Chocolate – The New Superfood and Now A ‘Superfruit’.

Photo of a great Aztec pyramid. A great deal of cocoa and chocolate was drunk at such temple centres.
Pyramid of the magician - Uxmal, Mexico. Chocolate was a religious experience ! Copyright: jejim / 123RF Stock Photo

I can’t think why anyone would not like chocolate but it now has health benefits – indeed it really is a “superfood”. Linnaeus certainly understood its power when he called in Theobroma cacao which means the ‘food of the gods’.

History Behind The Development Of Chocolate

We know that the Aztecs in Mexico grew and cultivated cacao trees for the production of the highly prized beans. They were not only a form of currency for the Aztecs but produced a spicy drink which they called ‘chocolatl‘. The great Aztec emperor Montezeuma is said to have quaffed up to 50 pitchers of chocolate beverage which he believed gave him aphrodisiac properties. The belief persisted in Europe when Columbus first introduced the cocoa bean to Europe and made the beverage popular in coffee and drinking houses. In the early days, chocolate was prepared by roasting the cocoa beans in clay pots, then ground between mill stones. Cold water was added to this unguent powder along with honey and spices and beaten to a frothy consistency. From that day we have enjoyed the benefits of chocolate but almost too much.

For many of us, the idea of eating chocolate sounds more like a guilt trip – all that sugar, and milk, and calories but it does contain some interesting components which make it an interesting proposition. Having studied the comments from readers of newspaper articles on how chocolate is good for you, there is still plenty of mistrust out there. I’m always surprised by the paranoia of those who fear the military-industrial-pharma complex but surely chocolate isn’t part of that package.

The difficulty for most of us is principally the fact that we over indulge on chocolate. It must make us fat, it’s associated with alleviating depression and definitely a guilty pleasure. If we call it a superfood, we are discussing products which are generally classed as high in antioxidants which are compounds that prevent oxidisation and stop our healthy cells being damaged by free radicals.

The Quality Of Cocoa

The quality of cocoa beans needed for the manufacture of chocolate depend on a host of factors:-

  • farm practices (Clapperton et al., 1994),
  • cultivars,
  • cocoa tree genotypes,
  • fermentation processes (Senanayake et al., 1996),
  • roasting and drying processes (Suazo et al., 2014) .

Cocoa Fermentation

Cocoa fermentation is probably the most important part of the development of chocolate flavour. It is the first stage in chocolate processing.

The first 2 to 3 days of fermentation involve a succession of micro-organisms. These include filamentous fungi, yeasts, lactic acid bacteria and acetic acid bacteria. The main species are Penicillium citrinum, Kloeckera apisSaccharomyces cerevisiaeCandida tropicalisLactobacillus cellobiosusLactobacillus plantarum and Acetobacter pasteurianus. Unidentified micro-organisms still remain to be identified and undoubtedly have an impact on flavour. The later stages of fermentation were dominated by the presence of Bacillus species, mostly, Bacillus pumilus and Bacillus licheniformis (Ardhana & Fleet, 2003). 

Yeasts are the main fermentors. To them, cocoa is a source of sugars such as sucrose, glucose and fructose, lipids and proteins. They also consume citric acid which raises the pH of the chocolate produced and in the process generate small amounts of ethanol. To help them access this rich resource, they release pectinolytic enzymes to help them break down the cell walls that then release their nutritious contents.

Chocolate flavour is developed by yeasts. Yeasts produce esters such as ethyl acetate, isoamyl acetate, propryl acetate and phenylethyl acetate) and some higher alcohols such as 3‐methyl‐1‐butanol, 2,3‐butanediol, 2‐methyl‐1‐propanol and furfuryl alcohol (Camu et al., 2007, 2008).


The interesting feature is in the actual componentry – the polyphenols and especially the flavonols. Very dark chocolate contains a number of antioxidants and a major group are these rather dull sounding but incredibly interesting compounds. Read the research papers in the journals and you can see that chocolate will compete with fruit for polyphenol goodness.

