Chocolate: Should I or Shouldn’t I?

By Dieter Hogen with the nutritional staff of Take The Magic Step®
© Betty Shepherd
© Betty Shepherd

Not long ago chocolate was regarded by most people as a delicious treat to be enjoyed on special occasions such as holidays and birthdays. But now nutritionist have discovered that especially dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants and good fats that benefit our cardiovascular system and can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Not only are we enjoying a tasty treat—we are helping our bodies stay healthy.

Cacao, the basis of chocolate, in its natural state is relatively bitter, but it has been revered throughout history. Discovered over 3,000 years ago(1), the cacao tree is native to South America’s rain forest. Its fruits, the so-called pods, contain the beans from which cocoa and eventually chocolate is made.

The History and Mood Elevating Benefits of Chocolate

Cacao was highly regarded more than 1,500 years ago by the Mayan people, and later by the Aztecs. Drawings and carvings of cacao trees and pods on the walls of their temples dating back to the 4th century have been discovered by archaeologists. The Maya called it “food for the gods” and they fermented, roasted, and ground the beans and made a rather bitter, spicy drink from it by mixing the produced cacao paste with water and spices such as chili peppers.

All that probably inspired Carolus Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné, to give the cacao tree its biological name Theobroma cacao. The two Greek words Theo and broma translate to “food of the gods(2).”

Why did the ancient civilizations find cacao so interesting given its inherently bitter taste? Maybe it was due to the way it made them feel. Modern science has attempted to explain whether any of the active ingredients found in cacao can elevate mood(3,4). The findings are inconclusive. Although there are several chemicals in cacao that can elevate mood, none of them exists in quantities that should have a significant impact.

The empirical evidence is that ancient civilizations, such as the Aztecs, went to great lengths to mask the actual taste of cacao, like mixing it with chilies. It was not until the 16th century that sugar was added to cacao. Then, during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the price of cacao became relatively affordable for the masses, and chocolate began to appear in its current form. This led to a meteoric rise in chocolate consumption, with some countries now having a per-capita consumption of as high as 22 pounds a year.

Chocolaty Nutrition Facts

Scientists discovered that cacao contains polyphenols(5), the type of antioxidants found in grape juice, red wine, and green tea. The flavonoids—a group of plant compounds belonging to the polyphenols—identified in chocolate can reduce the stickiness of platelets, thereby thinning the blood and helping to prevent blood clots. Flavonoids can be considered heart-protecting agents. Platelets are tiny plate-shaped blood cells that help to stop bleeding from an injury by rushing to the site, binding together and this way stopping the blood flow. According to experts from the Cleveland Clinic(6,7), the antioxidants in chocolate may also reduce blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels by elevating HDL, also known as the “good” cholesterol.

The fat in cacao butter is stearic acid and, to some degree, oleic acid(8).They do not elevate bad cholesterol (LDL) and may even prevent it from getting oxidized. Oleic acid, the same type of fatty acid found in olive oil, may raise good cholesterol (HDL).

Cocoa (a product of cacao) also contains stimulants like caffeine, theobromine, and phenethylamine—in many ways activating agents. This is a good reason for parents to consider not giving children chocolate before nap or bedtime to avoid having a problem getting them to sleep. Milk chocolate is much higher in sugar, but contains significantly fewer stimulants and has a less damaging effect on teeth than candy.

So, should I or shouldn’t I? While we certainly cannot recommend chocolate as a dietary necessity, we can say that if falls into the category of “a little of something you really like deserves a place and is OK to have on occasion.” And it even comes with a variety of health benefits.

How to Eat Chocolate for Greatest Enjoyment

When you eat chocolate, enjoy small pieces at a time, and let them melt on your tongue. (Chocolate’s melting point is just under body temperature, so it should melt from contact with your tongue alone.) That is the best way to enjoy chocolate. Go for the varieties that do not contain much sugar and are highest in antioxidants. Look for the ones whose labels tell you that they contain at least 65% cocoa—even better, 70 to 90%—because those have more antioxidants and less sugar. There are even many good organic chocolates on the market. Our favorites are dark chocolate with ginger or roasted almonds.

Chocolate Suggestions

© Betty Shepherd
© Betty Shepherd

Try a cup of hot milk or soymilk with a spoonful of high-quality cocoa in the morning or as a snack during the day. It also makes a healthy cold drink. Just make a few cups of it and store in the refrigerator.

If you need a boost in the afternoon, you might want to consider a cup of green tea and 1-1½ ounces of dark chocolate instead of drinking coffee again. Rather than eating just chocolate, you could also have a couple of strawberries dipped in dark chocolate with your tea. This is a delicious treat that combines the health benefits of green tea, berries, and dark chocolate.

Storage and Shopping Tips

Once in a while, you might see a light white or gray coating on your chocolate. That can have two causes: First, exposure to too-high temperatures. Under those conditions, the cacao butter compounds separate and crystallize on the surface. The good news is, the change does not affect the taste. Second, too much exposure to moisture. Sugar gets drawn to the surface and crystallizes, which does affect the taste and texture. Store your treat away from sunlight in a dry, cool place, a little under room temperature, but definitely not in the refrigerator.

When buying chocolate or cocoa, please make sure to check the label. Some are treated with alkali during a process called ‘Dutching’ to make the product less acidic, milder in flavor, and darker in color. This results in the loss of part of the antioxidants. You can identify these products easily as their labels will state “processed with alkali.” Please click here for more information.

Finally… have a little chocolate once in a while if it makes you feel good and happy. After all, smiles are healthy, too.

Your nutritional team of Take The Magic Step®

Reading Suggestions:
There are other foods that are great for your health—and your fitness. You may want to take a look at these articles.

  1. Nutrition: Nuts and Seeds
  2. Uta’s Summary for Your Marathon Preparation. Part III: Nutrition

References:

(1) Chocolate Museum Vienna: History. www.SchokoMuseum.at, retrieved February 2014.

(2) Cornell University Albert R. Mann Library: Online Exhibitions: Chocolate: Food of the Gods. www.Exhibits.MannLib.Cornell.edu, retrieved February 2014.

(3) University of Bristol Press Releases: Nice but naughty—our addiction to chocolate. www.Bris.AC.uk, September 2007.

(4) The Sweet Lure of Chocolate: “Feel Good” Food. www.Exploratorium.edu, retrieved February 2014.

(5) Corti R, Flammer AJ, Hollenberg NK, and Lüscher TF: Contemporary Reviews in Cardiovascular Medicine: Cocoa and Cardiovascular Health. Circulation 2009;119:1433-1441.

(6) Cleveland Clinic Wellness: Eating Chocolate Can Be Healthy. www.ClevelandClinicWellness.com, retrieved December 2015.

(7) Cleveland Clinic: Heart Health Benefits of Chocolate. www.ClevelandClinic.com, January 2012.

(8) Ding EL, Hutfless SM, Ding X, and Girotra S: Chocolate and Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review. Nutrition and Metabolism 2006;3:2.

Updated April 4, 2017
Updated December 21, 2015
Updated December 12, 2014
Posted December 2007