It was love at first astonished bite for the evil stepsister in the movie Ever After, when the prince shared with her a taste of the exotic new confection they just discovered. Today, it is easily the most craved food item, with a significant amount of people claiming they can’t get through a day without it. I speak of course of chocolate, that decadent, melty substance that seems to have become more of a requirement than a luxury.
We tend to attach a lot of guilt to indulging in chocolate. However, that doesn’t need to be the case. Of course, if your chocolate comes in the form of six-layer truffle cake or a giant turtle sundae, then yes, by all means, retain your guilt. If, however, you savor moderate amounts of quality dark chocolate, then toss the guilt, because it truly is good for you!
Chocolate is good for your heart
Of all the claims chocolate can make for your health, the impact it can have in reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease is the most impressive and the most thoroughly studied. A recently published study reviewed several other studies and trials, including over 100,000 subjects, looking at many factors to see if chocolate had a protective effect on the heart. They found that across the board, no matter if the chocolate came from the oft-recommended dark chocolate, or if it came from cakes, cookies, drinks or even nutritional supplements, the groups that ate the highest amounts of chocolate had a 37% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and a 29% reduced risk of stroke.
That sounds like carte blanche to go out and dive open-mouthed into Willy Wonka’s chocolate river. Before you do, remember that’s the highest amount studied, with controls for other factors. Whatever benefits chocolate has, it also has a lot of calories and fat, so overdoing it will lead to obesity which will only add significantly to your risks for those diseases.
One way that chocolate protects your heart is that the the phenols (plant chemicals) that come from the cacao plant help to lower blood pressure. And it doesn’t take much: a 2007 German study found that 30 calories’ worth of dark chocolate – a bit bigger than the size of a single Hershey’s kiss – was very effective at making the subjects’ blood pressure drop. While the white chocolate and milk chocolate groups had no changes in their blood pressure, the dark chocolate group had a drop of 3 points in their systolic and 2 points in their diastolic readings. It may not be enough to cure major disease, but it is statistically significant.
Another major risk factor for heart disease is high cholesterol. Chocolate can help that, too: it contains antioxidants called flavonoids, which will help lower LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind) by as much as 10%, according to some studies. One type of flavonoid, called flavonols, also make the blood’s platelets less sticky and able to clot, thereby keeping the vessels clear and the blood flowing freely through them.
Chocolate is good for your insulin
Take a look in the candy aisle, and you’ll see no shortage of “sugar free” chocolates and chocolate candies endorsed by various diabetic organizations. A small bit of the real thing will certainly be more satisfying and may actually provide some protection. Some of the flavonoids in chocolate help to reduce insulin dependence, and can help the cells function normally and use the insulin more efficiently. A nice rich square of dark chocolate also has a very low GI, so it won’t spike blood sugar levels. I personally would rather have a small bit of the real thing as opposed to some sugar-free chocolate coated marshmallow Frankenfood.
Chocolate is good for your inflammation problems
Some inflammation is good – it’s needed for wounds to heal. However, a whole bunch of bad diseases can result if your body’s inflammation goes haywire. Allergies, asthma, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disorder and a whole host of other hypersensitivities are due to inflammation. The component in your body responsible for all that is called C-reactive protein. Eating moderate amounts of dark chocolate will significantly reduce the amount of that protein floating around, and so may provide improvements for any of those diseases that result from a faulty inflammation system.
Chocolate is good for your mood
Having a bad day drives many people to the Hershey’s kiss jar. It is highly comforting, but there’s a lot more going on than just that it tastes good and makes us happy. Well, first off, it does taste good and feels like a treat. Eating chocolate stimulates your brain to create endorphins, the opiate-like brain chemicals associated with all pleasures from the runners high to falling in love. In fact, chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which is the same chemical your brain releases when you are in love. Furthermore, it contains serotonin, a powerful antidepressant brain chemical. Beyond that, it contains small amounts of caffeine and caffeine-like chemicals to give you a bit of a stimulant boost. It’s no wonder we are drawn to it when we’re stressed: it’s a bit of natural, comestible, easily obtainable Prozac.
Chocolate is good for your cardiovascular endurance
For awhile, it has been known that chocolate milk is a better drink for exercise recovery than commercial sports drinks. However, that has less to do with anything from the chocolate itself, and more to do with chocolate milk having the perfect levels of protein, fats, sugars and electrolytes. Sports drinks only have sugar and electrolytes.
New research looked at chocolate itself, and found that small amounts of chocolate before exercising can reduce fatigue and allow you to go further. The mice in the study who were fed a purified form of the flavonol epicatechin were able to go about 50% further than the mice forced to exercise without it. Even cooler, biopsies of their leg muscles showed the chocolate-group had formed new capillaries and mitochondria as a result! The researchers suggest that a small 5 gram serving of dark chocolate, about half the size of a typical square, will help enhance your workout. This will only work with dark, since the processing for milk chocolate destroys the epicatechin.
