Almost everybody loves chocolate. Whether chocolate is given as a gift of love or as an indulgence of self-love, the association between chocolate and love is not merely a coincidence. Cacao, the bitter beans that are the principle ingredient in chocolate, possess many beneficial qualities.
Along with powerful anti-oxidants, cacao contains chemicals that can have unique mood-enhancing effects. So much so, that in some people these affects can lead to a euphoric state similar to that of love.
A History of Dark Chocolate Benefits
Chocolate can take many forms but its defining characteristic is that it contains cacao. Cacao comes from – wait for it – the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). The cacao tree is an evergreen tree native to the tropical regions of Central and South America. The name Theobroma, is derived from the Greek roots theo (“god”) and broma (“food”), meaning roughly, “food of the gods”. Most people would agree.
The fruit of the cacao tree is called a cacao pod. The pods ripen to yellow or orange and weigh about 1 pound. Each pod contains between 20 to 60 seeds, called “beans”, embedded within a white pulp, similar to the seeds of a pomegranate.
Food of the Gods
Cacao has been used for thousands of years as a ceremonial, culinary, and medicinal plant in what is now Columbia, Belize, and Guatemala, among other regions of Mesoamerica. In the ancient civilizations of this region, cacao beans were so coveted that they were once used as a currency.
Modern cultivation has since elevated the cacao into a global commodity that is enjoyed throughout the world. But while the cacao possesses many real and near-magical qualities, not all chocolates are blessed with these benefits.
Types of Chocolate
Once harvested, the cacao beans are separated from the pulp and then roasted and ground into a paste. The paste, called cocoa liquor, or cocoa solids are then separated into cocoa butter and cocoa powder. The beans are between 40% and 50% fat (cocoa butter), which is why chocolate is so high in fat and also why it has that pleasant, silky, melt-in-your-mouth texture.
All three derivatives of cacao are used in varying amounts to make different types of chocolates, but the cocoa solids are the only source of the beneficial chemical compounds, known as flavonoids. Cocoa beans are a rich source of flavonoids, but the processing required to turn these bitter beans into the smooth, rich chocolate flavor requires processing.
Dark Chocolate Benefits
As with most foods, processing renders standard (milk) chocolate candies relatively inert in terms of the potential health benefits weighed against the high caloric content.
Dark chocolate and milk chocolate both contain cocoa solids and cocoa butter, but milk chocolate has fewer solids, and contains more sugar and added milk to help mask the natural bitterness of cacao. This is why dark (also called bittersweet) chocolate is usually singled-out for its health benefits.
For you white chocolate fans, sadly, much like the elusive blue raspberry, white chocolate doesn’t actually exist, at least not in the sense that it is chocolate, as it contains no cocoa solids at all.
The health benefits of chocolate are almost entirely due to the naturally occurring chemical compounds found in the cacao bean called flavonoids. Flavonoids are a group of chemicals found in plants, known as phytonutrients. Phystonutrients are found in nearly all vegetables and fruits and include a wide variety of chemical forms, including within the flavonoid category.
Along with carotenoids, flavonoids are what give vegetables and fruits their colors. There are many benefits of these various flavonoid compounds, which is why nutrition advice is often as simple as “eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.”
Alternative to Coffee
Among the various phytonutrients, flavonoids are the largest group, with several thousand varieties. In cacao, the most noted active of these chemicals is called theobromine, a bitter alkaloid antioxidant that is also found in tea, cola (kola) leaves, and red wine.
The compound is structurally similar to caffeine, and may be another healthy alternative to coffee. But unlike caffeine, which is also naturally present in cacao, theobromine is a milder central nervous system stimulant that has a wide array of cognitive and physiological effects. It is also found in much higher amounts, around 250 milligrams in a 50-gram bar of dark chocolate as compared to caffeine, which ranges from 10 to 60 milligrams per 50-gram bar. The average 8-ounce cup of coffee has around 90 milligrams of caffeine.
Health Benefits of Chocolate
Chocolate contains many chemicals known to possess beneficial qualities. But like many food sources, the amounts and actual efficacy of these various substances are difficult to isolate and quantify. Studies into these chemicals continue, so hopefully there will be some more definitive research supporting our chocolate habits in the near future.
In the meantime, previous smaller studies have indicated some positive associations with dark chocolate consumption and health benefits. The benefits of chocolate are largely a function of the flavonoids and polyphenols, two types of anti-oxidants known for fighting free radicals – normal bi-products of many metabolic and environmental factors that have been linked to aging and disease.
These anti-oxidants help neutralize free radicals, resulting in the prevention of disease, higher immune function, and assist with anti-aging and anti-cancer functions.
Chocolate benefits for cholesterol
The polyphenols in chocolate have been shown to help to reduce the oxidation of LDL aka “bad cholesterol”, which is a major risk factor in developing coronary disease. Polyphenols have also been linked with lower risk of arthrosclerosis – hardening of the arteries, as they inhibit blood platelets from clumping together.
One particular falvonoid in chocolate, flavanol, has also been linked with reducing blood pressure. Flavanol is believed to increase nitric oxide levels that, in turn, dilate and relax arteries, which lowers blood pressure and helps normalize blood flow.
The high flavonoid content of dark chocolate also shows some promise in improving cognitive ability, particularly in the elderly.
The love drug
As for enhancement of mood and the feelings associated with love, it is believed that the caffeine and theobromine in chocolate stimulates the central nervous system, stimulates the flow of blood in the brain, and increases the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for numerous functions, primarily centered around mood.
Should chocolate increase the level of serotonin in the brain, it would undoubtedly enhance positive mood. Low serotonin levels are well documented as a principal factor in many mood disorders, particularly depression.
Another compound in chocolate with “love” potential is PEA or phenethylamine. PEA is only present in small quantities, but it can stimulate the nervous system to release endorphins, which are opium-like compounds that induce euphoric feelings of pleasure. PEA also has the potential to increase the activity of dopamine, a neuro-chemical associated with sexual arousal and pleasure.
Chocolate benefits and Marijuana
Finally, the cannabis plant (marijuana) contains a group of chemicals called cannabinoids. The primary psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis is THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. This is what causes the “high” when it is consumed. While THC is not found in chocolate, three versions of another similar chemical called anandamide, have been found in chocolate.
Anandamide is a messenger molecule (fatty-acid neuro-transmitter) that plays a role in pain, depression, appetite, memory, and fertility. Its name comes from ananda, the Sanskrit word for “bliss”. Anandamine is also produced naturally in the brain, which means we have receptors in our brains specific to this compound. These receptors are also where THC happens to bind. While eating chocolate won’t get you high, these compounds may be associated with the blissful feelings that tend to accompany chocolate consumption.
Chocolate benefits our taste buds
Other research on the blissful feelings associated with eating chocolate is far less technical. Some researchers believe that there just aren’t enough of these chemicals present to meaningfully alter our brain chemistry.
Instead, they believe that chocolate simply tastes really good and that it activates the pleasure centers of our brains. Some chocolates trigger sense of sweetness and bitter taste. The sensory qualities of chocolate – bitter, sweet, supple, and exotic flavors all trigger a pleasurable experience and we simply feel pretty good about that.
We believe that more personal research is necessary. In moderation, of course.