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Valentine's Day, the holiday traditionally associated with love, is most notably celebrated with chocolate. Considered by some to be an aphrodisiac, by others to be an antidepressant, chocolate is a food that people feel passionate about -- a passion that often goes well beyond merely a love of sweets. For the true chocoholic, just thinking about chocolate can evoke pleasure, though the body's physical response is likely due to one or more of the cacao bean's more than 380 known chemicals (Andújar, Recio, Giner, & Ríos, 2012). Research is proceeding at a fast clip to reveal the cacao bean's specific chemicals and chemical combinations, so we can better understand its effects.
Chocolate may be best known for producing increased energy and euphoria, both of which may be due to the stimulants it contains. Caffeine, the best known of these, is present in chocolate, as is theobromine, a weaker stimulant. Yet these two compounds, depending on the variety of cacao beans used, generally comprise one-half percent or less, each, of the total content of chocolate products (del Rosario Brunetto et al., 2010). Along with phenylethylamine, a stimulating neurotransmitter found in the brain and in small amounts in the cacao bean, these stimulants increase the activity of other neurotransmitters that elicit feelings of pleasure and well-being.
Of greater importance, chocolate appears to confer some important health benefits. As with most plant foods, chocolate contains powerful antioxidant properties in the form of phenolics. In fact, dark chocolate has more phenolics and higher antioxidant capacity, on a per serving basis, than green tea, black tea, grapes and berries, or red wine (Andújar et al., 2012). The phenolics in chocolate are flavonoids, which have been shown to promote a number of cardiovascular benefits, including decreasing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which is now believed to be responsible for the formation of arterial plaques. Chocolate has also been found to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of cardiovascular events, especially stroke (Buijsse, Weikert, Drogan, Bergmann, & Boeing, 2010).
A small, randomized, double-blinded study found that small amounts of flavonoid-rich chocolate (1.6 oz. per day for two weeks) improved blood vessel dilation, an effect that was found to be due primarily to the presence of epicatechin, a specific flavonoid that has been shown to be particularly beneficial in blood vessel functions, and which our bodies absorb and utilize very well (Engler et al., 2004). High cocoa content chocolate (70 – 80% cocoa solids) also contains about 65 mg of magnesium per ounce (USDA, 2012), a mineral essential for heart health and often deficient in the Western diet.
Other studies have shown chocolate to improve insulin sensitivity (Hooper et al., 2012), reduce inflammation, improve immune function, and inhibit the aggregation of blood platelets, which contribute to blood clots (Afoakwa, 2008). Chocolate's phenolic compounds may also be protective against neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer's, as well as against cancer, due to their antiproliferative, antimutagenic, and chemoprotective properties (Andújar et al., 2012).
In addition to the health-enhancing effects of chocolate's phenolic content, there is another aspect to consider: chocolate is a fermented food. A crucial step in the processing of cacao beans involves a three to seven day fermentation process that creates the same gut-friendly probiotic organisms that are produced in other naturally fermented foods (Illeghems, De Vuyst, Papalexandratou, & Weckx, 2012). Roasting the beans, which kills off these bacteria, may not destroy their health benefits. One of the fascinating recent discoveries about probiotic bacteria of all types is that many of them, particularly of the Lactobacillus strains, retain potent immune-modulating qualities even after they are dead (Taverniti & Guglielmetti, 2011; Adams, 2010). Some are even more effective after heat inactivation than their live counterparts.
As for chocolate exacerbating acne or contributing to tooth decay? It's the sugar in it, not the chocolate that deserves the blame. In fact, the cocoa butter may provide some protection against tooth decay and dental disease (Andújar et al., 2012). In an animal study of periodontal disease, a cocoa-enriched diet diminished the oxidative stress that accompanies periodontitis, thereby inhibiting progression of the condition (Tomofuji et al., 2009).
