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Chocolate is the number one food craved by women across North America. And it's second
only to pizza among men. In fact, chcolate is one of the most popular foods in the entire
world, long enjoyed for its wonderful taste. The cocoa butter in chocolate is unique because
it melts at mouth temperature, slowly releasing rich chocolate flavor during eating. All that,
and could this cherished treat be healthy too?
It's no secret that fruits and vegetables convey health benefits — we've been told
that for years. But did you know that chocolate offers health benefits as well? More
specifically heart-health benefits? One of the chief reasons is something called "flavonoids."
Flavonoids have become quite a hot topic in the media and in scientific journals, but what
Flavonoids are naturally-occurring compounds found in plant-based foods recognized as exuding
certain health benefits.
Flavonoids are found in a wide array of foods and beverages, such as cranberries, apples, peanuts,
onions, tea and red wine. There are more than 4,000 flavonoid compounds; flavonoids are
a subgroup of a large class called polyphenols.
Flavonoids provide important protective benefits to plants, such as in repairing damage and shielding
from environmental toxins. When we consume plant-based foods rich in flavonoids, it appears that we
also benefit from this "antioxidant" power. Antioxidants are believed to help the body's cells
resist damage caused by free radicals, formed by normal bodily processes such as breathing or
environmental contaminants like cigarette smoke. When the body lacks adequate levels of
antioxidants, free radical damage ensues, leading to increases in LDL-cholesterol oxidation
and plaque formation on arterial walls.
In addition to their antioxidant capabilities, flavonoids also:
- Are thought to help reduce blood platelet activation
- May affect the relaxation capabilities of blood vessels
- May positively affect the balance of certain hormone-like compounds called eicosanoids, which
are thought to play a role in cardiovascular health.
Other healthy benefits of eating chocolate:
Chocolate has exceptional nutritional qualities, being a high energy food in a small volume.
It not only contains great vegetable proteins, but also has large quantities of potassium and
magnesium, some calcium, and vitamins A1, B1, B2, D, and E.
Chocolate contains a number of other substances in small, but effective, quantities:
But isn't chocolate high in caffeine?
Theobromine, which stimulates the central nervous system, facilitates muscular exertion, acts
as a diuretic and appetite stimulant.
Phenylethylamine, which is the chemical released in our bodies when we fall in love and is chemically
similar to amphetamines, therefore acting as a psycho-stimulant.
Tryptophan, an essential amino acid that increases the production of serotonin, an anti-depressant
and natural stress-reducer. In fact, a decrease in serotonin levels in the brain may trigger
cravings for starches, sweet foods and chocolate.
Endorphins, natural opiates that are released by the brain in increased amounts when eating
chocolate, thereby elevating one's mood and reducing pain.
Catechins, which are antioxidants that may help protect the body against cardiovascular disease
and possibly cancer, are found in substantially higher quantities in chocolate than in black tea (yet less than in green or white tea).
Anandamide, which mimics the effects of marijuana by acting on the same brain receptors, resulting
in a very mild "high." Plus, chocolate has two ingredients that inhibit the natural breakdown of
anandamide and hence may prolong the feeling of well-being.
Contrary to what some believe, chocolate is not high in caffeine. In fact, the amount of
caffeine in a typical 1.4 ounce chocolate bar is about equivalent of that found in a cup
of decaffeinated coffee.
Forms of Chocolate
The cocoa tree grows in tropical rainforests, particularly in the Ivory Coast of Africa,
Brazil, Venezuela, and Ghana. The cocoa fruits (or pods) are found on the trunk and older
branches, and each pod contains 20 to 50 seeds or beans. When the fruits are harvested,
the beans are scooped out and fermented in wood crates for 3 to 9 days. The beans are then
dried, roasted and ground to release the fat and aromatic substances, and the cocoa is
refined. About 400 cocoa beans are needed to produce one pound of chocolate.
Bitter or Dark chocolate is made by mixing cocoa paste with small amounts of sugar or other
Milk Chocolate is a mixture of cocoa paste, cocoa butter, sugar (or sugar substitute), and
substantial quantities of powdered milk.
White Chocolate is is obtained by mixing cocoa butter, sugar (or sugar substitute), and milk.
Before you start thinking of chocolate candy as your newest food staple, let?s look at what
forms of chocolate would be ideal over others:
Copyright © February 2006 Low Carb Luxury
When cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to
reduce its naturally pungent taste. Flavonoids (polyphenols) provide this pungent taste. The
more chocolate is processed (such as fermentation, alkalizing, roasting), the more flavonoids
To date, dark chocolate appears to retain the highest level of flavonoids. So your best bet is
to choose dark chocolate over milk chocolate. And dark chocolate contains less sweetener, so
whether you're consuming real sugar (that we definitely want to keep low), or sugar substitutes
(which you'll want to keep to a minimum as well — especially if they're sugar alcohols), dark
chocolate is a better bet.
Some chocolate manufacturers are studying ways to retain the highest level of flavonoids while
still providing acceptable taste, so we may soon see good news in this arena.
What about all of the fat in chocolate?
You may be surprised to find out that cocoa butter, the fat in chocolate, isn't bad news. Cocoa
butter, is comprised of equal amounts of oleic acid (the monounsaturated fat found in olive oil),
stearic, and palmitic acids.
Research indicates that stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, neither
raising nor lowering LDL-cholesterol levels.
However, this great news does not give us a license to consume as much dark chocolate as we?d like.
First, be cautious as to the type of dark chocolate you choose: chewy caramel-marshmallow-nut-covered
dark chocolate is by no means a healthy food option. What wreaks havoc on most chocolate
products is the additional sugar and calories added from other ingredients.
Second, there is currently no established serving of chocolate to reap the touted cardiovascular
benefits. However, what we do know is you no longer need to feel guilty if you enjoy a small
piece of dark chocolate once in awhile.
More research in this area is needed to determine just how much chocolate we chocolate-lovers
can eat in order to acquire cardioprotective benefits. Until that time, enjoy chocolate in
moderate portions a few times per week, keeping track of the carbohydrate counts and amounts of
sugar alcohols, if any, that are included. Don?t forget to eat other flavonoid-rich foods like
red wine, tea, onions, and cranberries.
Title photo Copyright © 2006 Neil Beaty and Low Carb Luxury