Students love it; many give it, many others refuse to even share. And a very small minority are indifferent to it. Fatma Salem reports on a seemingly essential part of a youth diet.

When it comes to chocolate, age doesn't count. You might be two, 22 or 62 but the temptation to bite into a thick slab of this sweetened derivative of the cacao bean remains as strong as ever.

Notes decided to take a break from academics, to report on a lighter subject - chocolate. We went on campus to find the place chocolate holds in a student diet.

How often do students eat chocolate? Is it just a bar for lunch? Does consumption rise the day before an exam?

Are students, for instance, concerned about the weighty issue of rising obesity among the young in the UAE and does this hold them back when buying a bar of their favourite brand? Or have other more sophisticated tastes overtaken the pleasure they used to take in chocolate as a child?

We discovered that chocolate brings some very strong emotions to the fore. And price hardly matters when it comes to buying the best available in the market. Parents, listen up, now you know where so much of your child's pocket money goes!

My friend for all occasions

Zubaida Dodin, 21, a final year Business Administration student at the University of Sharjah, admits to being a chocolate lover. "Speaking of chocolate makes me happy, I'm a chocolate lover, and I cannot resist its incredible yummy taste.

I make sure to take some in my purse wherever I go. Various types bring back special memories - either of the time I was in school or of joyful times with my family and friends. Belgian and Swiss are my favourite."

Marwa Ishaq Faridoon is also a 21-year-old third year Business Administration student at the University of Sharjah. "Chocolate carries a cute message, conveying feelings of love, care and respect and it leaves a good impression," she says.

"That's why when I choose chocolate I head for branded ones because it reflects my image and shows how much I care about the people who receive it."

Marwa believes that the kind of chocolate she eats depends on how she is feeling. "Mood plays a role. For instance, sometimes I prefer having a dark one with tea unlike people who prefer to have it with coffee. I also like to taste new types of chocolate and if they taste nice I take some for my family and friends."

‘Chocolate relaxes me'

Aisha Abdullah, 23, a final year Business Administration student at the University of Sharjah, loves chocolate mixed with hazelnuts and biscuits. It is generally an afternoon snack. "Chocolate relaxes me and gives me energy," she says. "No way do I give it to anyone; it's my favourite and I keep it only for myself."

Shaikha Salem and Huda Mohammad, friends and business administration students at the University of Sharjah, say they are addicted to chocolate and love all types. They claim that it reduces headaches and gives them energy, especially during exams.

For Hessah Eisa, price doesn't matter when it comes to buying and giving chocolate. The 22-year-old business administration student of the American University of Sharjah (AUS) says: "Chocolate has an irresistible taste, especially branded ones. I make sure to give it to my friends. Prices are not important as long as the chocolate is good."

Weighty issue

What do weight-watchers do when their love for chocolate clashes with their calorie count? They turn to diabetic chocolates.

Maysoon Ahmad, 19, is an image-conscious business administration student at AUS. "I am obsessed about my weight and the way I look," she says. "At the same time I'm a chocolate addict." It is therefore a trying time for Maysoon whenever she comes face-to-face with a tempting piece of chocolate.

"I go through a tough time when I see a yummy piece and I cannot have it. I buy a diabetic one instead." Does it satisfy her? "The taste of the real chocolate haunts me for the rest of the day," she admits. "Most times, I cannot resist it and have to sample a small piece."

‘I don't like it'

Maysoon would probably envy Ebrahim Ali's indifference. "Everyone loves chocolate, but not me," says the 20-year-old Jordanian student at AUS. "I don't like candies, maybe a very small amount and during special occasions only."

Ebrahim most definitely belongs to a minority on campus. The vast majority are like Maha Mahmoud, who has fond childhood memories of eating chocolate.

The 22-year-old AUS student says: "As a school student I recall asking my driver to take me to a supermarket on the way home from school to buy chocolate. I would enjoy eating it with my sister.

We used to save some for the next day and tease our classmates because the same chocolate was not available in the school canteen. My sister and I were very mean, but when it comes to chocolates one can't help but be like that."

Types of chocolate

According to Helena Shpakovich, sales executive at Moka General Trading LLC, roughly two-thirds of the world's cocoa is produced in West Africa, with close to half of it sourced from the Ivory Coast. "The three main varieties of cacao beans used in chocolate are Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario," she said.

