Chocolate is one of America’s favorite foods. The USA ranks second only to Germany in the per capita consumption of this “Food of the Gods”. They say good things come in small packages; let’s unwrap a piece of chocolate and see what is inside.
At first glance a piece of chocolate may seem almost sinful. Just looking at it can make your mouth water in anticipation of the tasteful pleasure. Go ahead: take a bite. As the chocolate melts in your mouth, an abundance of goodness flows from the chocolate. The plant derived flavonols contained in the chocolate coat the cells of the body providing a rich supply of antioxidants. These antioxidants protect the body from the damaging effects of free radicals. Free radicals are a byproduct of natural body processes and from environmental contaminants. With less cellular damage, the LDL cholesterol level dips a few comfortable points keeping the blood vessels soft and supple. The blood vessels, now protected, relax causing a decrease in blood pressure and improve blood flow to the brain and heart. The platelets, which are responsible for causing the blood to clot, are drenched with flavonols making them less sticky, reducing the risk of blood clots.
Wow! All of that in one bite!
A dark secret revealed.
Cocoa is thought to have originated in the Amazon at least 4,000 years ago. The Aztecs knew without a doubt that chocolate was good for their health. It is reported that in 1200 AD, the Aztecs consumed chocolate in an elixir form made from unsweetened cocoa. The chocolate was believed to be good for health and even had aphrodisiac qualities!
As a sign of its reputation, when the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus was officially naming all the plants of the world in 1753, he called the cacao tree Theobroma cacao which means “Food of the Gods”.
Current research has confirmed what the Aztecs believed. Dark chocolate is the form which provides health benefit. Dark chocolate has the highest percentage of cocoa. Cocoa is the pure extract of the cocoa bean. Pure cocoa has a very high level of flavonoids however, flavonoid levels decrease as the cocoa is more processed. Adding milk to cocoa reduces the flavonoid level and also the health benefit as does the process used to make Dutch chocolate. Milk and Dutch chocolate do not have the same health benefit as dark.
Most of the studies to date use dark chocolate with 50-70% cocoa content.
Research on the benefits of chocolate began in the 1990’s and has shown that there are small but significant cardiovascular health benefits associated with chocolate. These benefits are related to the antioxidant and anti inflammatory effects of the flavonols in cocoa, and include:
- decreased blood pressure- blood pressure lowered by 3-5 points (3-5 mmHg);
- decreased inflammation in the lining of the blood vessels reducing the risk of atherosclerotic plaque;
- decreased LDL cholesterol levels average 5 points lower (5 mg/dl);
- decreased risk of blood clot formation due to platelet protection.
Despite these findings, more research is needed to:
- verify these cardiovascular benefits by doing studies with larger numbers of individuals;
- better understand the mechanism of how these benefits occur;
- how much chocolate should be consumed to get the greatest benefit. To date there is not an established serving size to reap the cardiovascular benefits.
So go ahead, enjoy chocolate and the health benefits too. Dark chocolate that is less processed with higher percentages of cocoa, is best. For now, moderation is a good rule. One ounce of good dark chocolate a few times a week is the recommendation.
“…May your days be merry and bright, and may NONE of your chocolate be white!
Take Home Message
|Dark chocolate with high percentages of cocoa is good for cardiovascular health.|
|A few chocolate morsels to consider
Chocolate contains a chemical called “Theobromine” which is similar to caffeine. This is the chemical that provides the stimulant effect of chocolate however; the stimulant effects of theobromine are weaker than caffeine.
HEALTHY E-MAIL WILL RESUME IN JANUARY 2012.
Research Quality Grade: 2 = B
Reference and Further Reading
|The impact of chocolate on cardiovascular health. Fernández-Murga L, Tarín JJ, García-Perez MA, Cano A. Maturitas. 2011 Aug;69(4):312-21. Epub 2011 Jun 12
Flavonoid-rich cocoa consumption affects multiple cardiovascular risk factors in a meta-analysis of short-term studies. Shrime MG, Bauer SR, McDonald AC, Chowdhury NH, Coltart CE, Ding EL. J Nutr. 2011 Nov;141(11):1982-8. Epub 2011 Sep 28.