My daughter Angela is a self-proclaimed chocoholic and since this is her birthday week I decided to dedicate my blog to her by posting an entire week’s worth of healthy chocolate recipes culminating with my top recipe on Saturday, her actual birthday. But I want to start by giving you a summary of all of the latest research on chocolate and it’s health benefits. Who would have guessed that if we simply gave science enough time it would vindicate one of the most loved and desired flavors in the world . . .
Historically speaking, The Mayans, Aztecs, and Toltecs cultivated cacao trees (theobroma cacao) in Mexico before 7th century A.D. They didn’t just consume crudely processed cacao beans as a treasured drink, they also traded them as currency. The literal translation of Theobroma Cacao is Food of the Gods! In fact, the Mayans even worshiped these beans – something I think Angela could really get behind!
Chocolate was confined to Central and South America until 1504 when Columbus introduced cacao beans to Spain. It took some time for them to catch on, but the rest is history! Chocolate spread throughout the world where it became medicine in some cultures and dessert in others. Personally, and I know Angela agrees, at times dessert is actually medicinal – especially when chocolate is involved!
The clinical research on chocolate may have started from a scientist who was also a historian and curious, or maybe from chocoholic and was simply trying to justify regular chocolate indulgences, or maybe a scientist was curious just why chocolate seemed to be a mood elevator. We may never know what prompted it, but over the past 2 decades some rather extensive clinical research on the medicinal uses of chocolate has resulted in some rather impressive results!
Before I continue I do feel that it is important to point out that not all forms of chocolate are equal! The forms of chocolate that demonstrated positive results were raw cacao nibs or powder, cocoa powder and dark chocolate that contains at least 70% cacao and very low levels of sweeteners. In fact, milk chocolate proved to produce detrimental results, as did drinking milk with the chocolate! And for you white chocolate lovers, sorry but there are no medicinal qualities in it because it’s only cocoa butter, sugar and milk.
As medicine goes, it seems that chocolate just may have the highest rate of compliance . . . you have to admit it certainly tastes good going down! And once you’ve swallowed it here’s what happens inside your body . . .
One of the powerful components of chocolate is a chemical called theobromine which is a vasodilator, in other words it causes the blood vessels to relax and “widen” allowing blood to flow more easily through the vessels. It simultaneously causes the heart to beat a bit faster. Together these actions create a drop in blood pressure. Since theobromine is also a mild diuretic it’s also used to eliminate excess water from the system, which is also taxing on the heart as well as the entire cardiovascular system.
Another group of powerful compounds found in chocolate are polyphenols which are a specific class of antioxidants found in very darkly colored fruits and vegetables. More than 10% of the weight of cacao beans, nibs and cacao powder consists of polyphenols alone! In other words chocolate contains more than 10 times the antioxidants in the form of polyphenols and their sub-class flavanols than berries, green tea, grapes and red wine! Ounce per delicious ounce these powerful antioxidants protect your body from damaging free radicals that are responsible for oxidation and inflammation - resulting in aging and disease.
A few of the most significant roles these powerful compounds play are in maintaining the health and elasticity of small blood vessels and the connective tissues around them. One of the significant ways it protects these tissues is by reducing inflammation.
When it comes to the blood, these specific antioxidants prevent blood platelets from sticking together and forming inappropriate clots that can result in strokes, while at the same time improving the clotting ability at the site of cuts and scrapes.
Another very important role they play is in protecting your cholesterol from oxidizing and forming artery clogging plaque. In other words these antioxidants help to keep the LDL (the bad one) low while protecting and even increasing the HDL (the good one).
You may not know that cholesterol molecules are the precursors that our bodies use to make hormones. So the higher the HDL the more balanced our hormones become, including insulin. In fact, the polyphenols in chocolate have been demonstrated to balance both blood sugars and insulin!
Yet another study on chocolate and cardiovascular health found that these same flavanols increase the production of nitric oxide, which is also responsible for lowering blood pressure and simultaneously transporting more oxygen to the tissues.
You may be aware when you eat chocolate just how much more happy and relaxed you feel . . . but you may not know why. Here are 3 of the reasons behind those “feel good” responses to chocolate. First, chocolate contains serotonin, a powerful neurotransmitter found in our brains and our intestinal tract that make us feel happy. Second, chocolate contains anandamides which bind to pleasure receptors in the brain causing a “high”. Third, eating chocolate releases endorphins, neurotransmitters that act as pain blockers in the brain.
But here’s another crazy idea I thought of as I read all of these scientific studies . . . chocolate makes me smile. So I did a little research on the side effects of smiling and I found that smiling . . .
- Decreases stress hormones like cortisol, which is responsible for belly fat, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and general inflammation - so maybe more chocolate means less belly fat . . . whoa could we call it a diet food????
- Normalizes blood pressure
- Reduces pain
- Increases the production of natural serotonin, which makes us feel happier
- Enhances the immune system
- Makes you look younger – and people who smile live up to 10 years longer
- Makes you more attractive to others and people who smile more have more friends – which has also been linked to longevity
So if the only reason you could find to eat chocolate is that it simply makes you smile . . . then I say chocolate is still a very tasty medicine!