Chocolate – more than Candy

by Tammera J. Karr, PhD

Millions of people worldwide love chocolate in all its many forms. This food of the “gods” comes from the cacao trees. The most common variety of cocoa comes from the Forastero making up 90% of the world crop. The rarest variety Criollo is sought after by artisan chocolate makers.

The first chocolate bars, made from cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and sugar, was introduced by the British chocolate company J.S. Fry & Sons in 1847. However, the history of chocolate goes back at least 4,000 years to the Maya and other indigenous peoples of Central and South America.  This food dates back to prehistoric times and was extensively cultivated in Mexico, Central, and South America for years before the arrival of Europeans.  In the 17th century, cocoa and chocolate were considered potential medicine, and historical documents in Europe reveal they were used to treat angina and heart pain.

During the late 1930’s the importance of chocolate was recognized by the USA, shipping space was allotted for cocoa beans because officials believed chocolate would improve the morale of US soldiers. Today rations still include 4 ounces of chocolate and has been to space with astronauts.

Research has also revealed chocolate has some impressive health benefits, provided you are willing to give up the sweetness of milk chocolate.

Chocolate contains more than three hundred naturally occurring chemicals, caffeine and theobromine are the most familiar to consumers. Caffeine is a stimulant that speeds heart rate and stimulates the central nervous system. Theobromine, formerly known as xantheose, is a bitter alkaloid of the cacao plant along with tea, and coffee.  This alkaloid stimulates the release of endorphins, one of our feel good brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Cocoa is rich in antioxidants and may be as high as ten percent depending on the quality of the product purchased. The Flavanoids found in cocoa can lower cholesterol, blood pressure and reduce the risk of blood clots and the amino acid arginine is essential in the production of nitric oxide, necessary in the prevention of heart disease and hypertension. However, this same amino acid is required for the herpes virus to replicate. One of the downsides to cocoa is an oxalic acid which increases the occurrence of gout in some individuals.

Flavanols are what give cocoa a strong, pungent taste. When cocoa is processed into chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce its bitterness. The more chocolate is processed through fermentation, alkalizing, and roasting, the more flavanols are lost. Most commercial chocolates is highly processed. Flavonoids are naturally occurring compounds found in plant-based foods that offer certain health benefits. Flavonoids are part of the polyphenol group of chemicals found in plants. More than 4,000 flavonoid compounds can be found in a wide variety of plants: cranberries, apples, peanuts, chocolate, onions, tea and red wine. Flavanols are a type of flavonoid specifically found in cocoa and chocolate.

Dark chocolate contains a large number of antioxidants; nearly eight times the number found in strawberries. However just like strawberries, chocolate is a common food allergy. Flavonoids also help relax blood pressure through the production of nitric oxide and balance certain hormones in the body.

Naturally occurring compounds in the cacao’s bean are responsible for its health benefits: epicatechin (a flavonoid) and resveratrol, of which resveratrol has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties believed to protect nerve cells from damage. Resveratrol, a potent antioxidant, is known for its neuroprotective effects. Research has shown this effective antioxidant is capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier, enabling resveratrol to moderate inflammation in your central nervous system (CNS).  This inflammation of the CNS plays a major role in the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as MS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Norman Hollenberg, a professor of medicine at Harvard who has spent years studying the Kuna people of Panama who consume up to 40 cups of cocoa a week, Hollenberg believes epicatechin is so important it should be considered a vitamin. The Kuna have less than a 10 percent risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer, and diabetes, which are the most prevalent diseases ravaging the Western world.

Several recent studies have confirmed cacao can benefit the heart, blood vessels, brain, nervous system, and helps combat diabetes and other conditions rooted in inflammation.

In one study, patients consuming 100 grams of flavanol-rich dark chocolate for 15 days showed decreased insulin resistance.

According to a paper published in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, cocoa polyphenols may have specific benefits for cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases, metabolic disorders, and cancer prevention.

The authors note that:  “Cocoa contains about 380 known chemicals, of which are psychoactive compounds … Cocoa has more phenolics and higher antioxidant capacity than green tea, black tea, or red wine … The phenolics from cocoa may … protect against diseases in which oxidative stress is implicated as a causal or contributing factor, such as cancer.”

A 2013 report in the Netherlands Journal of Medicine also reviewed the many health benefits of cacao, noting that many consider it a “complete food.”  Healthy fats, Antioxidants, Nitrogenous compounds, including proteins, methylxanthines theobromine, and caffeine. Chocolate also contains minerals, including potassium, phosphorus, copper, iron, zinc, and magnesium, Valeric acid (which acts as a stress reducer despite the presence of stimulants).

So, for now, enjoy moderate portions of chocolate (e.g., one ounce) a few times per week, and don’t forget to eat other flavonoid-rich foods like apples, red wine, tea, onions, and cranberries. Your best choices are dark chocolate over milk chocolate (especially milk chocolate that is loaded with hydrogenated fats and sugars), and cocoa powder that is not Dutch cocoa is treated with an alkali to neutralize its natural acidity.


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