We all know chocolate is just sin on a spoon, right? Well, it turns out that this food that health nuts love to hate is packed with health benefits. Recent scientific research shows that this powerhouse nutrient increases a sense of well-being, fights oxidation in body tissues, stimulates pleasure centers and the immune system, and may even help you live longer.
Chocolate was originally an herbal medicine. Spaniards who drank liquid cocoa with the Aztec emperor Montezuma called it “the Indian Nectar” and were impressed by its ability to enhance alertness and treat indigestion.
Chocolate is probably one of our most complicated foods. There are literally thousands of chemical compounds in an ordinary chocolate bar, the result of grinding and roasting the cocoa beans. Here’s what researchers are discovering about some of these chemicals.
Longevity. A study published in a 1998 issue of British Medical Journal shows that a few pieces of chocolate every month may make your life longer. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston studied more than 7,800 men participating in the Harvard alumni health study. Taking the men’s ages, weights, and smoking status into account, the researchers calculated that moderate candy eating added nearly a year to the men’s lives, up to age ninety-five. The researchers speculated that the benefits were from the chocolate the subjects ate.
Antioxidants. Two studies—one published in 1998 in Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology and another in 1996 in Lancet—have demonstrated that chocolate is high in potent antioxidants called polyphenols. These are the same beneficial antioxidants found in red wine. A 41-g piece of chocolate (roughly 1.5 ounces) contains about the same amount of these compounds as a glass of red wine. The major phenols purified from chocolate are epicatechin and catechin, substances also found in green tea, another touted source of antioxidants.
Immunity. A 1997 study published in Cellular Immunology suggests that the phenols found in chocolate may also enhance the function of the immune system.
Heart health. Chocolate may help prevent heart attacks. Cocoa powder extract helps prevent oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol. The fat in chocolate, cocoa butter, is heavily saturated, yet it doesn’t raise serum cholesterol, according to several studies published in Journal of Nutrition (1996), Lipids (1993), American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1989), and elsewhere.
Ulcer prevention. The polyphenols in chocolate appear, at least in mice, to prevent stomach ulcers. A recent study in Japan, published in 1998 in Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, showed that a concentrate of these beneficial antioxidants from chocolate prevented ulcers as well as the leading anti-ulcer drugs.
More pep. Theobromine, a methylxanthine related to caffeine, is a mild stimulant. A word of caution: Its concentration in chocolate isn’t enough to strongly affect an adult, but it may not be healthy for children and, especially, dogs. A two-ounce piece of chocolate can kill a dog by overstimulating the heart and kidneys. (For specific cautions about methylxanthines and fibrocystic breast disease, see page 52.)
Pleasure. Chocolate mimics the brain chemistry of romantic love. Cocoa contains minimal amounts of a family of compounds known as phenylethyamines, which work in the brain much like the natural neurotransmitter dopamine and the hormone epinephrine, creating heightened senses and a feeling of well-being.
Other stimulants in chocolate affect cannabinoid receptors, the areas of the brain tickled by marijuana, although to a lesser extent than the illegal substance.
K. P. Singh Khalsa has more than twenty-five years of experience with medicinal herbs and specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese, and North American herbalism. He is a licensed dietitian/nutritionist and massage therapist, a board member of the American Herbalists Guild, and the author of Herbal Defense (Warner Books, 1997).