Chocolate has been used as a medicinal plant throughout the ages. The Aztecs believed it gave their warriors strength. By the 1900s there were more than 100 medicinal uses for chocolate. One of the uses was to nourish the embryo and prevent fainting in pregnant women. In fact, chocolate was so highly revered that the name of the cocoa tree literally translated to “Food of the Gods.” Is chocolate really the miracle food the ancient civilizations praised? It does come from a plant. What harm ever came from eating a plant?
What is chocolate?
Chocolate comes from a fruit tree that produces seeds called cacao beans, or cocoa beans. The beans are processed into cocoa butter and cocoa powder, which are combined in various proportions with other ingredients to produce different types of chocolate.
How much chocolate do we eat?
The typical American eats nearly 12 pounds of chocolate each year.
Is chocolate beneficial?
Chocolate actually may improve your heart health. However, there is a catch. The benefits are largely from dark chocolate because it has more antioxidants. In fact, dark chocolate has more antioxidants than blueberries, green tea and wine on an ounce-for-ounce basis. Dark chocolate also contains healthy nutrients including copper, magnesium, potassium and iron.
Dark chocolate also may lower your risk for diabetes. Surprisingly, chocolate has a low glycemic index so it doesn’t spike your blood sugar level. Additionally, the antioxidants in dark chocolate may improve blood flow and keep blood vessels healthy.
Scientists now are looking at the impact of chocolate on cancer, arthritis and memory. Some studies have shown promising results. For example, one study showed a reduction in growth rate of colon cancer cells with chocolate consumption.
Does chocolate affect your brain?
Yes. There are more than 500 natural chemicals in chocolate. Some of these chemicals affect your mood and induce pleasure. In fact, melting chocolate in your mouth has been reported to increase brain activity and heart rate to a level more intense than passionate kissing!
The pleasure you feel from eating chocolate likely is caused by phenylethylamine, which releases endorphins in your brain. This is the same chemical your brain releases when you are falling in love. So, it’s completely accurate for me to say that I love chocolate! Additionally, chocolate contains a concentrated source of theobromine, which is a natural stimulant. Small amounts of caffeine also are found in chocolate. A 1.5-ounce milk chocolate bar contains 11 milligrams (mg) of caffeine, while a dark chocolate bar has 27 mg. This is far less than a 12-ounce cup of coffee, which contains 200 mg caffeine.
Is chocolate harmful?
That depends on the type of chocolate and how much you eat. It turns out the Aztecs were right: cocoa itself is healthy. But, we have added sugar and fat to make chocolate taste better. We’ve sacrificed our health for taste. Sound familiar? This means that dark chocolate is healthier than milk chocolate, which is healthier than white chocolate. If you’re unsure about a particular candy, look at the label. The higher the amount of cocoa in a chocolate bar, the more antioxidants and less sugar it contains.
Eating too much chocolate is, of course, unhealthy. Like any nutrient, chocolate should be consumed in moderation. If you think you can practice moderation when faced with the most delicious chocolate cake you’ve ever tasted, try my favorite recipe below.
Bottom line: Dark chocolate is healthy when eaten in moderation.
Dr. Sina McCullough has a PhD in Nutrition and Exercise from the University of California at Davis. She is a freelance writer and nutrition consultant (www.personalizeyourdiet.com).