The issue is in the manufacture of chocolate especially where heating is concerned. Any health benefits are severely compromised by destruction of those ‘good’ components which contribute to health. Interestingly, research at the Hershey Center for Health & Nutrition earlier this year compared the health componentry in single servings of dark chocolate, cocoa, hot chocolate mix, and fruit juices including acai berries, cranberries and pomegranates. The intention was to determine just how much antioxidant potential was present in each sample. It appears cocoa and dark chocolate have more antioxidant activity on a weight basis than any of these fruits. These are often attributed with high antioxidant levels.

The lead research author Dr Debra Millar has reported the findings and is quoted as stating chocolate is really a ‘superfruit’, which may seem odd.

Cacao seeds should be considered a ‘super fruit’ and products derived from cacao seed extracts, such as natural cocoa powder and dark chocolate, as ‘super foods’,” she said.

There is still plenty of research to be conducted on the nature of the antioxidants in chocolate.


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Afoakwa, E.O., Paterson, A., Fowler, M., Ryan, A. (2008)  Flavor Formation and Character in Cocoa and Chocolate: A Critical Review. Crit. Rev. Food Sci. Nutr. 48 (9) (Reference)

Ardhana, M. and Fleet, G. 2003The microbial ecology of cocoa bean fermentations in IndonesiaInt. J. Food Microbiol. 86, pp. 87–99 (Reference

Badrie, N., Bekele, F., Sikora, E., Sikora, M. (2015) Cocoa Agronomy, Quality, Nutritional, and Healing Aspects. Crit. Rev. Food Sci. Nutr. 55 (5) (Reference)

Camu, N., De Winter, T., Verbrugghe, K., Cleenwerck, I., Vandamme, P., Takrama, J.S., Vancanneyt, M. and De Vuyst, L. (2007) Dynamics and biodiversity of populations of lactic acid bacteria and acetic acid bacteria involved in spontaneous heap fermentation of cocoa beans in GhanaApp. Environ. Microbiol. 73, pp. 1809–1824 (Reference)

Camu, N., De Winter, T., Addo, S.K., Takrama, J.S., Bernaert, H. and De Vuyst, L. (2008) Fermentation of cocoa beans: Influence of microbial activities and polyphenol concentrations on the flavour of chocolateJ. Sci. Food Agric. 88, pp. 2288–2297 (Reference)

Clapperton, J.F., Lockwood, R., Yow, S.T.K. and Lim, D.H.K. (1994) Effects of planting materials on flavourCocoa Grower’s Bulletin. 48, pp. 47–63

Crafack, M., Mikkelsen, M.B., Saerens, S., Knudsen, M., Blennow, A., Lowor, S., Takrama, J., Swiegers, J.H., Petersen, G.B., Heimdal, H. ET AL. (2013) Influencing cocoa flavour using Pichia kluyveri and Kluyveromyces marxianus in a defined mixed starter culture for cocoa fermentationInt. J. Food Microbiol. 167, pp. 103–116 (Reference).

Schwan, R.F. and Wheals, A.E. (2004) The microbiology of cocoa fermentation and its role in chocolate qualityCrit. Rev. Food Sci. Nutr. 44, pp. 205–221 (Reference)

Senanayake, M., Jansz, E.R. and Buckle, K.A. (1996) Effect of mixing intervals on the fermentation of cocoa beansJ. Sci. Food Agric. 74, pp. 42–48. (Reference)

Suazo, Y., Davidov‐Pardo, G. and Arozena, I. (2014) Effect of fermentation and roasting on the phenolic concentration and antioxidant activity of cocoa from NicaraguaJ. Food Quality 37, pp. 50–56 (Reference)

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1 Comment

  1. I love truffles. If they put a health warning on chocolate I might as well give up on life. I was surprised it reduced bad cholesterol and improved good cholesterol. Mind you I eat so much of it I think it is making me fat. Supposed to be good for the skin as well.

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