Chocolate is always the gift of choice this month, what with more than 58 million pounds being purchased on the days leading up to the 14th. And while there is always a cynic in the crowd—“poor man’s jewelry,” sniffed one miffed socialite when she was presented with chocolate-covered strawberries instead of chocolate-colored diamonds—for the other 99% of us, it’s a divine indulgence. Not that everyone needs a reason to eat chocolate, of course, but it’s always nice to know there are now valid health reasons that support this guilty pleasure. Indeed, thanks to ongoing research, it turns out that it’s good for us, too. I mean, we’re not exactly talking leafy greens, here, but no jilted lover has ever taken to her bed with a box of kale.
You see, it turns out that cocoa is not the forbidden fruit, after all. (Perhaps with the exception of a Little Debbie Fudge Brownie!) Fact is, it doesn’t give you pimples, and if you eat it judiciously, it won’t add another inch to pinch. Furthermore, the high flavonol content is said to help improve your blood flow, the magnesium strengthens bones and reduces PMS cramps, and the same antioxidants that can lift depression and chronic fatigue are also beneficial for preventing disease. Yes, yes! Research at Cambridge University found that people consuming the most chocolate had a 37% lower risk of heart disease and a 29% lower risk of stroke than those who consumed less chocolate. In addition, a study from Italy contends that there is a link between high chocolate consumption and more action in the bedroom. (It’s from Italy! What did you expect?)
But don’t just take my word for it!. Let’s bring on the real expert. In this case, that would be Dr. Eric Ding, a Harvard nutritionist and epidemiologist. “Cocoa research is at a tipping point,” says Dr. Ding, the lead researcher of a Journal of Nutrition meta-analysis on cocoa’s multiple benefits for cardiovascular and metabolic health that incorporated 24 papers with 1106 participants. “We continue to uncover wide-ranging benefits of cocoa flavanols for health and longevity, and it looks like this trend will continue.”
Dr. Ding contends that cocoa beans provide a series of neurotransmitter-regulating chemicals that act like antidepressants. “The beans are associated with feel-good chemicals,” he says, “that imitate positive psychotropic effects. Andamide and theobromine are found in organic cocoa beans. And phenylethylamine is the chemical responsible for increased energy and happiness when you are in love.”
Studies have shown that flavanols work to aid production of nitric oxide, which stimulates blood vessels to dilate. One analysis of 850 mainly healthy participants found that flavanol-rich chocolate and cocoa products had a small but statistically significant effect in lowering blood pressure in the short term. This finding was corroborated by Dr. Ding’s meta-analysis comprising 24 short-term studies. Processing, though, can lower flavonol content, so for best effect he recommends a traditional cocoa drink, something as simple as hot chocolate, made with “non-alkalized” beans. According to Dr. Ding, the benefits of cocoa flavanols are found between 400-500 mg.
Finally let’s get to chocolate’s even more important pluses – how it improves our cognitive function. Dr. Ding gave me a list of five ways:
1) Cocoa raises “good” HDL cholesterol, and people with higher HDL have lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and better neurocognitive function.
2) It lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol, and people with lower LDL may also have lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s and better neurocognitive function.
3) Cocoa improves blood flow (FMD, i.e., flow-mediated dilation), and people with better FMD have better neurocognitive function and lower odds of Alzheimer’s.
4) By improving insulin resistance, cocoa improves cognitive function and diabetes risk.
5) A study published in the September issue of Hypertension summarized in a single paper the benefits of cocoa for elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment, viz., improved cognitive function, insulin resistance, and also reduced hypertension.
Dr. Ding warns that the positive research result is not a blank check for gorging on chocolate bars, per se. The negative effect of all the sugar, fat and calories, he feels, can offset the benefits. The use of dry cocoa powder is a good alternative, as are cocoa flavonoid supplements, like CocoaWell, which contains a significant 450 mg of flavanoids. This beats the alternative of consuming the equivalent of 8 dark chocolate bars or 33 milk chocolate bars—loaded with the dreaded calories, fat and sugar.
My personal feeling, for what it’s worth, is that while it may be best to eat or drink minimally processed dark chocolate or cocoa powder, if you are depressed and need a quick fix, antioxidants be darned. For me, there’s nothing quite like milk chocolate. As far as I’m concerned, it’s nature’s tranquilizer. And since it’s made from cocoa beans, I am also eating my vegetables while I’m at it. (Well, technically it’s a seed. But really, who cares!)