Chocolate, is there anyone who doesn’t like it? Creamy fudge? Most of us adore this wonderful sweet candy, and some of us even feel we are true chocoholics, unable to carry on daily living without it. The sensation of biting into chocolate and tasting its unique flavor floods our sensory system with pleasure. Chocolate is like romantic love; it releases endorphins in your brain with a compound called phenylethylamine (PEA), causing a mild feeling of euphoria. It is further enriched with other mood-enhancing compounds which also contribute to this upbeat attitude—serotonin, theobromine, and anandamine. This is certainly reason enough to continue to eat chocolate, but the news keeps getting better.
Good Health Benefits of Chocolate
Cocoa beans were first prized by the Maya and Aztec civilizations for the wonderful drink which could be made from them. In the sixteenth century as the Spanish conquistadors invaded Mexico, Cortes was introduced to chocolate by Montezuma, who declared it his favorite drink. The Spanish brought it back to Europe, where it also gained a reputation for its healing powers. Modern research has shown chocolate does indeed have many health benefits:
• Contains antioxidant flavanoids. Dark chocolate has the most flavanoids (antioxidant compounds) which help suppress the free radicals in our systems. Also, blood vessel function improves with flavanoids. However, research shows combining chocolate with milk or eating milk chocolate blocks the antioxidant effect of flavanoids.
• Suppresses coughing. Chocolate contains a compound called theobromine which was found to be a third more effective than codeine at controlling coughs. This is the same compound that is toxic to animals that can not metabolize it.
• Elevates magnesium levels. Magnesium levels have dropped compared to the levels of earlier generations. Some scientists believe this is related to food refining and modern fertilizers. The lack of magnesium in the body has been related to asthma, osteoporosis, and ADHD.
• Contains chromium. The metal helps maintain blood sugar levels.
• Improves brain function. Preliminary research shows chocolate may improve memory, attention span, and problem-solving skills by increasing blood flow to the brain.
• Increases longevity. A study at the Harvard School of Public Health of 7,800 men found that those who consumed candy in moderation (1-3 times a month) had the lowest mortality. People who ate no candy had the highest rate of mortality followed by people who indulged in candy 3 or more times a week.
• Reduces blood pressure. Plant phenols in dark chocolate have been shown to reduce blood pressure by 2-3 points.
• Aids muscle recovery. At the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual meeting, a study was presented which showed muscles recovered quicker in athletes who drank chocolate milk as compared to high-carbohydrate beverages. Athletes consuming chocolate milk had lower levels of creatine kinase, an indicator of muscle damage.
• Reduces diarrhea symptoms. Studies conducted at The Children’s Hospital & Research Center in Oakland California have discovered a compound in the cocoa bean that stops the development of fluids which lead to diarrhea. Europeans have long used dark chocolate as an antidote for diarrhea.
The Not So Good Health Benefits of Chocolate
So before you run out to load up on chocolate at the store, you need to consider some of its drawbacks. Even though it was a relief to find out chocolate does not cause acne, hyperactivity and raised LDL cholesterol levels, it still isn’t perfect. When buying chocolate, you need to consider:
• Sugar levels. Chocolate is the sweet candy that it is, because it is combined with refined white sugar. This processed sugar has been found to suppress the immune system, decreasing white blood cells. It is also a high glycemic food which has a large impact on blood sugar levels, digestive enzyme counts, and the pancreas. Before buying chocolate, study the nutritional information on the package, and buy the one with the least amount of sugar. Especially, look for chocolates which have been sweetened with evaporated cane juice or barley malt, because they are less processed, and they keep some of their original nutrients.
• Pesticides. The FDA has found pesticides in many chocolate products, and the EPA allows certain levels of pesticides to be present in cocoa powder. Large plantation owners of the chocolate-producing cacao trees insist that they need to use pesticides. Certified organic chocolates can be bought which are pesticide free.
• Toxic metals. Cadmium and lead have been found at significant levels in 68% of chocolate products tested by the American Environmental Safety Institute. Cadmium is a well-known carcinogen. Lead is unsafe at any level, and children are particularly affected by it. Pesticides, fertilizers, and processing agents are the most likely sources of lead in chocolate. Organically-grown chocolates are free of toxic metals from pesticides and commercial fertilizers. Also, artisan chocolates (handmade or from small companies) are a good choice because they tend to use more natural ingredients in their candies.
When buying chocolate, always choose quality over quantity. The cocoa content should be 70 percent or more to receive the most antioxidant benefit. And as you look into that box of chocolates, think moderation. Avoid drinking milk while eating chocolate, because it cancels out the healthy benefits, unless you are eating it for its lactase enzyme qualities. So go ahead and place a chocolate or some fudge in your mouth, and enjoy the pleasant sensation as the chocolate slowly melts and releases its unique flavor.
Written by, Joy Seeman
© H.I.C. Digestive Health 2009
Chocolate. (2009, October 11). Retrieved October 11, 2009, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org
DeNoon, Daniel J. (2003, August 27). Dark Chocolate is Healthy Chocolate. Retrieved October 11, 2009, from WebMD: http://www.webmd.com
Grivetti, Louis E. (n.d.). From Aphrodisiac to Health Food: A Cultural History of Chocolate. Retrieved October 11, 2009, from Karger Gazette: http://www.karger.com