Sweet Science: The Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
Got high blood pressure? Try a truffle.
Worried about heart disease? Buy a bon-bon.
It’s the best medical news in ages. Studies in two prestigious scientific journals say dark chocolate – but not white chocolate or milk chocolate – is good for you.
But that’s no license to go on a chocolate binge.
It’s no secret that chocolate is high in fat and calories but if eaten in moderation, chocolate can easily fit into a healthy, balanced diet.
The Magical Cacao Bean
Dark chocolate is a product of the cacao bean (also known as the cocoa bean) which grows in pod like fruits on tropical cacao trees.
Ground up and roasted, cacao beans are the all-natural raw material for the chocolate we love.
Cacao beans contain many substances that have earned them the reputation as being nature’s anti-depressant.
To start with, cacao beans contain precursors to three neurotransmitters that are associated with promoting a healthy mood and positive mental state: serotonin, dopamine and phenylethylamine.
The phenylethylamine, or PEA contained in cacao beans affects brain chemistry in a very interesting positive way.
To say you “love” chocolate may not be too far off, since PEA produces a brain chemistry that’s similar to that associated with falling in love!
In addition to containing mood enhancing neurotransmitters, cacao beans also contain the amino acid tryptophan and monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors.
MAO inhibitors allow the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine to circulate in the bloodstream longer, which may help alleviate depression and support feelings of well being.
Dark Chocolate vs Milk Chocolate
Why choose dark chocolate over milk or white chocolate you might ask?
Firstly, the goodness in dark chocolate comes from cocoa and high quantities of cocoa at that.
Dark chocolate has high amounts of cocoa, while milk chocolate has very low amounts of cocoa and white chocolate has no cocoa content.
Secondly, your blood sugar doesn’t spike as much with dark chocolate as it does with milk chocolate because there is less sugar in dark chocolate. Spiking blood sugar levels are also bad because it causes low energy, fatigue and brain fog.
Lastly, the quantity of milk added to dark chocolate is far less than that added to milk chocolate.
Why is that a good thing? A recent study in the Journal of American Medical Association, points out that the addition of milk to chocolate sharply reduces any antioxidants from being absorbed by your body.
Dark Chocolate for Heart Health
In addition to promoting healthy mental or emotional states, cacao beans have positive effects on the cardiovascular system in the body.
They contain polyphenols – the same beneficial antioxidants contained in red wine.
It is entirely possible to enjoy the health benefits of drinking the recommended “daily glass of wine” without consuming alcohol by eating dark chocolate.
Research has also indicated that cacao beans can help reduce or control the levels of “bad” cholesterol in our bloodstream while raising the “good” cholesterol (HDL) levels.
Studies have also indicated the polyphenols in cacao beans may reduce blood pressure.
Magnesium is another nutrient found in dark chocolate. Magnesium supports heart and cardiovascular system health.
It also improves the strength and condition of the heart and supports its ability to pump blood effectively.
Magnesium decreases blood coagulation, which means it reduces the risk of blood clots.
The ability to lower the risk of blood clots is an important health benefit associated with cocoa beans for anyone concerned about their risk of heart attack or stroke.
Dark Chocolate Also Contains The Following Beneficial Chemical Compounds:
Valeric acid: an excellent relaxant and tranquilliser, highly effective for stress.
Antioxidants: including catechins, present in much higher concentration than found in green tea and protective against many chronic diseases.
Theobromine and caffeine: provide an effective boost to brain power and can combat fatigue. Theobromine is a mild stimulant to the heart but is also a smooth muscle relaxant that helps to lower blood pressure.
Procyanidins: produce nitric oxide, which is effective in relaxing blood vessels and can contribute to cardiovascular health (for this reason, chocolate may also provide the same ‘benefits’ as Viagra!).
Epicatechin and ferulic acid: these flavonoids can be protective against cancer and in laboratory tests have suppressed cancer cell growth.
Chromium: chocolate is the second highest source of chromium in our diets and is essential for normal glucose metabolism. The glycaemic index (GI) for dark chocolate is below 30 (compared with a potato, which is 90) and therefore supports the body to use its energy, rather than store it as fat. Higher GI foods lead to high insulin levels, leading to insulin resistance and Diabetes Type 2.
The oldest known woman of all time, French woman Jeanne Calmert (died age 122), ate over a kilogram of dark chocolate every week equating to approximately a 150-gram block per day!
The Recommended Daily ‘Dose’
Now this is where self control has to be shown.
As little as 10 grams (or one square) of dark chocolate every day can be beneficial.
Adult females can consume approximately 30-40 grams of dark chocolate per day without weight gain, and adult males approximately 40-50 grams, when included as part of a healthy diet with exercise.
Don’t Forget The Basics
The keys to eating dark chocolate are:
- Source the best quality dark chocolate you can
- Choose the highest cocoa content you find palatable
- Avoid sugar-laden milk and white chocolate
- Look for organic and fair trade brands
- Think beyond the chocolate ‘square’ and use cocoa powder in cooking or as a drink.
- And remember – a little goes a long way. Enjoy!