The Nutrients in Chocolate
The composition of cocoa and chocolate has been extensively studied. The fat in chocolate, which is primarily derived from cocoa, is comprised of two saturated fatty acids, palmitic and stearic acids, and the monounsaturated oleic acid, in addition to a small amount (less than 5 percent) of other fatty acids.
Although consumption of saturated fatis thought to raise cholesterol, and thus raise the risk of heart disease, regular consumption of cocoa butter and chocolate has been repeatedly shown to not raise blood cholesterol.
Chocolate is an Herb!
It's true, chocolate is considered an herb. The Mayans of Central America worshipped the cacao plant (Theobroma cacao), used its beans as money, and brewed them into a medicinal drink called xocolatl, mixed with wine and fermented corn. The later Aztecs of Mexico added chile peppers to make an aphrodisiac.
The explorer Cortez knew a good thing when he saw it, and took the cacoa beans back to the Spanish court, where passions soon ran high over chocolate-and not just because (with sugar and without chiles) it was tasty. Doctors prescribed the new drink for everything from tuberculosis to intestinal parasites and sexual dysfunction, and it was said to cure hangovers, shrink tumors, and strengthen the heart. More recently (and reliably), scientists have learned that chocolate has twice as many antioxidants as red wine, and that it may relax blood vessels and reduce the risk of blood clotting.
Further research has shown that this is probably due to the relatively high concentrations of stearic acid, which studies have shown to have a cholesterol-neutral effect, and oleic acid, which is known to have mild cholesterol-reducing effects. In addition to the fat and simple sugars present in chocolate, the cocoa component in chocolate is rich in a number of essential minerals, including magnesium, copper, potassium and manganese. Indeed, chocolate is thought to be one of the largest single contributors of copper to the diet in the United States.
Phytochemicals in Chocolate
In addition to the well-known and essential macro and micronutrients present in chocolate, there are a number of phytochemicals in cocoa and chocolate that may have important health effects in humans.
Phytochemicals are naturally occurring chemical compounds present in plant foods such as cocoa, and they are attracting a great deal of interest in the nutrition and medical research community because of their potential health benefits beyond that of classical micronutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin D, etc. Over the years, cocoa has been recognized for its phytochemical content, especially the methyl xanthines caffeine and theobromine, and, more recently, the antioxidantflavonoids. Although chocolate is often thought to contain relatively large amounts of the stimulant caffeine, the actual amount is relatively low compared with that present in tea and coffee. A large number of other compounds are naturally present in cocoa and chocolate; however, none have yet been shown to influence human health and behavior.
Flavonoids in Chocolate
Of much greater interest in the context of health benefits is the rich flavonoid content of Raw Organic Cacao and the relatively rich flavonoid content of some chocolates and cocoa powders. Flavonoids are part of a large and diverse class of phytochemicals called polyphenols. Several thousand flavonoids exist in substantial amounts in common plant-based foods, such as tea, chocolate, cocoa, soybeans and wine.
Interestingly, several decades ago flavonoids were thought to be essential micronutrients and equivalent to vitamins. However, subsequent research failed to confirm this, and their status as essential nutrients was officially removed in 1950. Epidemiological research, which studies the association between diet and health, in the last decade has suggested that some flavonoids might protect against certain chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular disease. However, the totality of the evidence is not conclusive and the results of these studies can be justifiably criticized due to a lack of reliable food composition data defining the true contribution commonly consumed foods make to flavonoid intake.
In spite of the equivocal nature of this research, the appealing nature of it has sparked needed research to understand the mechanism by which flavonoids might be able to protect against heart disease, and these results have shown that at least some flavonoids do have the potential to promote a healthy cardiovascular system.
More Good News: Dark Chocolate
There is more good news for chocolate lovers. Scientists have found that eating dark chocolate appears to improve the function of important cells lining the wall of blood vessels for at least three hours. In a study, they found that eating dark chocolate seemed to make the blood vessels more flexible, which helps prevent the hardening of the arteries that leads to heart attacks.
Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids, which act as natural antioxidants -- chemicals that combat the damage oxygen does to the body. By improving the blood vessel flexibility in apparently healthy people, dark chocolate emerges as perhaps a power food, the scientists said (Information from a study done at Athens Medical School in Greece).
Dark chocolate is also rich on antioxidants. As such, dark chocolate may help prevent the accumulation of fat cells in the body, a precursor to heart disease and obesity, according to research from Taiwan published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.
2013: Ongoing research shows that eating dark chocolate exerts beneficial effects throughout the whole body. High quality chocolate delivers disease-zapping antioxidants, lowers blood pressure and protects your heart and liver, all in one fell crunch.
Cocoa Butter Tidbits
Raw Cocoa Butter is the edible vegetable fat from cocoa beans, extracted from the cocoa beans during the process of making chocolate and cocoa powder. Cocoa butter has only a mild chocolate flavor and aroma.
Cocoa butter is one of the ingredients used to make real chocolate, it is gives chocolate the ability to remain solid at room temperature, yet melt easily in the mouth.
Cocoa butter is one of the most stable fats known, containing natural antioxidants that prevent rancidity and give it a storage life of 2 to 5 years. It is used for its smooth texture in foods (including chocolate) and in cosmetics and soaps.
Chocolate and Blood Pressure
Eating only 30 calories a day of dark -- but not white -- chocolate for 18 weeks lowered blood pressure by two or three points in a study of 44 middle-aged and older adults with either high blood pressure or prehypertension. That is equal to just 1-1/2 Special Dark Hershey's Kisses (though the German researchers did not use Hershey's). The dark-chocolate eaters had higher blood levels of S-nitrosoglutathione, which relaxes blood vessels. That could explain how dark chocolate lowers blood pressure!
Just remember -- you don't want to use these results as an excuse to over-indulge in chocolate! The people in this study ate too little chocolate to harm their weight. An overenthusiastic chocolate eater could get carried away, add pounds and have the opposite effect because excess poundage contributes to high blood pressure! So you probably don't want to "go there".
Note: The same results do not apply to white or milk chocolate or chocolate coatings, cake or ice cream. Actually, none of them were tested so I guess that means the jury is still out...