Chocolate is good for your teeth…and your asthma…and your cold
One of those caffeine-like chemicals in chocolate is called theobromine. It’s a versatile little molecule, which can help harden your tooth enamel and loosen up your asthma-clenched bronchioles. Even non-asthmatic coughs can be helped by theobromine, as it suppresses the vagus nerve activity that gives you that annoying “tickle”. Incidentally, it also helps with blood pressure, since it loosens up your blood vessels the same way it loosens up your bronchioles.
Chocolate is good for your antioxidant levels
Free radicals are nasty little buggers that run rampant in your body, wreaking havoc on your cells in a chain reaction like falling dominos. Given enough time, they can damage enough cells and lead to cancer and cardiovascular disease. Antioxidants are like little walls put in the path of the domino cascade. So, anything with antioxidants can help stop cancers from forming. Anything that comes from plants has antioxidants, the more richly colored the better. As chocolate comes from the fruits of the Theobroma cacao tree, it has the same antioxidants found in dark vegetables. One study showed that the blood antioxidant levels were increased by about 20% after eating dark chocolate. This means it could be a powerful ally in the fight against cancer.
Chocolate is good for you
Just remember, when reading any research about the health benefits of chocolate, they’re talking about chocolate chocolate, so the higher concentration the better. Dark chocolate contains way more cacao than milk chocolate, and white chocolate doesn’t even have any cacao.
Also, processing can destroy the flavonoids, and the more expensive the chocolate the more care was taken to process it so as to preserve the flavonoids. Thus, you’ll get a lot more benefit from an ounce of, say, Sharffen Berger than of Hershey’s Special Dark. Milk chocolate also requires far more processing, so that helps explain why studies always find it does not have the same benefits as dark.
The best chocolate for you is the kind that that has the least add-ins, too. Marshmallows, nougat, caramel and creams only add sugar calories; 200 calories worth of cream-filled bon bons obviously has a lot less chocolate than 200 calories worth of a high-quality bar. Add-ins such as nuts, spices, fruit bits, orange zest or chili are fine, since they add a lot of flavor and antioxidants of their own, without adding empty calories.
Through all of this, it must be said that chocolate is indeed a high-calorie, high-fat food. One ounce of the 82% cacao Sharffen Berger, for instance, has 140 calories and 11 grams of fat. However, of that fat, a third of it is the same heart-healthy monounsaturated fat found in olive oil; another third is a fairly health-neutral fat, and the last third is a heart-unhealthy saturated fat you do need to look out for. You won’t get into too much danger if you can limit yourself to just an ounce, a few times a week…and that is exactly the amount experts say is ideal to reap the benefits. Any more than that will simply add to your overall calorie intake, thereby increasing your weight and adding to your risks of all the diseases chocolate could otherwise help you avoid.
The best ways to enjoy chocolate
While many studies have shown that dark chocolate is superior to milk chocolate in all manner of health claims, other studies have looked at eating dark chocolate while drinking milk. While milk might seem like a natural companion to chocolate, it may negate a lot of the good, by blocking antioxidant absorption. This could explain another reason why dark is better than milk; in addition to the lower percentage of cacao, the milk blocks whatever antioxidants and flavonoids are left after processing.
So, instead of drinking milk along with your chocolate, try pairing it with tea or wine. Both can pair beautifully with chocolate, and both boast impressive amounts of their own antioxidants.
You can also up the antioxidant ante by eating it with fruit. Melt some high quality dark chocolate in a double boiler or in 30-second microwave intervals, dunk in some strawberries, apples, orange wedges or whatever your heart desires.
Find a good source of dark chocolate chips, you’ll be able to eat them more slowly, or make a sweet and salty trail mix by tossing them with some healthy nuts.
My first foray into the world of upscale chocolate was Vosges, which we discovered on vacation in Vegas. Fortunately, there’s a Vosges shop in the B-Concourse at O’Hare Airport, a place my husband happens to pass with regularity. Fortunately, the bars are also starting to appear at many stores, most notably at Whole Foods. My favorite is the Red Fire, but all their chocolates are amazing, with unique ingredients ranging from bacon to pink peppercorns to goji berries.
My chocolate-loving friend sent me some Michel Cluziel for my (our) birthday. These all have very unique and subtle flavors, since the cacao beans are harvested from a single location, that are influenced by the varying climates and whatever plants grown near the cacao trees. Beyond that, though, this is easily the smoothest, velvetiest chocolate I’ve ever tasted.
If you need your chocolate fix now, Lindt and Ghirardelli are available pretty much everywhere and are very good. They usually list the cacao content on the label, so look for higher percentages.
Chocolate is meant to be savored. Observe the sheen. Smell the aroma. Listen for the snap as you bite off each tiny corner. Let it melt slowly and coat your tongue. If you’re really observant, maybe you’ll even feel the little squirt of endorphins in your brain.
All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.
– Charles M. Schultz