By Lisa Egan
All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.
~ Charles M. Schulz
Schultz, the beloved cartoonist and creator of the famous Peanuts comic, was ahead of his time. Much to the delight of chocolate lovers everywhere, more and more evidence shows that the decadent treat provides impressive health benefits.
Chocolate’s popularity goes very far back, according to some researchers:
Last November, anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania announced the discovery of cacao residue on pottery excavated in Honduras that could date back as far as 1400 B.C.E. It appears that the sweet pulp of the cacao fruit, which surrounds the beans, was fermented into an alcoholic beverage of the time.
For several centuries in pre-Latin America, cacao beans were so valuable that they were used as currency. The Mayans and Aztecs believed the cacao bean had magical properties and found it suitable for use in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death.
On its own, cacao is bitter and chalky, but the Europeans, upon visiting the Americas, changed that:
Legend has it that the Aztec king Montezuma welcomed the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes with a banquet that included drinking chocolate, having tragically mistaken him for a reincarnated deity instead of a conquering invader. Chocolate didn’t suit the foreigners’ tastebuds at first –one described it in his writings as “a bitter drink for pigs” – but once mixed with honey or cane sugar, it quickly became popular throughout Spain.
By the 17th century, drinking chocolate was popular among the wealthy in Europe. It was believed to have nutritive and medicinal properties.
It turns out, those beliefs were correct.
Here are ten reasons to eat chocolate:
1) Good quality dark chocolate is filled with nutrients.
Chocolate with 70-85% cocoacontains fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, and selenium.
2) Dark chocolate is heart-friendly.
A few squares of dark chocolate a day can reduce the risk of death from heart attack by almost 50% in some cases, says Diane Becker, MPH, ScD, a researcher with the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. Becker’s research found that blood platelets clotted more slowly in people who had eaten chocolate than in those who had not. This is significant because when platelets clump, a clot can form, and when the clot blocks a blood vessel, it can lead to a heart attack. (source)
Researchers from Harvard University School of Public Health reviewed 136 scientific publications on chocolate and its components and heart disease. They concluded that short-term studies suggest cocoa and chocolate may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by:
- Lowering blood pressure
- Decreasing LDL oxidation
- Anti-inflammation action
3) Dark chocolate may reduce risk of diabetes.
Researchers in Italy recently fed 15 healthy people either 3 ounces of dark chocolate or the same amount of white chocolate — which contains no flavanol phytochemicals — for 15 days. They found that insulin resistance (a risk factor for diabetes) was significantly lowered in those who ate the dark chocolate. Systolic blood pressure (the first number in a blood pressure reading), measured daily, was also lower in the group eating dark chocolate. (source)
4) Chocolate is a potent source of antioxidants.
Antioxidants can help prevent cell damage and have been linked to prevention of cancer and other degenerative diseases.
Dark chocolate is loaded with organic compounds that are biologically active and function as antioxidants. These include polyphenols, flavanols, and catechins.
5) Dark chocolate has anti-inflammatory properties.
An Italian study showed that when volunteers ingested small amounts of dark chocolate, their levels of C-reactive protein (an inflammatory marker) decreased.
Another study showed that 37 grams of dark chocolate (containing 148 mg of procyanidins) yielded a 29% decrease in inflammatory leukotrienes and a 32% increase in the anti-inflammatory prostacyclin compared with subjects who received chocolate containing only 33 mg of procyanidins.
6) Chocolate may protect your skin from sun damage.
The flavonols in chocolate can protect against sun-induced damage, improve blood flow to the skin, and increase skin density and hydration.
7) Dark chocolate may make you smarter and improve your memory.
Cocoa’s flavonols boost blood flow to the brain, and that seems to make people feel more awake and alert. And, a small British study suggested that it can help perform better on counting tasks.
And, a recent study yielded some promising results:
In a small study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, healthy people, ages 50 to 69, who drank a mixture high in antioxidants called cocoa flavanols for three months performed better on a memory test than people who drank a low-flavanol mixture.
On average, the improvement of high-flavanol drinkers meant they performed like people two to three decades younger on the study’s memory task, said Dr. Scott A. Small, a neurologist at Columbia University Medical Center and the study’s senior author. They performed about 25 percent better than the low-flavanol group. (source)
8) Chocolate can reduce stroke risk.
A 2011 Swedish study found that women who ate more than 45 grams of chocolate a week had a 20 percent lower risk of stroke than women who consumed fewer than 9 grams of per week.
9) Eating chocolate can help reduce stress.
A 2009 study found that people who rated themselves as highly stressed had lower levels of stress hormones after eating chocolate every day for two weeks:
The study’s subjects ate 1.4 ounces (40 g) of dark chocolate daily, or a little less than a regular-sized Hershey’s bar, which contains 1.55 ounces (44 g).
The doctors took urine and blood plasma samples from the participants at the beginning, halfway through, and at the end of the two week study, and found lower levels of the stress hormones cortisol and catecholamines in the samples at the end.
10) Chocolate makes you happy.
Chocolate contains tryptophan, a precursor of serotonin, which can prevent or improve depression. Research also shows chocolate can increase dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which is known as the “love chemical.”
Choosing the right kind of chocolate matters. Most of the popular, mainstream brands of chocolate bars offer little benefit – if at all. That’s because of how the chocolate is processed, and because less healthful ingredients are often added during production.
Here’s how to choose the best quality chocolate:
1) Choose chocolates with the least amount of sweeteners. Sugar should NOT be the first ingredient listed.
2) Select brands with higher percentages of cocoa solids (70% or more).
3) Buy organic when possible, to avoid pesticide residues.
4) Avoid chocolate that says “processed with alkali” on the label. Processing with alkali is called “Dutching”, and it breaks down the flavanol antioxidants naturally found in cocoa and chocolate. The extent to which the flavanols are lost is related to how heavily the cocoa or chocolate is Dutched. Choose a natural cocoa for maximum antioxidants.
5) Buy brands that contain cocoa butter and not trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils).
It is important to note that all of these wonderful benefits of chocolate consumption don’t mean you should go out and eat all of the candy bars your heart desires. As with most things, moderation is key. But, enjoying a bit of good quality chocolate a few times a week seems to offer benefits – in addition to tasting great.
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