Dark Chocolate Health Benefits

Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.
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Dark chocolate used sporadically can be beneficial to health

Chocolate: The Food of the Gods

Chocolate has become one of the most popular flavors in the world today, and is a common item in candy and holiday treats. It originated from Central America and is derived from the seeds (beans) of a pod that grows on the trunk of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, which translated means “food of the gods”. In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, cacao beans were often used as currency. Cacao beans are very rich in fat. The expressed fat (cocoa butter) is used in cosmetics and pharmaceutical preparations.

The Aztecs associated chocolate with Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of fertility. The early Mayan and Aztec people made chocolate beverages from cocoa that they called xocolatl, a word meaning bitter water. The seeds of the cocoa tree have an intense bitter taste and must be fermented for a few days to develop flavor. In the New World, chocolate was consumed as a bitter, spicy drink flavored with vanilla, chili pepper, and annatto.

Is Dark Chocolate Good For Your Heart?

Cortez was the one who found Aztec Indians in Mexico using cocoa to make the popular drink chocolati, and carried a sweetened version of cocoa to Europe in the 16th century. This became the forerunner of modern chocolate. The different flavors of chocolate are obtained from varying the time and temperature when roasting the beans, by adjusting the relative amount of cocoa fat, and by adding non-chocolate ingredients. Chocolate is finally tempered by heating to 113 deg F and slowly cooling to 80 deg F to provide a nice smooth texture and mouth feel. Different manufacturers develop their own �signature� blends based on special formulations.

Cocoa is a good source of magnesium, phytosterols, and the potent health-promoting proanthocyanidins that are found also in blueberries and cranberries. Chocolate is a rich source of epicatechins which are believed to possess cardio-protective properties. These flavonoids produce a decline in LDL cholesterol levels, as well as inhibiting blood clot formation, and stimulating anti-inflammatory processes. This has led many people to ask if chocolate is good for them.

Large amounts of cocoa have been shown to improve the endothelial cells lining the blood vessel walls. Could small amounts over longer time periods have a similar effect? New evidence suggests that eating chocolate may lower a person�s blood pressure and improve their blood flow and dilation of blood vessels, factors that improve their cardiovascular health. Dark chocolate with a cocoa content of at least 70 percent has been shown to be the most beneficial. Processing cocoa with alkali (Dutch chocolate) destroys most of the flavonoid antioxidants.

Researchers in Cologne, Germany studied men and women, aged 56-73, who were borderline, or mildly hypertensive. After eating only one-quarter of ounce of dark chocolate daily for 18 weeks they enjoyed a modest 2-3 mm Hg drop in their blood pressure, which corresponded to an 8% reduction in relative risk of stroke mortality, and a 5% reduction in coronary artery disease. Cocoa flavonols promote nitric oxide production in the vascular system, leading to improved vasodilation. White chocolate, which has cocoa butter but no cocoa powder, has no effect on blood pressure since it is the flavonols in the cocoa powder which produce the physiological effect.

Presently, researchers at Harvard and in some European universities are exploring the potential of cocoa powder to treat diabetes, and delay changes in brain function that result with aging. Studies have revealed that dark chocolate improves insulin sensitivity.

Even though there are health benefits in chocolate, nevertheless, chocolate is not a health food and should be consumed in moderation. It has substantial amounts of sugar and fat. While much of the fat is saturated, the high stearic acid content has a neutral effect on blood cholesterol levels. However, a typical serving size of 40 grams (1.4 ozs) of dark chocolate contains 220 calories, and 11 grams of sugar. The newly developed CocoaVia bar has only 100 calories while delivering 100 mg of health-promoting cocoa flavonols. These polyphenolics protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation. Milk is seen to interfere with the absorption of the polyphenolic antioxidants in dark chocolate and therefore negates the health benefits of the dark chocolate. Clearly, the health benefits of dark chocolate are greatly reduced in milk chocolate.

While theobromine is the major alkaloid, chocolate also contains a small amount of caffeine. The caffeine content of chocolate products varies according to the amount of cocoa in the product, as well as the variety of cocoa bean used, the degree of maturity of the beans at harvesting, the degree of fermentation, and the geographical area in which they are grown. The addition of sugar and cocoa butter to the ground cocoa beans gives sweet or dark chocolate, while the further addition of milk solids gives milk chocolate. When these additional ingredients are added, the cocoa becomes more dilute, and there is less caffeine in the product.

Dark chocolate typically has 12-18 mg caffeine/oz, milk chocolate has 6-7 mg caffeine/oz, while white chocolate has no caffeine. Hershey’s report that their 40 gm (1.45 oz) chocolate bar contains from 8 mg (milk chocolate) to 18 mg (dark chocolate). 1 tbsp of chocolate syrup has 5 mg caffeine while a piece of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting has 16mg caffeine. Cocoa beverages average about 5-6 mg caffeine per cup. This compares with coke or pepsi with 35-40 mg caffeine/can, Red Bull with 80 mg/can, coffee with 65-130 mg/cup, and 40-80 mg/cup for regular tea.

Those not wishing to eat chocolate, find the powdered seeds of the carob tree a safe alternative. Carob has no caffeine and contains less sugar than cocoa since it does not possess the bitter principles of cocoa. Carob is useful for lowering blood cholesterol levels due to its soluble fiber (carob bean gum) content.

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