Chocolate – The True Gift of Love

The Health Benefits of Chocolate: by Michelle Seaberg

Valentine's Day ChocolatesChocolate has long been associated as a gift of love on Valentines Day. It may
be no coincidence that this day of love is often celebrated through the offering of an elegantly
decorated heart-shaped box filled with a delectable assortment of chocolates in every shape and
form to capture one’s desire of the moment. The true gift of chocolate, however, goes far beyond
its’ delicious taste and aesthetic qualities. Containing over 300 chemical compounds, chocolate
offers a bounty of health benefits that we are only just beginning to understand. (1)

The history of chocolate is as rich as is its’ taste. Chocolate is derived from the bean pod of the
cocoa plant which is thought to have originated in the Amazon over 4000 years ago. Since that
time, the cocoa bean has been a prized possession of my cultures such as the Mayans and the
Aztecs. These people considered cocoa as a gift for their gods and used it to make a drink called
xocoatl. This cold drink was thick and bitter but was considered a health elixir with fortifying,
nourishing, and even aphrodisiac qualities. According to Aztec history, the emperor Montezuma
consumed up to 50 cups of a chocolate drink a day. So much for the practice of “everything in
moderation”. (1,2)

So just what is it about chocolate that makes it deserving of all the intention its’ been getting in terms
of potential health benefits? Research has shown that chocolate is rich in flavanol, a form of the
natural phenolic compound with potent bioactive properties similar to those of aspirin. Phenolics help
to regulate the action of nitric oxide and reduce the oxidation of circulating LDLs. Oxidized LDLs form
fatty deposits in the arteries that, with time, accumulate to form plaque buildup that eventually leads to
clogged arteries. (1)

The oxidative power of phenolics is also linked to anti-thrombotic effects that reduce the “stickiness”
of platelets thereby lowering the risk of blood clot formation. Research indicates that phenolics may
have a positive impact on anti-inflammatory, insulin sensitivity, anti-tumor, and vascular endothelial
function as well. Considering all of these wonderful properties of phenolic compounds, it is hoped that
the flavanol in chocolate can promote cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure, maintaining
optimal blood flow, and reducing the risk of stroke and heart attack. To better make this connection,
more large –scale human studies that are well controlled are needed. (1,3,4,5,6,7,11)

As if the benefits of a healthy heart weren’t enough. Scientific research suggests that chocolate also
contains compounds that promote optimal mental health by stimulating the brain’s production of the
neurotransmitter serotonin as well as endorphins. These compounds are considered mood enhancers
and help to put to put a smile on our face. The compound Anandamide in chocolate shares the same
receptor in the brain as the cannabinoids, the pharmacologically active ingredient in marijuana.
Anadamide, along
with other compounds in chocolate that allow anadamide to stay around longer in
the brain, is likely responsible for the good feeling we get when we eat chocolate. It may also be
associated with the craving for chocolate that some people experience. On top of the “good feeling”
attributes of chocolate, the caffeine in chocolate promotes alertness and provides an energy lift. (1,10)

But what about the belief that chocolate causes acne and tooth decay? Apparently, these
relationships are just myths without scientific backing. In fact, it is thought that the cocoa butter in
chocolate may actually help prevent tooth decay by coating the teeth and preventing plaque formation. (1)

With all this said, not all chocolate is created equal. The suggested health benefits are linked to dark
chocolate containing at least 75% cocoa. Through the manufacturing process, the bitterness of the
cocoa decreases but at the expense of reduced level of flavanol content. In fact, chocolate
manufacturers are trying to capitalize on the health benefits of their product and are researching
ways to retain the highest level of flavanol while eliminating the bitter taste. (1,6,8,9)

Although more research is needed in order to substantiate the health benefits of chocolate, what is
known thus far, indicates that chocolate may be our friend rather than foe. No one will be happier
than I when eventually there is enough scientific evidence to support chocolate as a part of a healthy
diet. At the very least, we can all feel a bit less guilty on Valentine’s Day when we receive that beautiful
box of chocolates and indulge in the wonderful treats inside. What lies within the box is not only a
gift of love but, more importantly, a gift of health.

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