except a good friend with chocolate.”
Who doesn't love chocolate? And, the latest word from the medical community is that a little bit of chocolate every day may just be good for you. A treat that has psychological and medical benefits – now, that's cause for celebration. To be clear scientists believe, chocolate, not sugar and other additives, has the benefits.
Still, to get good benefits from eating the “good stuff,” you have to know what you're doing. Of course, finding the right product and consuming the right portions is paramount to finding anything healthy about consuming chocolate. However, research contends chocolate can be a healthy food.
What Chocolate Is and How America Found It
The cacao tree is a native of Central and South America. Today, it is cultivated around the equator and can be found in the Caribbean, Africa, Southeast Asia, and even in the South Pacific Islands of Samoa and New Guinea.
The spread of the cacao tree started during the age of Colonialism, as did the spread of cacao beans, and of chocolate itself.
Chocolate is actually the fermented, roasted, and ground beans of the cacao, and it can be traced to the Mokaya (cultures of the Soconusco region in Mexico and parts of the Pacific coast of western Guatemala)
The Aztecs believed that cacao seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the God of wisdom, and the seeds had so much value they were used as a form of currency. Evidence suggests there existed extensive trade in cacao with people from the north.
In Mesoamerica, cacao was mostly a food of the elite. Originally prepared only as a drink, chocolate was served as a bitter, frothy liquid, mixed with spices, wine or corn puree. It was believed to have aphrodisiac powers and to give the drinker strength.
A particular favorite of Maya kings and priests, chocolate played a special part in royal and religious events. Mayan couples even drank chocolate as part of their betrothal and marriage ceremonies.
(Traci Watson. “Earliest Evidence of Chocolate in North America.” Science. January 22, 2013.)
Later Ferdinand, Columbus' son wrote about the European's first encounter with cacao beans, saying:
"They (the natives) seemed to hold these almonds (referring to the cacao beans) at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen."
What Ferdinand and the other members of Columbus' crew didn't know at the time was that cocoa beans were the local currency. In fact, in some parts of Central America, cacao beans were used as currency as recently as the last century.
While it is likely that Columbus brought the cacao beans he seized back to Europe, their potential value was initially overlooked by the Spanish King and his court. Twenty years later, however, Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez is said to have brought back three chests full of cacao beans. This time the beans were recognized as one treasure among the many stolen from the conquered Aztecs.
Chocolate contains flavanols and flavonols, two types of flavonoids, or natural (plant) chemicals found in fruits, vegetables, tea, red wine and beer. There are over 4,000 different flavonoids that have been identified, some with anti-viral, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor and anti-oxidant benefits. One of the flavonols in chocolate is called quercetin, a potent antioxidant that protects cells against damage from free-radicals.
Antioxidants are said to remove free radicals from the body. Free radicals are chemicals that have the potential to cause damage to cells and tissues in the body.
Let me cite some research about the benefits of consuming chocolate.
Researchers have found that eating chocolate increases the levels of endorphins released into the brain. The endorphins work to lessen pain and decrease stress. Another common neurotransmitter affected by chocolate is serotonin. Serotonin is known as an anti-depressant. One of the chemicals which causes the release of serotonin is tryptophan found in, among other things, chocolate/
One of the more unique neurotransmitters released by chocolate is phenylethylamine – the so called "chocolate amphetamine" that causes changes in blood pressure and blood-sugar levels leading to feelings of excitement and alertness. It works like amphetamines to increase mood and decrease depression, but it does not result in the same tolerance or addiction. Phenylethylamine is also called the "love drug" because it causes your pulse rate to quicken, resulting in a similar feeling to when someone is in love
In fact, research was carried out by Dr David Lewis, formerly of the University of Sussex, and now of the Mind Lab (independent research facility) claims melting chocolate is better than a passionate kiss.
Lewis said: "There is no doubt that chocolate beats kissing hands down when it comes to providing a long-lasting body and brain buzz – a buzz that, in many cases, lasted four times as long as the most passionate kiss."
Lewis explains substances in chocolate were already known to have a psychoactive effect, but that allowing it to melt on your tongue could be the secret to maximizing the buzz.
(Martin Beckford. “Chocolate 'More Exciting Than Kissing.” The Telegraph. April 16, 2007.)
A recent study (2012) reported in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity compiles the beneficial effects of cocoa polyphenols on human health, especially with regard to cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases, metabolic disorders, and cancer prevention.
Their antioxidant properties may be responsible for many of their pharmacological effects, including the inhibition of lipid peroxidation and the protection of LDL-cholesterol against oxidation, and increase resistance to oxidative stress.
The phenolics from cocoa also modify the glycemic response and the lipid profile, decreasing platelet function and inflammation along with diastolic and systolic arterial pressures, which, taken together, may reduce the risk of cardiovascular mortality.
