This is my third in a series of articles on the happy health benefits of some of our favorite indulgences. Please read my related articles on coffee and tea, wine and beer.
When the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes came home from Mexico in the early 1500s, he brought with him the sacred drink of the Aztecs. Made from the roasted seeds of Theobroma cacao, the drink was flavored with a blend of exotic ingredients, and although Cortes had come to like this concoction, the Spanish eventually added sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon for a sweeter drink more pleasing to European taste. The secret recipe was eventually leaked to Europe, and first appeared in London in the mid-1600s. By 1765 the American colonists were enjoying cocoa made from West Indian beans. Cocoa powder was developed by a Dutch chocolate maker, and his patented process for pressing cocoa butter from the roasted beans made possible the production of both instant cocoa and edible chocolate.
Theobroma means, appropriately, food of the gods. Chocolate has low levels of caffeine; its main stimulant is theobromine, with a much milder effect. The darker the chocolate, the higher is the content of theobromine.
Cacao beans are extremely rich in flavonoids, the same antioxidant compounds found in wine and beer, coffee and tea. Chocolate contains calories and fat but contributes little to the total saturated fat in the average American diet. Eating dark chocolate in favor of milk chocolate helps in avoiding much of the fat.
Chocolate causes the brain to release endorphins, the natural opiates that are our pleasure chemicals; and phenylethylamine, a compound in chocolate, is thought to stimulate the same physical reaction as falling in love. The smell alone slows brain waves, inducing a sense of calm and enhancing verbal learning.
Chocolate contains a significant amount of magnesium and iron. One and a half ounces of chocolate have about the same amount of antioxidant phenolic compounds as a glass of red wine.
The fat in cocoa is stearic acid, a saturated fat comprising about 30% of the fat in a bar of chocolate. Some of the stearic acid in chocolate converts in the body to oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat similar to that found in olive oil, which is well known for its health benefits.
On the down side, in people prone to migraines, amine compounds in chocolate can trigger attacks, as sufferers have low levels of phenolsuphotransferase, an enzyme that processes them. Yet because cocoa reduces the blood platelet adhesion that can lead to headaches, it may conversely be beneficial.
The quality of the chocolate makes all the difference. The key to enjoying the health benefits of chocolate is to eat high quality dark chocolate with a 60 to 70% cocoa solid content. Normal dark chocolate has around 30%; ordinary chocolate has as little as 10 to 20% cocoa content, with a lot of sugar and hydrogenated vegetable fats. High-quality chocolate can be suitable for diabetics, as it does not create a blood sugar rush as high-sugar chocolate does.
There also may be a case for organic varieties, as the pesticide lindane, linked to breast cancer, has been found in chocolate. The chemical is in the process of being banned but is still used in developing countries. If the coffee plant is not organic, it is probably heavily sprayed, because chocolate is such a valuable crop.
And while youre at it, go ahead and get chocolate with nuts. Theyre a tremendous source of vitamin E, heart-healthy fats, and virtually no saturated fats.
So, go ahead and indulge.
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