But over the years, Walsh, who founded the Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate Company in 1992, has come to think quite differently about what his mother was up to.
“I started to realize that it was her way of transmitting her intention, through the focus of that holy water,” he says. It was a realization that ultimately prompted him to launch a new company last year, called Intentional Chocolate, which boasts of having “good intentions” as one of the main ingredients in its sweets. The company also claims that its chocolate can actually improve the mood, well-being, and energy level of those who eat it. This, of course, is provided in addition to the already well-studied health benefits of certain types of chocolate, which have been proven to not only have antioxidants that promote good health but also to lower blood pressure and improve blood flow in some people.
Sound wacky? Too good to be true? Well, perhaps. But think about the long cultural and religious traditions -- everything from the supposedly salutary benefits of a mother’s homemade chicken soup to a sanctified communion wafer or wine -- that assume good intentions can be embedded into something a person eats or drinks. “It is the idea that you are literally changing it, that the intention changes it,” says Dean Radin, a colleague of Walsh’s and a senior scientist at the California-based Institute of Noetic Sciences, which, as its website points out, studies phenomena that don’t fit conventional scientific models. “The thing itself, whether it’s a communion wafer or holy water or whatever it happens to be, carries something that you ingest, and it becomes part of you.”
THE POWER of intention has been the focus of a fair amount of scientific study. Researchers have analyzed how it can impact random events such as flipping a coin, and even how it can change the structure of water. More prominent have been studies looking at the impact of prayer, a form of intention, in aiding the recovery of sick patients. In a study out of Duke University Medical Center, patients who were prayed for by groups from various denominations around the world and who received regular medical care did 25 to 30 percent better than those who received only medical care. Other studies, though, have found prayer to have little or no impact on patient health.
To validate the concept behind Intentional Chocolate before the company launched last November, Walsh decided to do his own double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled (science-speak for “legit”) test to find out whether chocolate exposed to good intentions could enhance the mood of those who ate it. The results of the study were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Explore. This wasn’t just any chocolate, either; the type used in the study, and the one now sold by Intentional Chocolate, is the Hawaiian Vintage brand Walsh developed in the early ’90s. It has received renown because it is used by high-profile chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Alain Ducasse, was served at Bill Gates’s wedding, and was even the first chocolate the Dalai Lama ever tasted.
“He said, ‘I think this chocolate will bring great happiness to mankind,’ ” recalls Walsh, who was the only cacao grower in the United States when he launched Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate. Walsh is also credited with bringing the concept of varietal farming to chocolate, an idea he patterned after California’s wine industry.
In the Explore study, 60 individuals were divided into four groups and asked to record their moods each day for a week through the use of a questionnaire that measured factors like tension, depression, vigor, and anger. On the third, fourth, and fifth days, all four groups ate an ounce of chocolate; three of the groups ate chocolate that had been “intentionally treated,” while the fourth, the placebo group, ate untreated chocolate. The treated chocolate was infused with good intention in three ways.
One way involved two experienced meditators from the Deer Park Buddhist Center in Wisconsin spending 20 minutes impressing this intention into chocolate placed between them: “An individual who consumes this chocolate will manifest optimum health and functioning at physical, emotional, and mental levels, and, in particular, will enjoy an increased sense of energy, vigor, and well-being.” The second method, the one that most closely resembles what Walsh uses at Intentional Chocolate today, used six meditators from the same Buddhist center to treat a machine -- to drive good intention into it. That machine was then used to make the chocolate. The final method was to have a Mongolian shaman spend an hour imprinting the chocolate with the intention through songs, chants, and drumming.
The results of the test were noteworthy. On average, those in the three groups who ate the chocolate infused with intention reported a 67 percent improvement in their well-being, vigor, and energy. In some cases, the improvement was in the 1,000 percent range, a result that makes one wonder how someone in such good humor was behaving (and whether anybody could actually stand to be around them).
But study or no study, the chocolate certainly seems to have a big impact on some people, based on anecdotal evidence. On the Intentional Chocolate website, there’s a page of testimonials from consumers who say that eating this chocolate juiced with good intentions helped them with everything from strengthening a relationship with a parent to passing the bar exam to being able to sleep through the night for the first time in a decade. And Walsh says that the demand for the product through the website -- prices start at $12 -- has been so strong that he hasn’t started distributing it in stores yet, although the company is planning on rolling it out in a limited way later this year.
NATURALLY, THERE ARE plenty of skeptics who claim, among other things, that the study’s control group was too small, that the experiment was more about marketing than science, or simply that the idea that chocolate on the receiving end of meditation could have any special powers is flat-out bizarre. But Radin responds that not long ago, people regarded the very idea that germs caused diseases as weird and surreal. “If people are not prepared to believe a double-blind placebo-controlled experiment in a peer-reviewed journal, and an outcome that is consistent with decades of past research, then that’s their prerogative,” he says in a posting on his blog.
That’s not a dispute I’m willing (or even able) to referee. Still, when it comes to chocolate, I’m more than willing to make myself a guinea pig. Although I didn’t have the same questionnaire that was used in the actual study to assess mood, I did get ahold of some Intentional Chocolate and proceeded to consume an ounce per day for three days -- a difficult task for me, as I could easily have wolfed down an amount supposed to cover three weeks in one sitting.
I have to admit that I was pretty skeptical about the whole thing -- it all just sounded a little too mystical and new agey to be credible. Then again, I’d been going through a bit of a rough spot at the start of 2008: My dog was inexplicably sick; it was raining far more than usual in Southern California, where I live; and Eli Manning had completely ruined the Super Bowl for me. If I could feel better by eating chocolate, well, why not give it a shot?
Truth be told, by the third day of my experiment, I really was feeling better -- and not just from the caffeine buzz immediately afterward either. I was definitely feeling generally more optimistic, and I had more energy than usual to expend during my morning workouts, which had been sluggish for quite some time. Add to that the fact that my dog had stopped throwing up, the rain had yielded to sunshine, baseball spring training was about to start, and the Celtics were looking more and more like they could actually win the NBA championship this year. So was it the chocolate or not?
I guess I’ll just have to continue the study.