Cocoa polyphenols can also modulate intestinal inflammation through the reduction of neutrophil infiltration and expression of different transcription factors, which leads to decreases in the production of proinflammatory enzymes and cytokines.
The phenolics from cocoa may thus protect against diseases in which oxidative stress is implicated as a causal or contributing factor, such as cancer. They also have antiproliferative, antimutagenic, and chemoprotective effects, in addition to their anticariogenic effects.
(I Andujar, M.C. Recio, R.M. Giner, and J.L. Rios. “Cocoa polyphenols and their potential benefits for human health.” Oxid Med Cell Longev. Epub. October 24, 2012.)
But, it should be known ...
Another study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences (2009) reported that several molecular targets (e.g., nuclear factor kappa B, endothelial nitric oxide synthase, angiotensin converting enzyme) have been recently identified which may partly explain potential beneficial cardiovascular effects of cocoa polyphenols.
Yet, this research held as much as 90% of the flavonoids may be lost due cocoa processing. Thus, it needs to be established whether the consumption of products with a lower polyphenol content are associated with any health benefits in humans. Furthermore the food industry is encouraged to label the flavonoid content on their cocoa derived products.
Gerald Rimbach, Mona Melchin, Jennifer Moehring, and Anika E. Wagner. “Polyphenols from Cocoa and Vascular Health – A Critical Review.” Int. J Mol Sci. 10. Published online October 2009.)
U.S. Researchers (2014) say certain bacteria in the stomach gobble dark chocolate and ferment it into anti-inflammatory compounds that are good for the heart. Study leader John Finley of Louisiana State University and colleagues noted combining the fiber in cocoa with prebiotics is likely to improve a person's overall health and help convert polyphenolics in the stomach into anti-inflammatory compounds.
Prebiotics are carbohydrates found in foods such as raw garlic and cooked whole wheat flour that humans can't digest but good bacteria like to eat. These also come as dietary supplements.
"When you ingest prebiotics, the beneficial gut microbial population increases and outcompetes any undesirable microbes in the gut, like those that cause stomach problems," Finley added.
Finley said people could experience even more health benefits when dark chocolate is combined with solid fruit like pomegranates and acai.
(John Finley. Research presented at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. 2014.)
In fact, new research published in the British medical journal Heart (2015) says that eating chocolate may be good for your heart.
(Amy Kraft. “New research on heart health benefits of chocolate.” CBS News June 16, 2015.)
Results remained the same after researchers adjusted for a number of dietary variables including smoking, age, alcohol consumption and physical activity level.
Prof. Phyo Myint of the University of Aberdeen Institute of Applied Health Sciences said in a press release: "Our study concludes that cumulative evidence suggests higher chocolate intake is associated with a lower risk of future cardiovascular events,"
But again, be aware …
It's important to note that the study shows only a correlation between chocolate consumption and reduced cardiovascular disease risk -- it does not prove that chocolate lowers the risk. The researchers also point out that food frequency questionnaires, which the study was based on, do have a certain amount of recall bias and may underestimate the items eaten.
Chocolate lovers in the current study ate more milk chocolate than dark chocolate, which suggests that the health benefits of chocolate aren't specific to dark, which is often touted for its health benefits because it contains a compound called flavonoids.
The Best Chocolate To Consume
Let's get to some key points about cacao. We love chocolate. We would love to eat more of it. What do we need to know about shopping for chocolate? And what type of chocolate should we consume for any health benefits?
Florence Comite, renowned endocrinologist, says “the more bitter, the better.” Still, the term dark chocolate isn't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so any bar can be labeled as "dark" -- even if it's not.
When you buy dark chocolate, as opposed to milk or white, you get a higher concentration of flavanols and polyphenols -- antioxidants that disarm free radicals associated with disease. If you can believe it, they (the folks who are paid money to know about such things) say ...
Gram-for-gram, dark chocolate has been shown to contain significantly greater antioxidant capacity than blueberries.
Comite says manufacturers will often list the cacao percentage on the label, but you'll need at least 70 percent to reap the health benefits.
(Florence Comite. “6 Simple Health Tips for Buying Chocolate.” Huffington Post. February 14, 2016.)
According to Comite, the good fat in "good" chocolate is cocoa butter, which is a source of heart-healthy stearic acid. In the U.S., manufacturers can't label a product "chocolate" unless it includes cocoa butter as an ingredient, but replacing some of the pure cocoa fat with cheap oils and emulsifiers is fair game.
The word chocolaty is sneaky-marketer-speak for "fake chocolate." Don't buy it. And avoid products with the words "partially hydrogenated" on the ingredient list; these trans fats have been directly linked to heart disease.
Also, if products says "dutched" or "alkalized,” avoid them. Both terms refer to cocoa processing that substantially reduces its heart-healthy compounds. The Journal of Agriculture Food Chemistry reported that the average total flavanol content for natural cocoa was nearly nine times greater than heavily processed varieties.
