(This article was published in 2006)
A lick. A bite. A flavour-rich chew. And you're hooked. That's the bitter truth about chocolate. Yet, chocophiles globally are united by a singular passion for this feel-good cacao product — despite medical warnings of obesity, diabetes and tooth cavities.
Over the past year, glad tidings have infected chocoholics globally (count me in). Dark chocolate has health benefits, proclaims the media, including quasi-medical articles in Time, Newsweek and Forbes. A reason to celebrate with another bar of Lindt 70 per cent or a Godiva selection or even Ghirardelli intense dark Twilight Delight with 72 per cent cacao.
The great dark chocolate rush was triggered by reports celebrating its antioxidants, found in fruits and vegetables, berries, red wine and natural cacao. These natural compounds, say scientists, can prevent cell damage, thus slowing down the onset of heart disease or cancer.
What's clear is this: milk and white chocolate are now passé among chocolate aficionados.
Big-league global manufacturers recognise that the future market is gearing up for chocolate labelled bitter, dark, extra dark, extra bittersweet or extra-cacao, generally with an unsweetened chocolate content of over 50 per cent.
So, Mars Inc. rolled out its premium CocoaVia line of flavanol-rich dark chocolate, steeped in cholesterol-busting plant sterols. Not to be outdone, Hershey Co. introduced an Extra Dark bar last autumn, while M&M's now offers limited-time Snickers Dark. Nestlé is backing its new KitKat 4 Finger Dark to tap into a UK market predicted by a research group to grow 48 per cent to £191.1 million by 2010. Even Cadbury's UK launched Flake Dark for the 3 million new dark chocolate fans who emerged over the past two years.
More recently, in the US, a thick chocolate-acai berry drink called Xocai (www.mydrchocolate.com) has been creating a buzz. Why? Selling nuggets, protein bars and drink under the banner of the "healthy chocolate revolution" through a network of distributors, they cite Forbes magazine for their cause: "Over a 15-year period, men who ate cocoa regularly had significantly lower blood pressure... men who consumed the highest amount of cocoa were half as likely to die from cardiovascular disease... men who ate most cocoa were less likely to die from any causes."
What is Xocai's USP? The hyped antioxidant power of unprocessed cocoa, Amazonian acai berries, dark grapes and blueberries.
While the Xocai products have yet to reach the Indian market, an online acquaintance did send some nuggets and soya-fortified protein bars to my Bangalore base. First impressions? The nugget, with concentrated cacao, delights the palate with its intense, strong taste. Teamed with a glass of water, it kept hunger pangs at bay for the next three hours.
As for the flavour-layered, chewy protein bar, dieters have used it for on-the-go lunches, losing up to 19 lb over five weeks, according to Kandi Pruitt, a Texas-based distributor.
Of course, the home truths about Indian consumption patterns differ radically. A Mumbai-based spokesman for market leader Cadbury responds on e-mail: "Currently we do not market any dark chocolate in India. In our view, dark chocolate will only cater to niche segment."
He stresses, "Compared to the West, chocolate consumption in India is extremely low. Per capita consumption in urban India is about 300 gm, as compared to 9 kg in the UK. That's because the consumption of traditional substitutes like mithais is huge."
Yet Indian chocoholics are as fanatical as their counterparts abroad. Why? Malini Suryananayan, a Bangalore-based baker, responds, "I prefer dark chocolate to mithai. People here are still wary that chocolate somehow has eggs or some kind of animal fat in it, which is true in the case of cheap chocolate, which uses animal product-based emulsifiers. Dark chocolate has very few takers in India simply because we do not accept bitterness as a complex taste sensation."
She adds, "It is proven that consuming dark chocolate increases the endorphin release in the human brain, generally putting us all in a good mood. The Aztec ruler Montezuma drank chocolate drinks (roasted cacao nibs pounded and mixed with water) daily because it was believed to increase a man's libido! Personally, I eat just a square, instead of a whole block of milk or white chocolate, constantly searching for that chocolate fix!"
What other chocolate signals are worth heeding? Dr Nandita Iyer, Mumbai-based health and food researcher/writer, says, "I know for a fact that dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants. But I see no sense in hogging a whole bunch of chocolates, thereby increasing sugar and calorie intake, for the antioxidant benefits I could have as well got from a fresh salad."
Nandita stresses, "Wine and chocolate, which are touted as good for health, cease to be any good if we can't stop at one glass or a small square. Moderation is difficult to practise when it comes to goodies."
What of the health `benefits'? Dr George Cherian, long a Vellore-based cardiologist, now at Bangalore's Narayana Hrudayalaya, observes, "Most of the short-term crossover trials show that systolic blood pressure readings come down by 10-15 points, or good cholesterol goes up. But little is known of the long-term effects. On their own, antioxidants have been shown to be useless in preventing cardiac complications."
Dr Cherian adds, "I can safely say that if you can afford the calories, dark chocolate is possibly good for you. It certainly won't do you any harm."
Will dark chocolate ever capture mithai-centric Indian city-dwellers? Tongue-in-cheek, Malini responds, "Dark chocolate should be a must in the diet. Imagine the state of bliss one will be in when in a traffic jam or an intense meeting in the office! As for traditional diets, what about lamb chops simmered in chili-chocolate?"
While the jury's still out on whether the dark chocolate buzz will last, there's still time for a quick bite. But no more than a square at a time. Over-indulgence, for certain, could result in bitter medicine.
(The Hindu Business line 2006)