It’s February: the month of Valentine’s Day and Heart Health. Who doesn’t love a good chocolate gift? The gift of dark chocolate will show how much you really care about your Valentine’s heart.
Let’s talk about chocolate. Once upon a time, chocolate was considered “the food of the gods”. For most of its 4,000-year history, it was used as a bitter drink, not the sweet treat that we’re all familiar with now. Mayan and Aztec civilizations found chocolate to be an aphrodisiac, a mood enhancer, and made an energizing drink from it. The Mayans reserved cacao for warriors, priests, and nobles during sacred ceremonies.
The Aztecs couldn’t grow cacao in central Mexico and began trading with the Mayans. Cacao was so sought after and valuable, it was used as currency in some areas. According to some accounts, Aztec ruler Montezuma drank upwards of 3 gallons (each day!) of the chocolate elixir to increase his libido.
In the 1500’s, the Spanish brought chocolate back from Mexico, instead of the gold and silver they were originally after. The Spanish added cane sugar and cinnamon to the bitter chocolate drink to make it more palatable. At that time, it was still so expensive that only the royals and elites could afford this delight.
Fast forward to modern day and it is said that the average American consumes 12 lbs. of chocolate each year, and that chocolate is a $75 billion industry worldwide. That’s a lot of chocolate! But is it “the good kind”? Chocolate is separated into 3 categories: white chocolate, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate. White chocolate can be eliminated because there are no cocoa solids in white chocolate – only cocoa butter, so it’s not technically “real chocolate”. According to the FDA, milk chocolate only has to have 10% pure chocolate, 3.39% milk fat and 12% milk solids. If there is more pure chocolate, the milk causes a problem. An Oregon State University study showed that proteins in milk bound to the flavonoids in chocolate (and black tea) and weakened the antioxidant abilities. So, the milk in milk chocolate reduces the absorption of the polyphenols from cocoa (and black tea). Therefore, milk chocolate doesn’t have the same healing properties or benefits of dark chocolate.
There is no FDA standard scale for identifying dark chocolate. The general understanding is that dark chocolate is 70-90% pure cocoa. Some say 60% is acceptable, but there is no set standard currently. Personally, I prefer the 60-70% range but that’s just a palate thing.
Top 4 Benefits of Dark Chocolate:
- Antioxidant boost– As long as it’s not milk chocolate! One of the best things about dark chocolate is its high antioxidant content. Two main groups of antioxidants found in dark chocolate are flavonoids and polyphenols. Cocoa has shown to have more flavonoids and polyphenols than wine or tea. Flavonoids are the plants’ protection from environmental toxins and also help repair damage. Flavonoids are found in a variety of fruits and vegetables. Therefore, we receive the antioxidant benefits when we eat those foods.
- Better brain function– Research suggests that occasional and regular consumption of dark chocolate is associated with increased blood flow to the brain. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2009 showed the flavonoids in dark chocolate helped to improve cognitive function. More specifically, the study of a group of 2,000 participating 70-74-year-olds looked at the correlation of consuming chocolate (wine and tea as well) and cognitive performance. The conclusion of the study was “intake of flavonoid-rich food, including chocolate, wine and tea, is associated with better performance across several cognitive abilities and that the associations are dose dependent.”A scientific study presented at the Experimental Biology meeting in 2018points out that the “higher the concentration of cacao, the more positive the impact on cognition, memory, mood, immunity and other beneficial effects.”
- Possible vision booster– It is too soon to list improvements to vision as an absolute benefit of dark chocolate. However, a 2018 study published in JAMA Ophthalmology concluded that “contrast sensitivity and visual acuity were significantly higher 2 hours after consumption of a dark chocolate bar compared with milk chocolate bar, but the duration of these effects and their influence in real-world performance await further testing.” One can hope that chocolate will eventually be proven to help your eyesight!
- Improved heart health– the cocoa bean, which isn’t really a bean but the seed of the cacao plant, is rich in flavonoids. According to the Cleveland Clinic, in addition to having antioxidant qualities, research shows flavanols “have other potential influences on vascular health, such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot.”
So, there you have the short history of our beloved chocolate and even more reasons to love the antioxidant-rich, heart-healthy treat. Try to remember too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing. In the words of Dr. Jaffe, “You’re sweet enough as you are”. As with all foods, I highly recommend starting with the LRA by ELISA/ACT test to find out what your hidden immune triggers are. Believe it not, chocolate could be on that list.