That delectable and oh so sweet temptation called chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, just may rank higher up on the scale of goodness right along with fruits and vegetables than what most people may think. The positive effect that dark chocolate has on overall health, certain diseases or ailments in many ways supports what the ancients knew so long ago, that chocolate has medicinal importance. Driven by promising results of different studies, utilizing modern technology, researchers are able to better understand just what makes chocolate good for you, a sweet surprise known as flavanols. Flavanols are powerful antioxidants, which are heavily concentrated in dark chocolate and cocoa, the same compounds nature provides in fruits and vegetables.
Cacao Tree Fruit
Few really think about what the foundation of chocolate is, preferring to merely indulge in the sweet delight. The cacao pod is a rather large berry that grows on the cacao tree that is primarily cultivated in tropical, wet, humid climates. The pod, which is actually the tree fruit, typically contains many cacao beans. The beans are harvested, and then put through a fermentation process. The fermentation process helps to reduce the natural bitter taste, and once dried, they are washed, unacceptable beans purged, they are then graded, and inspected prior to shipping for processing. The beans that make it through the initial processing are then roasted and shelled to draw out and capture the nib, which is the cacao kernel. The cacao kernel, or nib, is ground with very big heated rollers in high-speed mills. Nearly 53% of the nibs are cocoa butter, which is the natural fat of cocoa beans. This process converts the cacao kernels into a dark-brown, thick, pasty substance, known as chocolate liquor, and it is this liquor that is the foundation for all chocolate delights and cocoa products.
The chocolate liquor combined with various amounts of sugar or other sweeteners, pure or artificial vanilla or other flavorings, cocoa butter, whole milk or other milk products, or any other desired or creative product or ingredient will produce several varieties with different degrees of flavors and textures of that tasty treat coveted and enjoyed by so many.
It is well-known that flavonoids offer many health benefits, and in particular, flavonols, which are a special or distinct set of flavonoids, that are found in chocolate, and it is the same powerful antioxidants that researchers have seen in red wine and green tea. It is this aspect of chocolate that has caused science to take a closer look with further research and studies. What is known is that chocolate has several hundred natural chemical compounds, some which fall in the category of elevating the mood, and is a natural source of a very mild stimulant, called theobromine. Though there may be a feel good factor, theobromine does not affect the central nervous system, and studies have shown that it has been effective in reducing coughs. Research has also shown that dark chocolate has heart healthy benefits, keeps blood vessels healthy, and plays a significant role in reducing the bad cholesterol (LDL) by as much as ten percent. The flavonols in dark chocolate and cocoa helps to produce nitric oxide, which has been shown to help the arteries relax and maintain flexibility, allows the blood to flow, and therefore helps to reduce high blood pressure. The serotonin in dark chocolate also is up-lifting and can be beneficial as an anti-depressant. Under a controlled study, researchers saw lower blood sugar levels and the restoration of normal cell function.
Unknown to so many who enjoy an occasional chocolate treat is the fact that since dark chocolate and cocoa are plant-based, the beguiling sweet treat contains several essential minerals that are fundamental for overall good health, such as magnesium, copper, and potassium, and calcium. A small chocolate bar can provide as much as 10 to 12 percent of magnesium, the deficiency of which can lead to cardiovascular disease, as well as hypertension. Copper is very necessary for the proper function of the heart, it helps with the absorption of iron, and plays an important role as one of the significant elements of the enzymes that make collagen, which supports and sustains the skin. Dark chocolate can give you, on the average, ten percent of that much-needed mineral. Studies have shown that a diet weak in potassium, a key element that affects blood pressure, can put you at risk for stroke, and research has also shown that chocolate and cocoa is a natural source of this very essential mineral. For those that prefer their chocolate a little bit sweeter, milk chocolate can give you up to eight percent of calcium, a much-needed mineral for bones and teeth.
With all the good news out there about chocolate, that does not mean you should suddenly start eating chocolate by the pound, or even start indulging if it is not part of your regular diet. As with most things, moderation is the key, and always consult a health care professional before introducing anything new or different to your diet, as each individuals situation is uniquely their own.
Whether you indulge in bittersweet, semi-sweet, dark, milk, white, unsweetened, cocoa powder, or the special delightful treat called truffles, or any combination of chocolate, there is much to be said about the powerhouse of antioxidants that naturally occur in chocolate. What is known about cocoa and chocolate warrants further study, and emerging science and research thus far seems to support the findings of the special role that chocolate can play in overall health.