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Chocolate:
Junk Food or Health Food?

By Gary F. Zeolla

Note: This article was revised and expanded and incorporated in a chapter in the book God-given Foods Eating Plan.


Processed snack foods are almost always unhealthy. But there is one snack food that could be an exception to this rule, chocolate. In recent years, much evidence has come out that chocolate consumption can actually be beneficial. But first, it would be helpful to look at how chocolate is produced.

Chocolate Production

Chocolate starts with a tree called the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). This tree grows in equatorial regions, especially in places such as South America, Africa and Indonesia. This cacao tree seedling grows into the tree that will yield the cocoa beans. The cacao tree produces a fruit about the size of a small pineapple. Inside the fruit are the tree's seeds, also known as cocoa beans (How Stuff Works; Chocolate).

So chocolate comes from the seeds of a fruit. But to produce chocolate requires a lot of processing. The cocoa beans must be fermented, roasted, winnowed (removal of the meat from the shell), and ground into chocolate liquor.

You can do two different things with chocolate liquor. You can pour it into a mold and let it cool and solidify. This is unsweetened chocolate. Or you can press it in a hydraulic press to squeeze out the fat. When you do that, what you are left with is a dry cake of the ground cocoa bean solids and cocoa butter (useful in everything from tanning products to white chocolate). If you grind up the cake, you have cocoa powder (How Stuff Works; Chocolate).

Then further processing is needed when ingredients are added to make the various kinds of chocolate. But through all of these steps, the nutrients in the original cocoa beans remain mostly intact.

However, where a possible problem comes in is with the ingredients that are added to the chocolate. For instance, milk chocolate contains as much or even more sugar than actual chocolate. And candy bars often contain a variety of other ingredients, some healthy, like nuts, some not so healthy, like caramel (which is melted sugar) and artificial ingredients. Such chocolate products would not be healthy foods.

But the best forms of chocolate would be dark chocolate and cocoa powder. A quality dark chocolate will contain only two ingredients, cocoa and sugar. The cocoa usually constitutes at least 70% of the product, so dark chocolate is mostly cocoa. But this still means it is up to 30% sugar. So even better would be unsweetened cocoa powder. The powder can be added to milk, yogurt, or unflavored protein powders, and sweetened with Stevia (a natural, non-caloric sweetener) as desired.

Antioxidant Content

But whether in the form of dark chocolate or cocoa powder, what makes chocolate special is its very high antioxidant content.

The flavour of chocolate is largely dependent on its polyphenol content. Polyphenols are a broad class of anti-oxidant chemicals found in plants, and the more of them in chocolate, the sharper and stronger the taste. Since polyphenol levels are affected by local environmental factors and by the way in which the chocolate is processed, the flavour – as any chocoholic will tell you – is highly variable (Channel 4).

There's sweet news about hot cocoa: Researchers at Cornell University have shown that the popular winter beverage contains more antioxidants per cup than a similar serving of red wine or tea and may be a healthier choice.

The study adds to growing evidence of the health benefits of cocoa and points to a tasty alternative in the quest to maintain a diet rich in healthy antioxidants, chemicals that have been shown to fight cancer, heart disease and aging, the researchers say (American Chemical Society).

And with this high antioxidant content, many studies have been done on chocolate showing its benefits.

Eating dark chocolate may help lower blood pressure, boost normal responses to insulin to keep blood sugar levels down, and improve blood vessel function in patients with high blood pressure, according to new research findings. All of these effects would be expected to decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke. The report in the July, 2005 journal Hypertension is just the most recent to link dark chocolate with beneficial health effects. In an earlier study, consumption of the bittersweet candy reduced blood pressure and increased insulin sensitivity in healthy subjects (Sahelian).

Cocoa is rich in flavonoids -- the same heart-healthy compounds found in red wine and green tea. Its most potent form is dark chocolate. In a recent study, Greek researchers found that consuming dark chocolate containing 100 milligrams (mg) of flavonoids relaxes your blood vessels, improving bloodflow to your heart (ShipJack).

Cocoa might help curb blood pressure and lower death risk, new research shows. Brian Buijsse, MSc, and colleagues report the news in the Archives of Internal Medicine. They studied 470 elderly men for 15 years, tracking the men's cocoa consumption, including chocolate. Cocoa intake was tied to lower blood pressure and reduced death risk, the study shows. Natural compounds in cocoa called flavanols may be the reason, write Buijsse and colleagues (WebMD).

