Chocolate used to be considered an indulgence, and foods made of chocolate often go by names containing words such as “decadent,” “sinful,” and “Devil’s.” We now know that not only is chocolate “okay…occasionally,” it is good for us…in moderation, of course. Chocolate has truly become the latest hero in the fight against obesity, heart disease, and general poor health.
When the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes returned from Mexico in the early 1500s, he brought with him the sacred drink of the Aztecs. Made from the roasted seeds of Theobroma cacao, the drink was flavored with a blend of exotic ingredients, and although Cortes had come to like this concoction, the Spanish eventually added sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon for a sweeter drink more pleasing to the European palate.
The secret recipe was eventually leaked to Europe, and first appeared in London in the mid-1600s. By 1765, the American colonists were enjoying cocoa made from West Indian beans. Cocoa powder was developed by a Dutch chocolate maker, and his patented process for pressing cocoa butter from the roasted beans made possible the production of both instant cocoa and solid chocolate.
Theobroma means, appropriately, “food of the gods.” Contrary to popular belief, chocolate has little caffeine; its main stimulant is the much milder theobromine. The darker the chocolate, the higher the content of theobromine.
Cacao beans are extremely rich in the antioxidant compounds flavonoids, phenols, catechins, and procyanidins; dark chocolate, in fact, has four times the antioxidant content as tea, and one and a half ounces of it have about the same amount as a glass of red wine. (Dark chocolate has twice the antioxidants of light, and white chocolate has none.) Chocolate also contains significant amounts of iron, magnesium, and phosphorus.
Chocolate causes the brain to release endorphins, the natural opiates that are our pleasure chemicals; and phenylethylamine, another compound in chocolate, is thought to stimulate the same physical reaction as falling in love. The smell alone slows brain waves, inducing a sense of calm.
Possible good news for headache sufferers: because cocoa reduces the blood platelet adhesion that can lead to headaches, it may be a headache reliever. Research has also shown that parts of the cocoa bean fight mouth bacteria and stop dental decay.
The quality of the chocolate makes all the difference. The key is to eat high-quality dark chocolate with a 60 to 70% cocoa solid content. Normal dark chocolate has around 30%; ordinary chocolate has as little as 10 to 20% cocoa content, with a lot of sugar and hydrogenated vegetable fats. Dark chocolate is actually quite low in fat and sugar; the fat in cocoa is stearic acid, some of which converts in the body to oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat similar to that found in olive oil, well known for its health benefits. The Swiss eat the most chocolate of anyone–about twice as much as Americans–yet they have among the lowest obesity rates.
So forget the guilt; go ahead and enjoy your chocolate. And while you’re at it, get chocolate with nuts. They’re a tremendous source of vitamin E, heart-healthy fats, and virtually no saturated fats. Just remember to make it dark chocolate, and to indulge in moderation.
© Lisa J. Lehr 2006
Lisa J. Lehr is a freelance writer and Internet marketer specializing in direct response and marketing collateral. She holds a biology degree and has worked in a variety of fields, including the pharmaceutical industry and teaching, and has a particular interest in health, pets, and conservative issues. Willamette Valley tours