounds of chocolate to have any drug-like response.

SOURCE: LOS ANGELES TIMES SCIENCE WRITER USHA LEE MCFARLING; FEBRUARY 16, 2000

 

THE IDEAL SURVIVAL FOOD

Ninety percent of a cocoa bean is digestible, comprising 40 percent carbohydrates, 22 percent fat and 18 percent protein. Chocolate contains substantial amounts of vitamins A, D and B2, as well as vitamins E and K, calcium, thiamine, riboflavin, iron, phosphorus, linoleic acids and phenylethylamine, which has been the subject of studies focusing on its beneficial effects for weight loss and mood.

So, whether you stockpile it to brighten up the inevitable bad day, perk up a boring meal or to trade for ammo or another critical need, chocolate is a versatile and beneficial food to have. It should be on your list.

A plantation worker turns drying cacao beans in the morning sun at Takalik Maya Lodge near the pre-Columbian archaeological site Tak’alik Abaj near the Mexican border.

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.