All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.
– Charles M. Schulz
I’m not sure exactly why the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus gave the cacao tree the scientific name Theobroma, but it is certainly deserved: the term means “food of the gods” in Latin.
Chocolate’s unique combination of flavor, aroma, and mouth feel provides a captivating experience that has given the confection its “guilty pleasure” reputation.
But chocolate doesn’t have to be forbidden. In fact, a growing body of research shows that, in moderation, it provides impressive health benefits.
Chocolate is one of the most-craved foods in the world, and the reasons go beyond its pleasing taste and texture – it contains over 300 naturally-occurring chemicals, some of which make you feel happy via the release of certain neurotransmitters.
Here are a few of the feel-good chemicals in chocolate and their affects:
- Tryptophan and serotonin: Creates feelings of relaxation and well-being
- Caffeine: Psychoactive substance that creates temporary alertness
- Xanthines: Mild stimulant that occurs naturally in the brain and, like caffeine, increases wakefulness
- Theobromine: Stimulant and vasodilator that increases blood flow
- Phenylethylamine: Compound that stimulates the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and motivation
- Anandamide: Neurotransmitter that activates pleasure receptors in the brain
- Flavonols: Compounds that boost blood flow to key areas of the brain for two to three hours after being metabolized. Creates effects similar to those of a mild analgesic (painkiller) like aspirin
Chocolate also contains polyphenols, which belong to a larger group of chemicals called antioxidants. These chemicals protect cells against damage from free radicals.
Consuming chocolate can provide the following health benefits:
- Improved blood flow and circulation
- Lower blood pressure
- Increased HDL and decreased LDL cholesterol
- Lower risk of cardiovascular disease
- Skin protection from sun damage
- Improved brain function
- Reduced risk of stroke
- Less unhealthy cravings
- Lower risk of diabetes
- Improved mood
- Better vision
- Mental clarity and alertness
- May benefit fetal growth and development
- Appears to offer protection against some cancers
- Improved liver function
- May increase lifespan
- Improves gastrointestinal flora
- Better endurance during exercise
- Can aid in weight loss
- May fight cavities, plaque, and tooth decay
Not all chocolate is created equal: how it is processed determines whether it is a healthy food or a junk-food indulgence. Roasting and fermenting tends to decrease the amount of antioxidants. Grocery stores sell mainly milk chocolate (with sugar, milk, and extra cocoa butter added because they taste good), but the more non-cocoa items are added to cocoa, the more dilute the healthy chemicals become. The beneficial polyphenols in cocoa are bitter and astringent, which makes it unappealing to most taste buds. When chocolate is processed to make it more edible, some of those healthful components are lost.
Dutch processed cocoa, for example, is made with a potassium (alkali) solution to neutralize its acidity. During this processing, it can lose a substantial amount of antioxidant-rich polyphenols. Natural unsweetened cocoa powder can provide up to 90 percent more antioxidants than Dutch-processed chocolate.
The good news is that most major chocolate manufacturers are looking for ways to keep the flavanols in their processed chocolates. But for now, your best choices are likely dark chocolate and cocoa powder that has not undergone Dutch processing.
To reap the health benefits of eating chocolate, look for the following qualities:
- > 60% cocoa
- Made from cocoa butter instead of fats such as palm oil. Although cocoa butter does contain significant amounts of saturated fat in the form of stearic acid, it has been shown to have a neutral effect on cholesterol unlike the saturated fat in palm oil.
- Made without the use of ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ oils, which are known to negatively impact health.
- Darker is better: phytochemicals, like flavonoids, contribute to pigment. More flavonoids means darker chocolate and potentially greater health benefits.
- Chocolate is only as good as its ingredients; look for dark chocolate made from organic or fairly traded cocoa beans. (source)
Most health benefits have been associated with dark chocolate, but at least one study suggests that milk chocolate may provide cardiovascular benefits as well.
Swiss “chocolate sage” Michel Baud (who believes the best dark chocolate ranges from 70-72 percent cocoa) shared the following chocolate-eating tips with Andrew Evans of National Geographic:
- Begin by snapping the chocolate in half. Inhale and ponder the aromas you can sense: cocoa, vanilla, smoke, malt, etc.
- Let the first bite be small to “warm up” the tongue, which can taste only sweet, sour, salty, bitter. Some chocolates can hit all four tastes.
- The second bite is the one that counts. Suck on the chocolate and feel how it melts, sense the texture (grainy or smooth?). Is it sweet or dry?
- Don’t rush on to the next bit. Enjoy the aftertaste—good chocolate will offer new and subtle flavors after a few seconds.
- Whether eating truffles or bars, always start with softer flavors and move slowly up to stronger varieties.
Too much of a good thing isn’t always good, so remember to enjoy dark chocolate in moderation. Choose high-quality dark chocolate and eat it slowly and mindfully. To avoid overindulging, treat yourself to a small piece after a meal or with a piece of fruit – or dip fresh fruit into melted dark chocolate.