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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).