The Truth About Chocolate

It’s that time of year again and I find that chocolate abounds around the holiday season, and if your workplace is anything like mine, it is EVERYWHERE. The holiday season aside, I personally consume chocolate every single day, I just consume the highest quality varieties. 90% to 100% pure DARK CHOCOLATE is an amazing food in my opinion and should not be confused with the typical sugar laden milk chocolate (ie. candy bars, kisses, chocolate covered pretzels etc.) that we are familiar with.

A Brief History Of Chocolate

The cacao tree is indigenous to Central and South America and it is believed that early inhabitants of the region drank a concoction made from the dried seeds of the fruit. The Spanish brought chocolate as a hot drink back with them in the 1500’s. In the 1800’s, methods of producing chocolate were invented that led to the mass production of the kind of milk chocolate we know and love today. In 1828 Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten was the first to make powdered chocolate that could easily mix with water. Solid chocolate became much more popular when in 1847 J. S. Fry created the first chocolate bar. Later on, the Nestle company mass produced milk cocolate, and Rudolf Lindt perfected the smooth creaminess we expect today.(1)

Chocolate: The Feel Good Food

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Most people feel a little special something when they eat chocolate. No wonder, there are many compounds in chocolate that lead to boosting our mood and cognition. Giving chocolates has been associated with love for ages. Hence, it is no surprise that it contains a compound called phenylethylamine which is a neurotransmitter that boosts mood and elevates alertness and blood pressure, thus it is known as the love drug.(2) Research done at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California, has shown that chocolate contains anandamide that has the same effect on the brain as marijuana, and may be the reason that we crave it.(3) “Ananda” is the Sanskrit word for bliss.(4) Finally, Theobromine is similar to caffeine and leads to increased alertness and cognition.(5) This has been scientifically proven by several studies that have linked chocolate to better blood flow to the brain, better memory, and neuroprotection.(6,7)

Chocolate: The Life Extender

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In 2010 the The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Family Heart Study found that people consuming chocolate 5 or more times per week had a 57% reduction in coronary heart disease compared to those who did not consume chocolate.(8) A 2006 study of elderly men concluded that the highest consumption of chocolate resulted in a 50% reduction of death from heart disease.(9)

In 2011 the NHLBI study also yeilded results that those who regularly consumed chocolate were less likely to have hypertension or clinically diagnosed coronary artery disease, and there was evidence for an inverse association between chocolate consumption and prevalent coronary artery calcifications.(10) A 2008 study showed lower blood pressure and greater insulin sensitivity with chocolate consumption.(11) All of this is great news and an encouragement to consume more high quality chocolate, not less.

Chocolate: The Cholesterol Connection

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The polyphenols in chocolate drastically reduce oxidation leading to improvements in our cholesterol scores. Two of the polyphenols, catechins and procyanidins are the ones responsible for the beneficial effects on cholesterol numbers. In a 2007 paper, plasma LDL cholesterol, oxidized LDL, and apo B concentrations decreased, and the plasma HDL cholesterol concentration increased, relative to baseline in the low-, middle-, and high-cocoa groups.(12) The mechanism was elucidated in 2000 when it was found that within two hours after the ingestion procyanidin-rich chocolate, mean plasma antioxidant capacity values were 36% higher than at baseline(13). A 2001 study found that cocoa powder and dark chocolate may favorably affect cardiovascular disease risk status by modestly reducing LDL oxidation susceptibility, increasing serum total antioxidant capacity and HDL-cholesterol concentrations.(14) More great news!

Chocolate: Caveat Emptor

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If you routinely eat chocolate that contains too much sugar, your brain will explode with delight and your cravings could very easily get out of control. The combination of the feel-good compounds plus the sugar will stimulate such a heavy reward to your brain’s pleasure center that it could lead to addictive behaviors. Too much sugar leads to illness - plain and simple. Stephan Guyenet has a fantastic book about food cravings called “The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat”. I have also included a talk he gave on the subject at the end of this post if you need more information on the subject. If you want to avoid addiction to chocolate and all of the negative health consequences associated with it, please stick to 90 to 100% dark chocolate, preferably organic and fair trade. Organic because you deserve pure foods free from man made toxins, fair trade because you want to source your food from reputable companies that don’t exploit their workers or the environment. ENJOY YOUR CHOCOLATE!