Chocolate is produced from the seed of the tropical tree Theobroma cacao and has been cultivated for at least three millennia in Mexico, Central America, and Northern South America. The earliest documented use of chocolate is dated to be around 1100 BC by Mesoamerican and Aztecs, who used chocolate in a beverage. Chocolate similar to many teas is a good source of flavanols, a compound that has been shown to have anti-inflammatory as well as antioxidant properties.
A recent study published in European Heart Journal found that daily consumption of dark chocolate over a period of four weeks improved the function of cells lining the blood vessels and platelets, in patients who had congestive heart failure. Furthermore, individuals who consume chocolate have a lower incidence of myocardial infarction and mortality from coronary heart disease. Another study published in 2012 in the Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews showed that individuals who ate about 3.5 oz of dark chocolate every day had a reduction in blood pressure when compared with control subjects.
So how does chocolate reduce blood pressure? The flavanols that are found in the chocolate stimulate the production of nitric oxide, a substance that causes the relaxation of cells lining the blood vessels. Moreover, as an added benefit, raw cocoa has the highest oxygen radical absorbance capacity, which is a measure of its antioxidant property. Antioxidants are important since they protect the body from oxidative stress and damaging free radicals that have shown to cause coronary artery disease. Hence, cocoa is a substance that contains the highest amount of antioxidants.
A 2011 study in American College of Cardiology showed an inverse relationship between consuming cocoa-rich chocolate and stroke in women. Additionally, a study published in Neurology showed that individuals who consume at least 1.8 oz of chocolate a week have a 17% lower risk of stroke. Recent study in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology showed that chocolate may have a possible interaction with neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins that help with appetite and regulate mood. Moreover, chocolate’s heart-healthy constituent, flavanols, also protect the neurons from toxins and stimulate memory, learning as well as cognitive functions.
When people think of chocolate, they consider chocolate to be a fatty yet indulgent food. But to clarify this fact, chocolate is high in saturated fat and one-third of this saturated fat is stearic acid. Stearic acid does not increase the levels of low-density lipoprotein, also referred to as bad cholesterol. Moreover, stearic acid is converted mainly to oleic acid, a monosaturated fatty acid that has been associated with decreased levels of low-density lipoprotein.
If you are still worried that consuming chocolate is associated with gaining extra pounds consider a recent 2012 study published in Archives of Internal Medicine showed that frequent consumption of chocolate is associated with lower body mass index (BMI).
When consuming chocolate, keep in mind that dark chocolate has the highest amount of cocoa and hence the highest amount of flavonoids that provide health benefits. It is also important to remember that the chocolate commonly found in the candy aisle is loaded with sugar and other processed ingredients. When opting to consume chocolate, try to stick with organic, gluten-free, dark, flavanol-rich assortments.
And remember, share your chocolate with your Valentine!