Which brings me to a very important point: chocolate's beneficial effects are conferred only if the chocolate is properly processed and high enough in cocoa content. That's the trick. The chocolate I'm referring to is not the chocolate in candy bars or milk chocolate. The chocolate to look for will have at least 70% cocoa content and will have been processed with little alkalizing (Dutch process), in order to preserve its antioxidant properties. And though raw chocolate products have gained recent popularity, roasting the beans has been shown to raise, not reduce, their antioxidant power (Summa et al., 2006). So, go ahead and savor one or two ounces of high quality, dark, rich chocolate and have yourself a delicious, healthful Valentine's Day. What's not to love about that?
- Adams, C.A. (2010, Jun). The probiotic paradox: Live and dead cells are biological response modifiers [Abstract]. Nutr Res Rev, 23(1):37-46. DOI: 10.1017/S0954422410000090
- Afoakwa, E.O. (2008). Cocoa and chocolate consumption – are there aphrodisiac and other benefits for human health? [Abstract]. South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 21(3):107-113. ISSN:16070658. Available at: http://works.bepress.com/emmanueloheneafoakwa/90
- Andújar, I., Recio, M.C., Giner, R.M., & Ríos, J.L. (2012, Oct 24). Cocoa polyphenols and their potential benefits for human health [PDF]. Oxid Med Cell Longev, 2012: 906252. Epub ahead of print. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3488419/pdf/OXIMED2012-906252.pdf
- Buijsse, B., Weikert, C., Drogan, D., Bergmann, M., & Boeing, H. (2010, Mar 30). Chocolate consumption in relation to blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease in German adults [PDF]. Eur Heart J, 31(13): 1616-1623. DOI: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehq068
- del Rosario Brunetto, M., Gutiérrez, L., Delgado, Y., Gallignani, M., Zambrano, A., Gómez, A. ...Romero, C. (2007). Determination of theobromine, theophylline and caffeine in cocoa samples by a high-performance liquid chromatographic method with on-line sample cleanup in a switching-column system [Abstract]. Food Chemistry, 100(2):459–467. DOI.10.1016/j.foodchem.2005.10.007
- Engler, M.B., Engler, M.M., Chen, C.Y., Malloy, M.J., Browne, A., Chiu, E.Y. ...Mietus-Snyder, M.L. (2004, Jun). Flavonoid-rich dark chocolate improves endothelial function and increases plasma epicatechin concentrations in healthy adults [PDF]. J Am Coll Nutr, 23(3):197 – 204. Retrieved from http://www.jacn.org/content/23/3/197.full.pdf+html
- Hooper, L., Kay, C., Abdelhamid, A. Kroon, P.A., Cohn, J.S., Rimm, E.B., & Cassidy, A. (2012). Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials [Abstract]. Am J Clin Nutr, 95(3):740-751.DOI:10.3945/ajcn.111.023457
- Illeghems, K., De Vuyst, L., Papalexandratou, Z., & Weckx, S. (2012). Phylogenetic analysis of a spontaneous cocoa bean fermentation metagenome reveals new insights into its bacterial and fungal community diversity [PDF]. PLoS ONE, 7(5):e38040. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0038040
- Summa, C., Raposo, F.C., McCourt, J., Scalzo, R.L., Wagner, K-H., Elmadfa, I., & Anklam, E. (2006). Effect of roasting on the radical scavenging activity of cocoa beans [Abstract]. Eur Food Res Technol, 222:368-375. DOI:10.1007/s00217-005-0005-2
- Taverniti, V. & Guglielmetti, S. (2011, Apr 16). The immunomodulatory properties of probiotic microorganisms beyond their viability (ghost probiotics: Proposal of paraprobiotic concept) [Electronic version]. Genes Nutr, 6(3):261–274. DOI:10.1007/s12263-011-0218-x
- Tomofuji, T., Ekuni, D., Irie, K., Azuma, T., Endo, Y., Tamaki, N. . . . Morita, M. (2009, Nov). Preventive effects of a cocoa-enriched diet on gingival oxidative stress in experimental periodontitis [Abstract]. J Periodontol, 80(11):1799-808. DOI:10.1902/jop.2009.090270
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2012, Sep). Nutrient data for 19904, chocolate, dark, 70-85% cacao solids. Composition of Foods Raw, Processed, Prepared USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 25. Retrieved from http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/6229?fg=&man=&lfacet=&format=&count=&max=25&offset=25&sort=&qlookup=chocolate