Comite suggests to avoid over-indulging by opting for individually wrapped chocolates. Peeling off a wrapper will slow you down and give your satiety hormones time to register satisfaction. In fact, people consume an average 41 percent fewer calories when snacking on wrapped snacks, according to a study in Appetite journal.
Another suggestion is to avoid the extra "fillers" and stick to brands with pure ingredients Comite says “your grandmother would recognize and keep in the pantry.”
Lastly, following research cited above, Comite suggests combining chocolate with solid fiber-rich fruits can boost the health benefits. She says, “Nothing beats fresh fruit (fondue, anyone?), but popular dried mix-ins like cranberries and nuts (especially cashews and pistachios) can give your bar a prebiotic boost.”
(Florence Comite. “6 Simple Health Tips for Buying Chocolate.” Huffington Post. February 14, 2016.)
So, What Is the Best Chocolate To Purchase?
Alice Medrich’s 2003 book, Bittersweet, explains all about the new chocolates that are sometimes called high-percentage chocolates. They contain 60% or 70%, or even more, chocolate liquor.
These chocolates contain a lot more cocoa particles and cocoa butter than the chocolates that we have used before. The older chocolates with 50 to 55% chocolate liquor contained 20 to 22% cocoa particles; now the chocolates with 60 to 70% chocolate liquor contain 28 to 30% cocoa particles.
The highest flavonoid content, according to the Mayo Clinic, is in the darkest of chocolates. Manufacturers of natural chocolates would add to that criteria an absence of heat refinement. Still, a rule of thumb that holds true is that the greater the percentage of cocoa (cacao), the greater flavonoid content possible. The highest percentages of cocoa are found first in dark chocolate and then in milk chocolate. The exception is white chocolate; its processing removes all flavonoids.
According to WebMD, a 100-gram serving of Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate Bar has 531 calories, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If you ate that much raw apple you'd only take in 52 calories. But then, you'd miss out on the delicious blood pressure benefit.
Look for a cacao (or cocoa) content of 70 percent, and be sure to watch the portion size. Although brands vary, you can assume that a one- to one-and-a-half-ounce serving of plain dark chocolate contains about 200 calories.
Nancy Clarke, health reporter and author says natural chocolate makers such as Dagoba and Xocai present superior healthy dark chocolates, Dagoba taking the organic route and Xocai boasting its cold manufacturing process.
Clarke explains that demand for healthy dark chocolate has prompted master chocolatiers, such as Lindt and Toblerone, to market products with extremely high cocoa contents. These imported brands probably contain much higher flavonoid levels than mainstream American candy bars, but lower than cold-pressed natural chocolates.
(Nancy Clarke. “Types of Healthy Dark Chocolate.” livestrong.com. January 28, 2015.)
Dagoba offers an n 87 percent cocoa bar, while Xocai promises a full 100 percent of flavonoid nutrients
Swiss chocolates from Lindt are refined and do contain sugar, they are available in very dark 85 percent and 99 percent cocoa formulations.
Adding power foods such as almonds and blueberries to chocolate—or adding healthy dark chocolate to other foods—can enhance the level of antioxidants you get. It can also add calories, so eat this “enhanced” chocolate in even greater moderation. Both Xocai and Dagoba make fruit-enhanced bars that blend dark chocolate with acai berries.
Kristen Mancinelli wrote a very interesting article titled “The 12 Best 'Clean' Chocolate Bars.” No one said it was going to be cheap, by the way. Here are her conclusions with product, amount of cacao per bar, and price:
- Equal Exchange (Very Dark) -- 71% cacao and $3.75 a bar
- Alter Eco 8- - 5% cacao and $4.00 a bar
- Vosges -- 72% cacao and $7.50 a bar
- Sweetriot -- 70% cacao and $4.00-$5.00 a bar
- Taza Chocolate -- 70% cacao and $5.00 a bar
- Theo -- 70% cacao and $4.00 a bar
- Good Cacao -- 72% cacao and $5.00 a bar
- Dandelion Chocolate 7-- 0% cacao and $8.00-$10.00 a bar
- Addictive Wellness -- Unknown cacao and $7.75 a bar
- Righteously Raw -- 80%-90% cacao and $5.50 a bar
(Kristen Mancinelli. “The 12 Best 'Clean' Dark Chocolate Bars.” livestrong.com. September 03, 2015.)
Get much more detail for each product by clicking here for the entire article by Mancinelli:
U.S. - FDA Standards of Identities for Cocoa-Derived Products
|Product||% Chocolate Liquor|
|Bittersweet and Semisweet||35%|
|Sweet (like German’s)||10% to 35%|
© Copyright Shirley O. Corriher, 2007