Bitter is Better– The Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate

Most Americans today are on the lookout for practical and tasty superfoods they can easily incorporate into their busy lives.  So, what earns dark chocolate the prestigious title of SUPERfood?  The answer is simple.  A little dark chocolate  (minimum 70% cacao) daily can enhance your quality of life.   Make no mistake- chocolate isn’t just the new kid on the block in a long list of  growing superfoods.  Cacao is thought to have originated with the Olmec Indians as far back as 1500BC and began to gain popularity as a medicine and aphrodisiac in the 1570’s.  Today, scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of chocolate abound.  It appears that these far-reaching benefits can be attributed to chocolate’s rich supply of dietary flavanoids.  For many Americans who are increasingly short on time or money or are watching their sugar intake, dark chocolate is a relatively inexpensive functional food they can easily add into their hectic lives.  A functional food is defined as any food that has a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition.  To this end, dark chocolate certainly fits the bill.

eat-dark-chocolate

Studies of chocolate’s benefits on heart health are promising.  Research shows that the epicatechin found in plain dark chocolate displays potent antioxidant properties, which work directly to protect heart tissue from damage.  Additionally, antioxidants play an important role in protecting us from disease while living in an increasingly toxic world.  Cocoa also possesses strong antithrombotic potential, which prevents blood platelets from “sticking” together and forming dangerous clots.

Dark chocolate and flavanol rich cocoa products may also prove valuable in those with high blood pressure.  A placebo-controlled study recently revealed that dark chocolate is superior to placebo in decreasing systolic blood pressure or diastolic pre-hypertension.

It’s true that cocoa is rich in many of the bioactive compounds that can also be found in green tea, soy and wine.  However, there is one ingredient that makes cocoa a standout amongst its superfood peers—its high content of procyanidins.  Procyanidins have been shown to have anti-cancer potential.  Studies reveal that they have the ability to inhibit breast cancer cell proliferation, stimulate antioxidant activation in the gastrointestinal tract, promote cell apoptosis (programmed cell death) and healthy tissue regeneration, and regulate hormone metabolism.  This makes chocolate of interest to both existing cancer patients and for anyone looking to prevent cancer.  Cocoa’s antioxidant properties also show promise in the area of neurodegenerative diseases.  Cocoa’s flavanols have been shown in studies to have a neuroprotective action by reducing harmful free radicals and MAP kinase activation, the latter of which regulates cell proliferation, gene expression, differentiation, mitosis, cell survival, and apoptosis – among many other essential functions.  This can potentially prove useful in Alzheimer’s prevention, treatment of Parkinson’s patients and many other neurological conditions.

Athletes who are exposed to a greater degree of oxidative stress due to constant inflammation and tissue regeneration can also benefit from cocoa’s antioxidant properties.  In a 2005 study, twenty 18-20 year old healthy male soccer players were administered 168mg of cocoa flavanols  from milk chocolate or about 5mg of cocoa from dark chocolate.  Results revealed a significant decrease in diastolic and mean blood pressure , decrease in LDL-cholesterol and an increase in Vitamin E levels.  If you’re worried that the fat in chocolate may raise your cholesterol… not to worry! The stearic acid contained in cocoa butter is one type of saturated fat that does not raise your cholesterol.  With all the positive research on cocoa’s wide-ranging benefits, further studies with high quality data are now required to provide valid estimates of the catechin and procyanidin intake necessary for various conditions.

Since chocolate is eaten as a food, rather than in pill or supplement form, an important factor needs to be addressed when discussing chocolate for medicinal applications is bioavailability.    How is the absorbability of cocoa’s active ingredients affected when eaten in combination with other foods?  For example, a recent Italian study showed that our ability to absorb antioxidants from chocolate are altered when eaten in combination with dairy foods.  In a crossover experimental design on different days, twelve healthy volunteers were given either 100g of dark chocolate alone, 100 g dark chocolate with 200 ml full-fat milk, or 200 g milk chocolate.  Plasma antioxidant levels were then tested one hour after consumption.  Dark chocolate alone was shown to significantly increase plasma antioxidant levels for up to 4 hours after intake, while the dark chocolate with milk and the milk chocolate studies showed no significant increase in plasma antioxidant levels.  It is thought that dairy proteins bind with the flavanoids in chocolate, inhibiting the antioxidant activity of chocolate and the absorption of epicatechin into the bloodstream.  It is possible that higher doses of cocoa when taken with milk may have the same effect as smaller doses of pure non-dairy cocoa, as seen in the soccer players study mentioned earlier.  Since it would be impossible to research the effect of combining chocolate with all other foods, it might be best not to wait for the studies to come out.  Instead, just begin to indulge daily in a couple of ounces of non-dairy chocolate (70% or more cacao) on an empty stomach to benefit from its full array of benefits.  For anyone who’s wondering, an empty stomach means 2 hours after a meal or one hour before.  Also, be sure to look for a chocolate bar that’s made with cocoa that has NOT been processed with alkali.  Alkali strips cocoa of its naturally bitter taste, making it more appealing to Americans’ sweet tooths.  However, it is precisely this bitter flavor that contains chocolate’s health-promoting ingredients.  It can be fun to take your chocolate in liquid form sometimes!  Just a teaspoon of Navitas or other organic raw/ unprocessed cacao, with a touch of your favorite natural sweetener and non dairy milk taken hot or cold can be a delicious treat!  Try adding spices like cinnamon and nutmeg for a Mexican hot cocoa, or add a dash of orange extract for a decidedly Italian flavor profile.  I prefer to use a natural sweetener like Xylitol because it tastes similar to sugar, does not raise blood sugar levels and is a natural prebiotic and works to prevent cavities.  Blending your cocoa with fruit is also a great way to go for an antioxidant packed breakfast or snack.  Frozen banana chunks are a must for smoothies made without dairy as they impart a rich creaminess and natural sweetness to counteract the bitter flavor of unsweetened cacao.

The benefits of antioxidants cannot be underestimated and are far-reaching.  With the potential to prevent heart disease, lower high blood pressure, and provide protection from an array of conditions resulting from oxidative stress, a small amount of dark chocolate is one superfood everyone should add to their diet today!

 

 

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