Theobroma Cacao is one of the richest and most seductive tastes we can find. It represents luxury, love, sex and guilty pleasure. We feel like we are addicted to chocolate, even though there are no addictive chemicals there. If chocolate tastes so good, it must be bad for you, right? Well, maybe not. There is growing evidence that adding dark chocolate to your diet can actually be beneficial.
Can dark chocolate really be good for you?
Chocolate, or the cacao seed that it is made from, actually has quite a few essential nutrients and phytonutrients. While nourishing your body, it also releases chemicals that can make your mind feel pretty darn good. What about the calories and fat you get from eating chocolate? The trick here is in choosing the right kind of chocolate, so that you are maximizing the nutrients without loading up on the unhealthy added ingredients that will just weigh you down.
History of Chocolate
The cacao fruit was cultivated in Mexico, Central and South America for hundreds of years before Europeans came to this part of the world. We know this because archaeologists have found cocoa residue in the cooking vessels from this area. Cacao seeds were not only consumed, but used as money and accepted as a payment for taxes.
When Columbus discovered the New World he brought the cacao plant back to Europe where the wealthy adopted it as a drink. Around 1828 a cacao press was invented, which produced cocoa butter. Add a few extra ingredients and this could be made into a dark chocolate bar, cheaper and more widely available than the cocoa drink of the elite. In 1876 the Swiss took it one step further and added milk to the bar, producing the more palatable milk chocolate. You know the rest of the story. Chocolate today is available in just about every form of confectionary, and combined with almost every flavouring you can dream up, including passion fruit and chili pepper.
Chocolate is chock full of nutrients.
Unsweetened chocolate is 40-50 % fat, from three types of fat: palmitic and stearic acids, which are saturated, and oleic acid, which is mono-unsaturated. A heart healthy diet is made up of more mono and poly-unsaturated fats, so the oleic acid is good. However studies have shown that stearic acid, the saturated fat in chocolate, does NOT raise blood cholesterol levels. So as part of your daily fat intake, the type of fats in that are found naturally in chocolate can be beneficial to your health. When you add milk, butter fat and other ingredients to your chocolate, you have tipped the balance over to ‘”bad” fats which you shouldn’t be eating.
Chocolate is a very good source of magnesium, potassium and iron. All of these are essential elements we need in our diets. They help regulate your fluid balance, your heart beat, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and many other functions. Read more about these essential elements. Chocolate also has some zinc, copper, calcium, manganese, vitamin A and a handful of B vitamins.
The cacao plant takes it’s name from theobromine, a phytonutrient which can lower blood pressure, relax the bronchial muscles, relieve a cough and acts as a diuretic and a stimulant. There is a small amount of caffeine in chocolate, but only the equivalent of drinking some decaf coffee. There are large quantities of phytonutrients in chocolate known as flavonoids. These flavonoids are powerful antioxidants, and are present in greater quantities than red wine and green tea. One flavonoid, epicatechin mimics the action of insulin, and can lower the risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer and diabetes.
A word about flavonoids, flavanol and flavonol. Flavonoids are a large family of phytonutrients, found in plants. They include chemicals such as anthocyanidins, flavones, flavanols, flavonols, isoflavones, and yes, even flavanones. This can get really confusing, and you will see these words misused continuously. The one we find in chocolate, epicatechin, is a flavanol, which is in the broader category of flavonoid.
An amino acid in chocolate called tryptophan can trigger an increase in serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin plays many roles, but one important finding is that low levels of this chemical can lead to depression, anxiety and anger.
Cacao seeds contain a chemical called anandamide which resemble THC, the active chemical of marijuana that gives you a high. This chemical was named for the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss. Anandamide works on the same receptors as THC, to give you a feeling of well-being or even a brief euphoria. I think we’ve all experienced it while eating chocolate! You won’t get high from eating chocolate, though, because anandamide breaks down much more quickly than THC.
Another brain altering chemical in chocolate is phenylethylamine, or PEA, which is related to amphetamines. This is also known as the “love drug” which gives chocolate its reputation as an aphrodisiac. PEA releases dopamine, and temporarily increases blood pressure and blood glucose, creating a feeling of alertness, maybe of passion!
Chocolate and the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean Diet is widely recognized now heart healthy, and it seems every week a new study comes out about the benefits of this style of eating. One such study which was completed in February of 2013 allowed the participants who followed the Mediterranean Diet plan to eat as much dark chocolate as they wanted. This group had a 30% reduction in the risk of heart disease during the study.
A practical plan for getting a daily dose of chocolate.
A one ounce square of bittersweet or semisweet baking chocolate has a minimal amount of sugar added, just enough to make it delicious. It has about 140 calories, compared to 210 calories in a Hersheys chocolate bar, 280 in a Snickers bar, 350 calories in a normal-sized piece of chocolate cake with icing, and 290 calories in a Dunkin Donuts chocolate cake donut. This can easily be worked into your calorie allotment for the day.
Baking chocolate is a concentrated powerhouse of chocolate flavour, and it goes a long way towards taking away any cravings you have for other sweets. You can also choose from plenty of gourmet dark chocolates on the market which advertise 70% cocoa content, but these are much more expensive. They are also thin, whereas baking chocolate usually comes in a thick chunk that really takes a while to eat. Baking chocolate can be had for less than 50 cents an ounce. Eat it slowly, maybe dipping it in a hot drink and licking the chocolate away as it starts to melt.
Baking chocolate and dark chocolate have more of the healthy antioxidants and phytonutrients than milk chocolate. Real cocoa is better than hot chocolate mixes, but Dutch cocoa has a lot of flavanols removed in the “dutching” process. So choose your chocolate wisely, and then enjoy it without a trace of guilt.
References and other delicious chocolate web sites:
Nutrition Facts about Chocolate
Chocolate: Food of the Gods
Dove dark chocolate experiment
Journal of the American College of Nutrition Chocolate study.
Healthy indulgences: The benefits of chocolate and wine