The Benefits of Chocolate

© 2007 Leonore H. Dvorkin

Note: This article was originally published in the November 2007 issue of the Denver publication Community News.

picture of chocolate

Wow. Could the health news be any better? Chocolate is GOOD for us!

That's what article after article has been shouting out lately, and lovers and makers of chocolate all over the world are rejoicing. I'm joining the gleeful chorus, and have combed a number of articles to bring you some findings that I consider particularly interesting. So go get yourself a nice mug of cocoa or a chunk of chocolate, and enjoy the read.

My main work consists of tutoring foreign languages, something that requires a lot of concentration from both me and my students. Consequently, I'm always on the lookout for something that will both lift my students' mood and sharpen their cognitive skills. Now I know why I was on the right track when I first set a little bowl of candies on the table where I teach - and exactly why the red-wrapped Dove dark chocolate pieces have been so popular.

It turns out that chocolate can boost blood flow to both the heart and the brain. The increase in brain function can last for two or three hours. It's the cocoa flavonols, a type of antioxidant, that get the credit here. In addition, the same flavonols can lower blood pressure in people being treated for hypertension. Some researchers believe that high blood pressure may be a factor in the cognitive decline seen in aging. Given all this, candy manufacturers are now racing to see who can most quickly boost the level of flavonols in dark chocolate even higher than the level found in nature.

The fats in dark chocolate may help lower bad (LDL) cholesterol. Perhaps most surprising of all, they may even aid diabetics by boosting insulin sensitivity. So, a gift of a box of dark chocolates, which contain the most cocoa, may well do a lot more for Grandma and Grandpa than merely say, "I love you."

Note that I keep stressing dark chocolate. That's because - sadly enough for all the lovers of milk chocolate out there - milk dilutes the cocoa content of chocolate and also increases its saturated fat content, thus greatly diminishing its benefits. Most sources I've consulted define "dark chocolate" as that which contains at least 60% cocoa, also known as cacao (pronounced "ka-COW").

There are many brands of chocolate out there, organic and not. The price can vary tremendously, as can the taste and texture, or "mouth feel." My best advice is to experiment, sampling a few bars until you find a brand and cocoa content you really like. For me, 60-75% cocoa (cacao) is fine, but above that is too bitter. If you like, buy dark chocolate with nuts, orange peel, or other flavorings, but avoid chocolate with caramel, nougat, or other fillings. These just add sugar and fat, and can even erase many of the benefits of the chocolate.

I've been very happy with Ghirardelli, Rapunzel, and Dagoba (the latter two brands purchased at Vitamin Cottage here in Denver), but less satisfied with some other brands, which I won't name. Finding the perfect chocolate bar is a lot like looking for the perfect mate. You'll know it when you find the brand that's right for you!

Many people find dark chocolate more satisfying than milk chocolate. I find that a very small amount of dark chocolate, even less than one ounce, is enough for one day, not setting off a craving for more and more, the way milk chocolate can. Be sure to take the time to really enjoy the wonderful complexity of high quality chocolate. Like professional chocolate tasters, learn to assess and enjoy the appearance, smell, taste, and texture of each piece. If you do, you will be much less apt to eat too much chocolate.

Exactly when in your day you choose to enjoy chocolate is up to you, but I (and some others I know) prefer to eat chocolate in the morning or early to mid afternoon, vs. late in the day. The caffeine in chocolate - or perhaps some other ingredient - makes us jittery and keeps us awake if we eat it too late in the day. However, you might have an entirely different experience. In addition, chocolate can aggravate heartburn, so limit your consumption of it if you are prone to heartburn.

If you're still skeptical about this current chocolate mania, please read on.

Pretty impressive, I hope you'll agree.

Thus ends my paean to chocolate: theobroma cacao, or "food of the gods."