Health Benefits of Chocolate

Chocolate makes people happy, but it can also make people healthy. Recent scientific studies have shown that chocolate helps lower blood pressure and reduces bad cholesterol while supporting good cholesterol. The flavinoids and theobromine in chocolate also have numerous health benefits.

orange peel dipped in chocolate

When selecting chocolate for health reasons, the higher the cacao content the better. Milk chocolate and white chocolate are not healthy choices, while dark chocolates, unsweetened chocolate and bittersweet chocolate are more healthy. Even chocolates that contain cocoa butter are not necessarily unhealthy, because cocoa butter contains oleic acid, the same mono-unsaturated fat found in olive oil. Current thinking is that eating one ounce of dark or bittersweet chocolate a few times a week is enough to reap the health benefits without a sharp increase in calories.

Researchers believe that it is the milk in milk chocolate that decreases the health value. In one study, participants were given dark chocolate by itself while others were given dark chocolate with a glass of milk. Those who drank the milk had much lower levels of antioxidants in their blood after consuming the chocolate.

Cocoa contains flavinoids called flavinols, which are a special class of antioxidant, and they work to help keep the heart healthy by reducing the stickiness of blood platelets, making them less likely to clot. Flavinols help increase blood flow to the brain and heart.

The flavinols in chocolate also help the endothelium, the innermost layer in the arterial wall. The endothelium is often damaged by exposure to cigarette smoke and other environmental toxins. The flavinols in chocolate are believed to have the ability to reverse this damage, reducing the likelihood of coronary disease.

Another antioxidant in chocolate, epicatechin, is thought to reduce the risks of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. While not completely understood, some researchers believe epicatechin should be considered an essential vitamin because of its astounding ability to improve health.

The word theobroma, meaning food of the gods is often used in connection with chocolates. One of the compounds in cacao is called theobromine, and it is this substance that gives the cacao its bitter flavor. Theobromine is a stimulant, weaker than caffeine, but in the same class of compounds. Like other beneficial substances in chocolates, the theobromine in chocolate is more concentrated based on the amount of pure cacao in the finished product. Darker chocolate and unsweetened chocolate having the most. Theobromine helps increase blood flow by dilating the blood vessels, thus reducing blood pressure. Theobromine also acts on the vagus nerve that runs between the lungs and the brain, relaxing the bronchi. In high concentrations, theobromine makes a great cough suppressant.

Some people claim to be addicted to chocolate because they get a very mild rush when they eat it. This rush is caused by a chemical called phenylethylamine which is a naturally occuring brain chemical that is also produced when people experience love. The feeling of well-being has also been attributed to the stimulated production of endorphins.

There are some dangers to chocolate consumption, however. Research has shown that chocolate may trigger migraine headaches in people who are already susceptible to them, though the reason is unknown. Also, the theobromine that is helpful to humans can be deadly to other animals. Domestic animals including horses and dogs do not process the theobromine as quickly as humans and it can lead to seizures and heart attacks.

<< History of Chocolate | Kinds of Chocolate >>

Resources:

Harvard Health Publications: The Health Benefits of that Heart-Shaped Box of Dark Chocolate
Web MD: Dark Chocolate is Healthy Chocolate
Phytochemicals: What is Theobromine?
Cleveland Clinic: Heart-Health Benefits of Chocolate Unveiled

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