The media has done a pretty good job making sure EVERYONE knows that chocolate might be good for you. It’s hard to find a women’s magazine that hasn’t promoted this message, particularly this time of year when Valentine’s Day sends chocolate sales through the roof. Of course, we all want chocolate to be good for us, right? But is it really believable that chocolate, a member of the candy and other-naughty-foods category, is a health food?
Cocoa wasn’t really on the “good-for-you” radar until scientists stumbled upon an island off the coast of Panama. The Kuna Indians that inhabit the island consume an enormous amount of cocoa, often laden with salt. [Note to self: consider vacation on said island.] They also are one of the few cultures that have unusually low blood pressure and therefore, low rates of heart disease. But if a Kuna Indian moves to urban Panama City and stops eating the cocoa, blood pressure goes up. This tipped off the scientists that perhaps it’s the cocoa keeping them healthy and not their genetic makeup.
But it’s not that surprising that chocolate might have health properties. Chocolate contains cocoa, cocoa comes from plants, plants contain antioxidants, and antioxidants keep humans healthy. It’s been shown time and time again…people that eat more plants are less likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. And “plants” by definition, encompass a number of edible botanicals such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, tea, coffee and as the Incas used to call it, the “drink of the gods”, cocoa. So perhaps the media reports about how chocolate does everything from preventing heart disease to increasing libido to relieving depression are true?
In the actual research studies, regular “chocolate” is not being tested. Scientists are not dolling out last year’s Halloween candy to subjects (although too bad, because I still have a lot of it laying around…not the good stuff, but the stuff no one wants to eat but I keep for emergencies). In most cases, scientists are using cocoa extracts or specially-prepared chocolate that contains a high concentration of antioxidants, because it’s those antioxidants that are the healthy component of chocolate. In far fewer studies, commercially-available dark chocolate is used, but only the good stuff (>70% cocoa). Milk chocolate, and the blasphemous white chocolate (which is technically not chocolate), do not contain enough of the antioxidants to do much of anything….other than fix a craving…and make a delectable cookie.
So with that in mind, here’s what we currently know about chocolate and health:
As little as 3 small squares per day (~40 g) of dark chocolate (>70% cocao) can lower blood pressure in people who have high blood pressure, making it almost as effective as some blood pressure-lowering medications! As we age, blood pressure creeps up which means there are a lot of people out there that could benefit from a small daily dose of dark chocolate.
By lowering blood pressure and improving other aspects of the circulatory system, dark chocolate protects against heart disease-related events like heart attacks and strokes. Hence, “Death by Chocolate” is really an oxymoron.
Dark chocolate seems to help with blood sugar regulation, which means it may prevent type 2 diabetes. If you’ve picked up a newspaper in the last 2 years, you know that doctors are FREAKING OUT over the increase in diabetes. Foods that help prevent diabetes are a good thing.
Unfortunately, even dark chocolate has calories and the biggest reason why people get type 2 diabetes is being overweight or obese. As such, doctors are a little reluctant to be prescribing chocolate as a means to reduce diabetes.
Now about the purported aphrodisiac-like qualities of chocolate…there is no scientific evidence that any type of chocolate (milk, dark or otherwise) simulates libido in women or men (ha, as if men need it). However, milk chocolate does stimulate “pleasure centers” within the brain as well as promote the release of neurotransmitters often called, “happiness hormones”. This can vary person to person, making the chocolate-brain link all the more interesting.
What does this all mean? First off, it is clear that eating dark chocolate can be a healthy habit, so long as it’s not expanding your waist line. That said, most unprocessed plant-based foods confer similar health benefits, so if you’re not a dark chocolate lover, no need to force it down…some leafy greens or tea will do the trick.
Finally, if you’re really looking for an aphrodisiac, might I suggest going old school….a glass of Cabernet while your husband does the laundry. According to my research, it’s much more effective than any box of chocolates.