Chocolate For Your Health


     Eating chocolate just makes us feel good.

These days it would be hard to find a child or adult who can say they don't like chocolate. The estimated revenues of the chocolate industry are in excess of 83.2 billion dollars. Is it the taste, or something inside the chocolate, well this is what we know. Chocolate contains more than 500 natural chemical compounds, some of which have been categorized as mood-elevating and pleasure-inducing. Which may explain why back in the 1940's and 1950's, gentlemen often brought their dates chocolates and flowers. Studies have proven that chocolate compounds have some amazing effects on the brain.

First a little history. The history of chocolate begins in south then central america. Cocoa, is where chocolate comes from, originated in the Amazon at least 4,000 years ago. Ceramic containers with residues from the preparation of cacao beverages have been found at archaeological sites dating back to the 1900-900 BC period. Chocolate, is the fermented, roasted, and ground beans of the Theobroma Cacao, which can be traced to the Mokaya and other pre-Olmec people. Chocolate played a special role in both Maya and Aztec royal and religious events. Priests presented cacao seeds as offerings to the gods and served chocolate drinks during sacred ceremonies.

The Swiss sweetened and fattened it by adding refined sugar and milk, two ingredients unknown to the people in central America. In the 18th century, mechanical mills were created that squeezed out cocoa butter, which in turn helped to create hard, durable chocolate. In the 19th century, England, John Cadbury developed an emulsification process to make solid chocolate creating the modern chocolate bar. Although cocoa is originally from the Americas, today Western Africa produces almost two-thirds of the world's cocoa. Chocolate is one of nature's most concentrated sources of theobromine, a mild, natural stimulant and molecular "cousin" of caffeine. However, unlike its cousin, theobromine does not strongly stimulate the central nervous system, nor does it have the same "eye-opening" power. Theobromine has also been shown to reduce coughing and has been used in "natural" cough medicine preparations as a cough suppressant.

FYI the level of theobromine found to be effective in clinical trials is roughly 5 times higher than what is found in a typical bar of dark chocolate. While safe for humans, other species, such as dogs, lack the specific enzyme that metabolizes theobromine so eating chocolate can cause them to become overstimulated. Don't ever give animals chocolate. Chocolate also contains relatively small amounts of caffeine, about as much as a cup of decaffeinated coffee. A 1.5 ounce milk chocolate bar has 11 mg of caffeine, while a similar-sized dark chocolate bar has 27 mg of caffeine. In contrast, a 12-ounce mug of coffee has 200 mg. Phenylethylamine (PEA), this compound may be responsible for some of the pleasurable feelings you get after eating chocolate because it releases natural feel-good chemicals called endorphins in your brain. Science say's PEA is also released by the brain when people are falling in love. Perhaps this could explain why chocolate and Valentines Day are so closely linked . Despite its sweet reputation, chocolate has a low glycemic index, which is the measure of a food's impact on blood sugar levels. This means that eating chocolate, unlike other candies or sweet foods, will not cause your blood sugar to dramatically spike and then crash. Chocolate's low glycemic index is not, the only good news for people who must watch their blood sugar. The flavanols, plant-based antioxidants in dark chocolate and cocoa may aid in circulation, possibly improving your cell's sensitivity to insulin and glucose. In study after study when flavanol-rich dark chocolate was given to participants, researchers see lower blood sugar levels than before the study. Now of course the rules of moderation apply, because diet and weight control for people at risk for diabetes is especially important. People with diabetes should consult their physician to determine an appropriate amount of dark chocolate and cocoa in their diet. So chocolate is packed with natural compounds called antioxidants that scientists have discovered can protect your body and promote good health. In fact, ounce for ounce, dark chocolate and cocoa have more antioxidants than do foods like blueberries, green tea and red wine.

Surprised? Many people are. That's because they forget that chocolate is a plant-based food. Scientists theorize that plants naturally produce antioxidants to help them survive harsh growing conditions and to protect them from environmental stress. These same compounds it seems can aid the humans who eat these plants. The health benefits of high-antioxidant foods have recently taken the scientific world by storm. New studies suggest that the antioxidants in foods may reduce the risk of many kinds of illness, from heart disease to cancer. Antioxidants like those found in dark chocolate and cocoa have also been linked to cardiovascular health such as enhanced blood flow, healthy cholesterol levels and, in some cases, reduced blood pressure. Two tablespoons of natural cocoa have more antioxidant capacity than four cups of green tea, 1 cup of blueberries and one and half glasses of red wine. Looks like 30 minutes after eating one 40 gram serving of dark chocolate blood levels of the two main antioxidants in chocolate, epicatechin and catechin, are heightened. They peak two hours after consumption and are cleared from the body after about six hours. Antioxidants work by protecting your cells from damaging molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are basically unstable oxygen molecules that can trigger changes in the structure of normally healthy cells. This damage is thought to be an underlying cause of many chronic inflammation based diseases. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals.