Chocolate's metamorphosis from dietary devil to angel food is nearly complete, thanks to powerful antioxidants called flavonols. Most recently, Italian researchers determined that eating dark chocolate could lessen your risk of developing diabetes. In the study of 15 people, everyone who ate one candy bar's worth of dark chocolate once a day for 15 days saw his or her levels of a marker for insulin resistance drop by nearly half. "Flavonols increase nitric oxide production," says lead researcher Claudio Ferri, M.D." and that helps control insulin sensitivity." Choose a chocolate that's high in flavonol-rich cocoa… (Men's Health).

Special Qualities

In addition to its antioxidant content, chocolate also has other special qualities that lead to reputation as an aphrodisiac.

Chocolate has forever been associated with love and romance. It was originally found in the South American rainforests. The Mayan civilizations worshipped the Cacao tree and called it "food of the gods." Rumor has it that the Aztec ruler Montezuma drank 50 goblets of chocolate each day to enhance his sexual abilities.

Researchers have studied chocolate and found it to contain phenylethylamine and serotonin, which are both "feel good" chemicals. They occur naturally in our bodies and are released by our brains when we are happy or feeling loving or passionate. It produces a euphoric feeling, like when you're in love (How Stuff Works; Aphrodisiacs).

Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a naturally occurring amino-acid which some consider to have aphrodisiacal effects and is even said to be able to "cure" hangovers. Phenylethylamine is a substance which is released naturally in the human body when you're in love. Other stimulants present in chocolate are dopamine and serotonin, which alleviate pain and encourage a good mood. Serotonin produces feelings of pleasure in a similar way to sunlight. Chocolate also contains theobromine, a chemical stimulant frequently confused with caffeine, but has very different effects on the human body. It is a mild, lasting stimulant with a mood improving effect. Its presence is one of the causes for chocolate's mood-elevating effects. (Note - In chocolate, theobromine exists in doses that are safe for humans to consume in large quantities, but can be lethal for animals such as dogs and horses, as they metabolize theobromine more slowly.) (Buzzle.com).

It only takes a little

One final point is worth noting in regards to chocolate.

If you are convinced of the health-giving properties of chocolate then you should go for rich, dark chocolate with 70% cocoa solids and low levels of cocoa butter. But everything in moderation. Bear in mind that, in the studies demonstrating anti-oxidant and anti-platelet effects, subjects consumed the equivalent of only one or two squares of chocolate a day. And, if you're a chocoholic, that's barely enough to make your mouth water (Channel 4).

One or two squares a day would be about a half to one ounce of dark chocolate or about a teaspoon or two of cocoa powder. This is all that is needed for chocolate's health benefits. Any more dark chocolate than this would lead to too high of a sugar intake. But with this caveat, it is possible to incorporate this former "junk food" into a healthy eating plan.

Bibliography:

American Chemical Society. Hot Cocoa Tops Red Wine And Tea In Antioxidants; May Be Healthier Choice.

Buzzle.com. Chocolate - An Aphrodisiac or Better Than Sex? Patricia Fason.

Channel 4. Chocolate, by Jenny Bryan.

How Stuff Works. How Aphrodisiacs Work. by Lee Ann Obringer.

How Stuff Works. How Chocolate Works. by Marshall Brain.

Men's Health. "Nutrition Bulletin," July/ August 2005, p.54.

Sahelian, Ray. M.D. Cocoa Bean.

ShipJack. Genius Junk Food, by Jeff Volek.

WebMD. Cocoa May Cut Blood Pressure. By Miranda Hitti. Feb. 27, 2006.

 

Chocolate: Junk Food or Health Food? Copyright 2006 by Gary F. Zeolla.

Disclaimers: The material presented in this article is intended for educational purposes only. The author is not offering medical or legal advice. Accuracy of information is attempted but not guaranteed. Before undertaking any diet, exercise, or health improvement program, one should consult your doctor. The author is in no way responsible or liable for any bodily harm, physical, mental, or emotional, that results from following any of the advice in this article.

The above article was posted on this site September 30, 2006.
It originally appeared in the free email newsletter FitTips for One and All.

Nutrition
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