Ah Valentine’s Day and we get to hear all about how chocolate is so good for us. It can be beneficial both mentally and physically as it’s loaded with healthy antioxidants, minerals, and even stimulants. Chocolate was once considered the nectar of the gods. Actually, those who were once sacrificed to the gods were given chocolate mixed in blood before their hearts were ripped out – there’s a yummy thought for you.
So how good for you is chocolate? Well, that depends on the type of chocolate you’re eating and how often you consume it. After all, stuffing your face with even a somewhat healthy Paleo chocolate cake probably isn’t going to provide any health benefits, even if the levels of free radical fighting phytonutrients are comparable to some blueberries. But hey, I love chocolate too so read on and I’ll share the love.
What Makes Chocolate Beneficial?
Determining the health benefits of chocolate comes down to one thing – the percentage of cacao. The percentage of cacao is derived from the cacao bean. Cocoa consists of the cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and the chocolate liquor which is produced from dried ground beans and sometimes called cocoa mass. By the way, cacao refers to the name of the chocolate tree, (Theobroma cacao), its pods and the beans inside, whereas cocoa refers to the by-products of the cacao bean – the cocoa powder and cocoa butter.
If you crave chocolate it may be due to the sugar content or another chemical stimulant I’ll discuss in a bit, but also because it’s a natural source of a compound called phenylethylamine (PEA). PEA helps to increase dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is known as the “pleasure and reward” neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are small chemical messengers that allow neurons (nerve cells) to communicate with one another. Dopamine is what allows you to stay cool while under stress, enjoy many aspects of life and what motivates and drives you to succeed. If your dopamine levels are low then you may quickly lose your temper and snap, you may not enjoy things like you used to, or you may feel worthless and hopeless at times.
Dopamine is also what gives us craving and desires that can lead to addictions such as sugar, drugs, or even sex. Since dopamine drives the pleasure centers of the brain, if you have insufficient dopamine levels you will find it hard to get motivated to work, exercise, or just enjoy activities, but once you get going you’ll stick it out, though you won’t enjoy it to the same degree. If you’re pushing your body too hard (too much stress) and losing interest in the things you once enjoyed, then best to resolve that before it gets worse rather than eat more chocolate.
Chocolate to Fight Free Radicals
The higher percentage of cacao equals a higher amount of flavonoids (also known as bioflavonoids). Flavonoids are powerful antioxidants founds in fruits, veggies, herbs, and other plant-based foods. Antioxidants help protect us against damage caused by free radicals as a result of toxins from our environment and lifestyle (mental stress, poor diet, etc.).
Flavanols (spelled with two ‘a’s), are a class of flavonoids that are high in tea, red wine, and cacao. They are a type of antioxidant that is very beneficial to blood vessels. They keep arteries flexible and can even reduce your blood pressure (if it’s high). But don’t go crazy here now – chocolate also has sugar added in various amounts depending on the type you’re eating, and sugar increases inflammation, which can be a problem for blood vessels and your blood pressure.
As flavanols are a subgroup of flavonoids, epicatechins are a subgroup of flavanols. The catechins make up what are called proanthocyanidins, also known as OPCs (oligomeric proanthocyanidins) – these are kick-ass antioxidants. Proanthocyanidins can be found in many plants, such as apples, acai, cinnamon, grape seed and grape skin, red wines, bilberry, cranberry, black currant, green tea, black tea, and others. Oh yeah – and cacao beans. Actually, cacao beans contain the highest concentration, but it all depends on how they were grown and processed. Two tablespoons of natural cocoa has more antioxidant capacity than 3 ½ cups of green tea, ¾ cup of blueberries and 1 1/3 glasses of red wine. Raw cocoa is ideal since flavanols degrade during cooking (high temp) and the commonly used alkalizing processes. Flavanols are bitter so most chocolate goes through processing steps that remove a lot of these beneficial antioxidants.
Processing the Chocolate for Consumption
As cacao makes its way from bean to cocoa powder and chocolate, the concentration of antioxidant compounds can be affected by a variety of biological and processing conditions. Genetics can vary greatly between cacao trees, thus affecting the concentration of antioxidants fourfold from one bean to another. Fermentation of fresh cacao beans also tends to decrease antioxidant content as does roasting of cacao beans and treatment of cocoa powder with alkali.
