Why is chocolate good for you? Many reasons, actually. First, as Harry Potter fans know, it’s a proven remedy for the aftereffects of Dementor attacks. In our non-magical world, it helps improve mood and thinking ability, lowers blood pressure, and enhances heart health and intestinal microflora.
Chocolate has been known for more than 3,000 years — Mesoamerican cultures prepared it from fermented, roasted, and ground cacao beans. Originally consumed as a bitter, foamy drink, it was valued both in rituals and in everyday life. Considered a super food, it was given to warriors for strength, and was considered an aphrodisiac. While the Mayas drank it hot, Aztecs drank it cold. Cacao beans were so valuable they were used as currency.
After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, in the 16th century chocolate was imported to Europe, where it became sweeter, with added sugar or honey, and was the drink of the court and the elite. By the mid-19th century, chocolate had become moldable, and toward the end of 19th century, milk chocolate was created, along with the beginning of the chocolate industry.
Now the many useful properties of chocolate are being rediscovered and it might soon become a food supplement in addition to being a favorite dessert.
According to BBC News, the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute plans a trial of a chocolate pill for heart disease. It is sponsored by candy company Mars (the maker of M&Ms), which has patented a way to extract flavanols from cocoa. Concentrated flavanols will be used in a study that will involve thousands of men and women worldwide. Previous studies showed that cocoa flavanols lowered “bad” cholesterol (LDL), slowed cholesterol oxidation, improved vasodilation and endothelial function, reduced oxidative stress and blood pressure, and improved cognitive function.
The flavanols in cocoa and chocolate are detected and analyzed using high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). The Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science received a 2013 study-of-the-year award from AOAC International for a “method for analyzing the complex mixture of flavanols and procyanidins in cocoa-based products.” HPLC with fluorescent detection was used to detect flavanols and procyanidins with a degree of polymerization 1-10. Consistency of this method of food analysis was validated by international laboratories.
The flavanol content of chocolate is comparable to those of wine and green tea. Flavanols are at their highest concentration in fermented beans; the concentration decreases with processing. Roasting at high temperature, alkalizing, and adding sugar and milk improve the taste but significantly diminishes the flavanol concentration.
Flavanols in chocolate include low molecular weight monomers (such as epicatechin, which directly affects vascular endothelium) and high molecular weight oligomeric and polymeric compounds (procyanidins). The concentration and ratio of the various flavanols in cocoa depend on the crop type, stages of growth, harvesting practices, and manufacturer processing.
Bacteria Like Chocolate, Too
A new insight into the mechanisms of the flavanols effects recently was reported by scientists from Louisiana State University. Their research, presented at the 247th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, analyzed the effects of dark chocolate on the various types of bacteria in the stomach. The scientists have found that “good” intestinal bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, feast on the undigested components of chocolate. According to John Finley, Ph.D.:
In our study we found that the fiber is fermented and the large polyphenolic polymers are metabolized to smaller molecules, which are more easily absorbed. These smaller polymers exhibit anti-inflammatory activity […] When these compounds are absorbed by the body, they lessen the inflammation of cardiovascular tissue, reducing the long-term risk of stroke.
The scientists think that combining cocoa with prebiotics (nondigestible food ingredients, stimulating bacterial growth and activity), as well as combining chocolate with solid fruits like pomegranates and acai, would be helpful to convert polyphenolics in the stomach into anti-inflammatory compounds.
Finally, when you give someone a gift of chocolate, make sure you put your good intentions there. A small double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study performed by the Institute of Noetic Sciences in 2007 concluded that chocolate exposed to “good intentions” enhance mood more than plain chocolate does. So, give it with love!
Image by Lori.
Diagram by Shadduck.
Source: “Study to Test ‘Chocolate’ Pills for Heart Health,” by Marylinn Marchione, bigstory.ap.org, March 17, 2014.
Source: “Effects of Intentionally Enhanced Chocolate on Mood,” by D. Radin, G. Hayssen, and J. Walsh, Explore, September-October 2007;3(5):485-92.
Source: “Gut Bacteria Turn Dark Chocolate ‘Healthy,’ ” by Michelle Roberts, BBC News, March 18, 2014.
Source: “The Precise Reason for the Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate: Mystery Solved,” American Chemical Society News Releases, acs.org, March 18, 2014.
Source: “Reduce Your Cholesterol With Chocolate: Research,” by David Gutierrez, naturalnews.com, June 21, 2013.
Source: “Chocolate — Guilty Pleasure or Healthy Supplement?” by L.S. Latham, Z.K. Hensen, and D.S. Minor, The Journal of Clinical Hypertension (Greenwich), February, 2014;16(2):101-6.
Source: “Flavanol and Procyanidin Content (by Degree of Polymerization 1-10) of Chocolate, Cocoa Liquors, Cocoa Powders, and Cocoa Extracts: First Action 2012.24,” by R.J. Robbins, J. Leonczak, J Li, J.C. Johnson, T. Collins, C. Kwik-Uribe, and H.H. Schmitz, Journal of AOAC International, July-August, 2013;96(4):705-11.