Some free radicals arise normally during metabolism. Sometimes the body's immune system cells purposefully create them to neutralize viruses and bacteria. However, environmental factors such as pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke, herbicides, pesticides and stress can also spawn free radicals. Free radicals are a common by-product of life, but as we get older the natural antioxidants our body makes to fight them off begin to decline. So the best way to recharge your antioxidant power is to get them in your diet. The kinds of antioxidants found in chocolate are called polyphenols, a large class of molecules found in fruits and leafy vegetables, coconut, beans, nut's and berries. Dark chocolate and cocoa are particularly high in a sub-class of those compounds called flavanols, which are also found in red grapes and tea, hence the well-known benefits of red wine and green tea. The reason dark chocolate and cocoa rank so high is that their antioxidants are very concentrated. Now, it seems that researchers, unlike the rest of us, aren't too interested in what topically applying cooca powder or chocolate will do for your skin that, or they gobble up the chocolate powder before they could test it, but if you're like me and never really grew up, you still can't pass up the chance to play with your food. With all those antioxidants, a chocolate bath has got to be a winner in my mind. Though I'm sure more "research" is needed.

The flavanols in dark chocolate and cocoa are key to heart health because they share an electron with free radicals and calm them down so to speak. Flavanols have also been shown to stimulate the production of nitric oxide, a key gas inside artery walls that relaxes and widens arteries, allowing for the easy flow of blood and reduced blood pressure. It's the role these flavanols play in promoting heart health that has got everyones attention. Studies showing that moderate consumption of red wine and tea can lead to a reduced risk of heart disease, lead Dutch researchers to test the power of chocolate and cocoa, which contains similar flavanol antioxidants. The results, published in 2006, were overwhelming. The researchers divided a group of 470 elderly men according to how much cocoa-containing food they consumed and tracked them over 15 years. The men who consumed the most cocoa-containing products, the researchers discovered, were half as likely to die from cardiovascular disease as those who consumed the least. In addition, they were half as likely to die from any cause, as those who ate the least cocoa-or chocolate-containing foods. The researchers suspect that the longevity and reduced cardiovascular risk may be associated with a slight, yet sustained, lower blood pressure, and vascular inflammation in those consuming cocoa and chocolate.

Both cocoa and dark chocolate have been shown to help your arteries relax, widen and maintain their flexibility, which may aid in lowering blood pressure. Now this is interesting the Kuna Indians who live on the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama, like most Americans, consume a diet high in sodium. Unlike Americans though the Kuna Indians do not develop high blood pressure. Researchers from Harvard University at first thought the Kuna might have a unique genetic makeup, but then they noticed that when the Kuna moved to urban Panama and stopped eating their regular diet, their blood pressure rose. One component of the traditional island Kuna diet is drinking 5 or 6 cups of a cocoa-based beverage every day. Harvard researchers hypothesized that the high intake of cocoa could be the reason for the Kuna's difference in overall blood pressure, along with civilization based stress, and the use of unprocessed salts. The researchers went on to further study the effects of cocoa on vascular health and blood pressure. They determined that chocolate triggers the production of nitric oxide in the blood. Nitric oxide is responsible for relaxing and dilating blood vessels which allows more blood to pass through them and thereby lowers blood pressure. So many other studies have also investigated these effects. In one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, people who ate dark chocolate every day for a week saw their blood pressure drop and the lower blood pressure was maintained as long as they continued to eat dark chocolate. However, once they stopped eating it their blood pressure rose again.

There is good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL) in your blood. When the LDL cholesterol meets the unstable molecules in your blood called free radicals, it becomes oxidized. The oxidization of LDL cholesterol is a significant threat to the health of arteries because it begins the process of sticky plaque build-up, lesions and, ultimately, hardening of the arteries. When LDL cholesterol becomes oxidized, it attracts other LDL cholesterol particles and clumps start to grow. This mass can adhere to the artery walls, become lodged and damage the artery. Like healing a cut on your skin, your body's immune system then sends out platelets to try to repair the injury. These platelets, while trying to help, can end up creating a larger mass which clings to your arterial walls causing blockages which can cause your to blood clot, and you know arterial blockages and blood clots can result in heart attack and stroke. The antioxidants in dark chocolate and cocoa work to slow down the process of LDL oxidation and help prevent this whole escalation of arterial blockage from happening. They neutralize the free radicals before they oxidize the LDL. There are at least five lengthy studies to date that show if you consume a cocoa-based beverage for 2 to 4 weeks you should experience a reduced rate at which the LDL cholesterol is oxidized. Dark chocolate not white or milk chocolate will lower high blood pressure, says Dirk Taubert, MD, PhD, at the University of Cologne, Germany. Their report appears in the The Journal of the American Medical Association, adding "that's no license to go on a dark chocolate binge". Eating more dark chocolate can help lower blood pressure if you've reached a certain age and have mild high blood pressure, say the researchers, but you have to balance the extra calories by eating less of other things. Their findings also indicate that milk interferes with the absorption of antioxidants from chocolate, as it does with say blueberries, and may therefore negate the all the health benefits you get from eating moderate amounts of dark chocolate.

Translation: Say "Dark, please," when ordering at the chocolate counter. Don't even think of washing it down with milk, if health is your excuse for eating chocolate, and remember the word "moderate" as you nibble. Just remember to balance the calories. A 100-gram serving of an average 70% cacao dark chocolate bar has 531 calories, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By contrast if you ate 100gr. of apple you'd only take in 52 calories. Don't replace healthy foods with chocolate, just augment your diet a little. Today most people's diets have plenty of plain sugar sweets. Switch some of that sugar for some dark chocolate and enjoy the delicious taste and health benefits. Good Luck...

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