The most craved substance in our culture is chocolate. Preparations of the beans from the cacao tree have been eaten for at least 1000 years. Although we have been led to believe that chocolate is not the healthiest thing to eat, some recent findings may question that idea.
Is chocolate good for you? Recent research indicates that it may be, if eaten in moderation. Although candy companies funded the studies presented, the National Institutes of Health was additionally involved. Moreover, the findings have been accepted for publication in prestigious journals, and reputable scientists have done the work. On the other hand, though chocolate may be better for you than previously thought, it’s not quite a health food.
Scientists studying some of the substances contained in chocolate found results that were interesting and surprising. Some of these substances have the ability to regulate mood and depression; certain fatty acids in chocolate have been shown to activate the same receptors in the brain that are affected by marijuana, enhancing mood changes.
Chocolate and cocoa are rich in flavonoids, antioxidants also found in red wine, green tea, and many fruits and vegetables. These flavonoids are associated with reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.
The fat in chocolate does not seem to increase cholesterol levels and may actually raise the good form of cholesterol and lower the bad form. Additionally, chocolate is high in magnesium content, which has been studied for its role in certain maladies such as premenstrual symptoms, high blood pressure and leg cramps. The research indicates that substances found in chocolate improve blood circulation and reduce the risk of artery disease, thus modestly helping to lower the risk of heart attacks. Results also showed that dark chocolate has more antioxidants than milk chocolate.
But the chocolate studied was baking chocolate and cocoa drinks, not the same chocolate bars you buy, which are loaded with sugar and fats. On the good side, the sugar in chocolate is usually table sugar, which isn’t as bad as the high fructose corn syrup that sweetens almost everything else in our grocery stores. Chocolate contains small amounts of caffeine and a similar drug called theobromine, both of which are stimulants to the heart, lungs, and central nervous system; additionally, they are diuretics promoting the flow of urine, and can raise blood pressure. However, the caffeine in coffee is found in much greater amounts (3-10 times).
On the downside, chocolate can increase stomach acid reflux and irritable bowel symptoms. It can cause allergic reactions, weight gain and dental cavities. Some people claim that chocolate triggers migraine headaches as well as skin outbreaks, but well controlled studies did not show this. Another pitfall: chocolate is often combined with cakes and cookies, which are high in fat and may contain other ingredients (trans-fats!) that are bad for your heart. Fruits and vegetables contain many more antioxidants, without the added fat.
I found a report on chocolate from the Hershey Company quite interesting. Naturally extolling the virtues of chocolate, and explaining that most of the calories, fat and saturated fat in the American diet come from dairy, meat and baked grain products; included was a report on the effect of chocolate on domestic animals. In these animals, especially dogs, chocolate may harm the heart, kidneys and central nervous system. This is because dogs metabolize the theobromine found in small amounts in chocolate. The effect on dogs and some other pets is serious, and carries the same risk as do coffee, tea, cola beverages and certain houseplants.
Consequently, although chocolate is not one of our healthy foods and won’t be voted alternative food of the month, an occasional chocolate bar is not as damaging as we once thought; there can be room for chocolate in a healthy diet. Keep in mind that the most popular type of chocolate to consume, yet the one with the least nutritional benefits, is milk chocolate. One of the healthiest types of chocolate is hot cocoa that is homemade. (skim milk, cocoa, sugar and a drop or two of vanilla extract.)
Here’s your final answer: chocolate probably helps with vascular problems, but only in super-dark form, and only if you don’t eat too much of it and even then, all that sugar and milk fat are bad for you. So, if you want to be healthy you should probably just exercise more. Or, in short: Enjoy in moderation!