Processing with alkali is called dutching – it breaks down the flavanol antioxidants naturally found in cocoa and chocolate. The extent to which the flavanols are lost is related to how heavily the cocoa or chocolate is dutched. Dutched cocoa can be identified on the ingredient panel of a food when labeled as “cocoa processed with alkali.” Unfortunately, food labels do not state the extent of alkalization of a cocoa powder, so you should choose a natural, non-alkalized cocoa for maximum antioxidants.
Cocoa butter is obtained from whole cacao beans, which are fermented, roasted, and then separated from their hulls. About 54 – 58% of the residue is cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is one of the most stable fats known; a quality that coupled with antioxidants naturally prevents rancidity. Cocoa butter has a high content of saturated fats derived from stearic and palmitic acids. These are beneficial types of saturated fats. Stearic acid is also found in grass fed beef and palmitic is high in dairy fat (butter). Around 30% of the fat is also oleic, which is the same monounsaturated fat in olive oil. The moisturizing abilities of cocoa butter are frequently recommended for prevention of stretch marks, treatment of chapped lips, and as a daily moisturizer. I like to break it up and put it right in a smoothie (see photo).
Aside from, perhaps, a lot of sugar, (depending on the percentage of cocoa you’re eating), the two other compounds in chocolate that tend to give it a bad rap are the caffeine and theobromine.
Caffeine, as many know, is a stimulant that is high in coffee, teas, guarana, yerba mate, and many energy drinks. For plants, caffeine is a natural insecticide. Caffeine, as well as theobromine, are part of the methylxanthine family – psychoactive stimulants.
Symptoms of too much caffeine (too much ingested or impaired breakdown of it) include: nervousness, irritability, panic attacks, OCD, ADD, phobias, anxiety, muscle twitching, insomnia, headaches, heart palpitations, and digestive problems. But hey – there really isn’t a whole lot of caffeine in chocolate – even in the pure unprocessed stuff. A typical 3.5oz bar of 80% cocoa is going to have roughly the same amount of caffeine as 6-7oz of coffee. If you’re eating 80% or higher chocolate, you’re probably not going to eat the whole bar. If you are, well you might have a problem. If you’re using <80% cocoa (not recommended) then there is even less caffeine in there so you’d have to eat more to ingest more caffeine. But you’d never do that, right? – Waaaaayyy too much sugar.
So what’s that theobromine? Theobromine is what’s known as an alkaloid and is a stimulant to the central nervous system. It acts as a vasodilator (a blood vessel widener), a diuretic (urination aid), and heart stimulant. Theobromine has also been identified as one of the compounds contributing to chocolate’s reputed role as an aphrodisiac as well as the compound that makes a person crave chocolate, (in addition to the PEA and sugar previously discussed).
Some people don’t break down theobromines (or caffeine) well in their liver so they can develop toxicity symptoms. These symptoms can range from headaches to fatigue to painful “locked-up” joints. Animals don’t break these alkaloids down well at all; theobromine is what will kill your dog, cat, or horse if they eat too much chocolate.
Enjoy Good Chocolate
You should shoot for chocolate that is at least 80% or higher cocoa. If that tastes too bitter to you then you most likely have a sugar addiction that needs attention. Milk chocolate is only around 10% cocoa (such as a Hershey’s bar) and semisweet is around 35%. The lower the percent of cocoa, the less antioxidants and the more sugar it contains.
You should also look for Fair Trade chocolate. Fair Trade practices ensure that cacao farmers, (who typically live in developing countries in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia), receive a guaranteed minimum price for their products, enjoy safer working conditions, and employ sustainable growing methods that benefit their own health as well as the planet. Slavery still exists in many cacao farms, especially in Africa, and child labor/slavery is a huge problem. Essentially, a Fair Trade farm supports and encourages a healthy community!
So, it comes down to this: Eat Certified Organic Fair Trade chocolate that is at least 80% cocoa and not processed with alkali. And don’t go crazy on it. If you’re craving 80%+chocolate, you’re probably craving the stimulants in there (caffeine or theobromine), or the PEA, and you should look into why you need that stimulation – you’re probably under more stress than your body can handle. If you can’t handle the taste of “rich” chocolate, 80% or higher, then following a lower carb Paleo Diet is ideal for you to help break the sugar sensitivity you’re dealing with. After that is corrected, you’ll think anything less is too sweet. Enjoy!