Chocolate is not just a flavor; it is a pleasure. From the ancient wisdom of indigenous peoples to modern laboratory research, the seemingly sinful characteristics of the cocoa bean are finding redemption.
Chocolate enjoys a rich history. People have indulged in its intoxicating pleasures for more than 1,500 years. The ancient Olmec, Mayan and Aztec Indians who gave cacao its name worshiped it as "food of the gods," the literal meaning of its Latin name, Theobroma cacao. Only priests, high-ranking officers and warriors in these cultures were allowed to consume it. By the time the Spaniards discovered the New World, cocoa beans were so valuable they were used as money for trade throughout Mesoamerica. Chocolate was introduced to Europe by the mid-1500s. In the next century it spread throughout western Europe and across the seas, leading to cocoa plantations in the Caribbean, Philippines and, eventually, western Africa.
It's no surprise that chocolate found its way around the world. "All people love chocolate," says chocolateer Doron Katz of Goldstar Chocolate. "It's common the world over—all faiths, all religions, all colors. Everybody loves chocolate."
The Provacative Powers of Chocolate
Perhaps we crave chocolate because intuitively we know it's for our own good. In identifying chocolate's health benefits, modern medicine has merely rediscovered what indigenous people have known for hundreds of years. In both the New World and the Old World, chocolate was traditionally a source of healing as well as pleasure. According to Patricia Barriga, an archivist in Mexico City who has studied the medicinal uses of chocolate in ancient texts, Aztecs drank chocolate for indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, weakness, heart problems, cough and gout. Mayans used a mixture of chocolate, peppers, honey and tobacco to cure a variety of illnesses, including seizures, fever and skin eruptions. And chocolate is still used by traditional healers in Oaxaca, Mexico, for conditions ranging from bronchitis to scorpion and bee stings.
Medieval Europeans used chocolate to treat dysentery, cough, intestinal problems and tuberculosis, as well as to induce weight gain, restore strength and promote health and longevity. Furthermore, chocolate was believed to "provoke lust," induce conception, enhance milk production and stabilize mental health due to both its stimulating and calming properties. In 1672, researcher and author William Hughes even recorded the use of chocolate to cure a condition that sounds like scurvy.
What is it about chocolate that makes it so exquisite? Most research has focused on chocolate's polyphenol content. Polyphenols are in a category of antioxidants that includes thousands of compounds from different plants. The largest dietary polyphenol group is the flavonoids, found in such trendy health foods as green tea and soy. Chocolate is very high in one type of flavonoid, the proanthocyanidins, the same property believed to give red wine its heart-health benefits. The latest findings on chocolate may have you heading for the candy aisle rather than the pharmacy.
Have a Heart Benefit
Giving that special person a gift of chocolate may not only be a way to their heart, but a way to keep the heart healthy. Here's why. The development of atherosclerosis, or clogging of the arteries, often results from increased stickiness or aggregation of the body's clotting cells, the platelets. The platelets roam the bloodstream, ready to clot together to stop bleeding. Excess platelet stickiness, however, is dangerous, contributing to damage of the blood vessel walls and forming the clots that initiate a heart attack or stroke. This is why many physicians advise their patients to take small amounts of aspirin, a clotting inhibitor. But aspirin can have undesirable side effects, including stomach bleeding and digestive upset.
However, proanthocyanidins from grapeseed extract have been found to reduce platelet aggregation without the side effects of aspirin. And now, chocolate proanthocyanidins have also been discovered to do the same. In one study, 10 people were served several beverages, including cocoa. The group that drank caffeinated beverages showed increased platelet aggregation. Yet everyone who drank cocoa, despite its slight caffeine content, had dramatically reduced platelet aggregation (Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2000, vol. 72).
It is believed that grapeseed extract also works to prevent atherosclerosis by activating a blood vessel relaxant called nitric oxide. Research shows cocoa proanthocyanidins could potentially have this same effect (Journal of Nutrition, 2000, vol. 130).
No One is Immune to Chocolate
Atherosclerosis can also result from chronic inflammation caused by an overactivated immune system. This inflammation can also cause many other chronic diseases, including arthritis, eczema, cancer and carpal tunnel syndrome. Here, too, chocolate comes to the rescue.
When the white blood cells called T-cells are stimulated by specific chemicals, they rush to produce potent immune factors called cytokines. The body regulates this response to ensure immune system reaction but not overreaction, which could cause allergy and tumor growth. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, studied the effect of different cocoa proanthocyanidins on production of cytokines. The cocoa proanthocyanidins prevented cytokines from being formed by blocking gene transcription and protein synthesis.
Does this mean chocolate may help prevent the overstimulation that causes inflammation and autoimmune conditions? According to Tin Mao, a member of the research team, "It's showing some promising results in potential health benefits." However, Mao cautions, the studies were conducted in a test tube, not with people. Results from human studies are expected next year.
Chocolate proanthocyanidins are also antioxidants, with dark chocolate containing twice as many as milk chocolate. After eating chocolate, the antioxidant capacity of the blood increases for at least six hours. While proanthocyanidins are not strong antioxidants, they enhance the efficacy of vitamins C and E and beta-carotene, making these powerful antioxidants more effective. This could explain why chocolate was effective in treating scurvy, which is caused by a vitamin C deficiency. Furthermore, chocolate proanthocyanidins have been found to keep LDL (bad) cholesterol from being oxidized—another contributor of atherosclerosis—even in the presence of strong oxidants.
Chocolate also contains magnesium, a mineral important in preventing hypertension and heart disease. The National Health and Nutrition Examination survey shows many adults in the United States are at risk for magnesium deficiency. While no human research has been conducted, one animal study found that supplementing the diet with chocolate may be effective in correcting a magnesium deficiency.
Before you load up on candy bars, be aware that most studies on the health benefits of chocolate have been funded by the chocolate industry. The research is still preliminary, so it is too early to consider chocolate redeemed from a sinful treat to a virtuous necessity. And, despite chocolate's intoxicating qualities, its health benefits can only be reaped if consumed in medicinal quantities.
Marilyn Sterling, MS, MPH, is a registered dietitian, clinical nutritionist, consultant and lecturer living in Trinidad, Calif.
Photography by: Joe Hancock