Criollo is the rarest and most expensive cocoa and is native to Central America, the Caribbean islands and the northern tier of South American states. "Forastero is a large group of wild and cultivated cacaos, most likely native to the Amazon basin. Forastero cocoas are typically strong in classic ‘chocolate' flavour, but have a short duration and are unsupported by secondary flavours.

"Trinitario is a natural hybrid of Criollo and Forastero that originated in Trinidad. These cocoas encompass a wide range of flavour profiles according to the genetic heritage of each tree," she added.

Chocolate - a universal favourite

Das Nair, salesman in charge of the chocolate section at Nesnas supermarket in Sharjah, is probably an authority on consumer behaviour, particularly where the sale of chocolate is concerned. "According to my experience and daily observation the chocolate section is the most dynamic," he says.

"Everybody likes chocolates. It's rare to see a customer walk into the supermarket without heading to the chocolate shelves to buy his/her favourite brand. Most prefer milk and plain chocolates to those mixed with nuts."

What about young consumers? "School and college students are regulars and always ask whether we have received a new brand of a particular chocolate. Most of them don't care about the prices," Nair said.

A history lesson on chocolate

Notes spoke to Helena Shpakovich, sales executive at Moka General Trading LLC that markets the Godiva brand of chocolates, to help trace the roots of chocolate.

Chocolate is derived from the cocoa bean, fruit of the cacao tree that grew in the lush rainforests of the Americas. The Mayans and the Aztecs of the 7th century BC are among the cultures that first made chocolate out of the cacao bean.

Helena said: "The Mayans made a religious tonic drink out of cocoa beans that they called ‘Chacau haa' or ‘Xocoatl', meaning ‘Bitter Water'. After the Mayan empire crumbled, the Toltecs continued to cultivate cacao."

Legend had it in those times that the god of agriculture brought the cacao tree down from paradise. Hence the tree was known as the ‘Tree of Paradise' and its fruit the ‘food of the gods'."Cacao beans became a unit of currency in the whole of Central America."

Although following the discovery of America, Christopher Columbus took home some beans, it was the Spanish Conquistadors [Spanish soldiers who took part in the conquest of the Americas] who are credited with bringing the beans to Europe. "The Conquistadors were the first to be aware of the value of ‘The Silver which Grows on Trees'," said Helena.

Eat dark chocolate

It's always great to read articles highlighting medical studies on the health benefits of eating chocolate. Notes spoke to Nisreen Abu Ghoush, clinical dietitian at Rashid Hospital, Dubai, on the kind of chocolate that is actually good for us and why this is so.

"Dark chocolate, with its high cocoa content and lower amounts of saturated fats [fats that solidify at room temperature and are responsible for blockages in arteries] has recently been promoted for its health benefits.

It includes a substantial amount of antioxidants called flavonoids, which keep cholesterol from gathering in the blood vessels, thus reducing the risk of blood clots. It is also a good source of magnesium, which helps in reducing mood swings especially during PMS [pre-menstrual syndrome]," Nisreen said.

Why dark chocolate is different

"It contains a lot more cocoa than other forms of chocolate such as milk chocolate. When consumed in large amounts it can lead to many health problems such as obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol levels," she said.

"A little dark chocolate (50 grams/day) is good," Nisreen said. "Chocolate is loaded with calories (30 grams, almost the size of a die, of plain chocolate contains around 150 kcal); so it should be consumed in moderation."

Helena Shpakovich, sales executive at Moka General Trading LLC that markets Godiva chocolates, also highlighted the health benefits of dark chocolate. "It releases serotonin [a neuro-transmitter] in the brain, which produces a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction," she said.

Helena also cited research that indicates that chocolate may be effective in preventing persistent coughs. "The natural ingredient Theobromine has been found to be almost one third more effective than codeine, the leading cough medicine," she said.

"Current research indicates that chocolate has a stimulant effect, due mainly to its content of Theobromine, that is responsible for the mood-elevating effects of chocolate. Just the smell of chocolate improves the mood."

What about sugar-free chocolate?

"It is mainly intended for diabetic patients or for people who are following a weight reduction programme," said Nisreen. "It does not contain simple sugar that will affect blood sugar levels; rather it has artificial sweeteners. But the fat content will be the same or even higher, so people should consume it in moderation".

Good to know!

"Always look for darker chocolates made with at least 60 per cent cocoa," said Nisreen.