Valentine’s Day, a holiday marked by giving the one’s we love a box of chocolates as a sign of true love is just a few days away. While 75% of chocolate purchases are made by women all year long, during the days before Valentine’s Day, 75% of the chocolate purchases are made by men. In fact over $1 billion worth of chocolate is purchased for Valentine’s Day so it only seemed fit to discuss the health benefits of chocolate.
Heart Benefits from the Antioxidants in Dark Chocolate and Cocoa
Pure chocolate, made from cocoa beans, is rich in flavanol, an antioxidant that may help protect arteries from damage, maintain healthy blood flow and fend off heart disease.
Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid that are found in chocolate and cocoa. Not only are they rich in antioxidants, research indicates that flavanols have other positive influences on vascular health, such as lowering blood pressure and improving blood flow to the brain and heart, making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot, and lowering cholesterol.
Flavonoids are naturally-occurring compounds found in plant-based foods that offer certain health benefits. They are part of the polyphenol group (chemicals found in plants). There are more than 4,000 flavonoid compounds, which are found in a wide variety of foods and beverages, such as cranberries, apples, peanuts, chocolate, onions, tea and red wine. Flavanols are a type of flavonoid specifically found in cocoa and chocolate.
Eating Chocolate May Help Manage Emotional Stress
Many people claim that eating chocolate releases stress, and a new study appears to back that up. In the January, 2010 edition of the Journal of Proteome Research, the study showed that eating about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate a day for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones in highly stressed people.
The study was conducted by Sunil Kochhar and colleagues from the Nestlé Research Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Metanomics Health GmbH in Berlin, Germany. The study tracked the metabolic responses of those who consumed 40 g of dark chocolate daily for up to 14 days. Changes in participants’ metabolic responses due to chocolate consumption were analyzed, including their hormone levels, energy homeostasis (the balance between energy from the diet and energy used by activity) and gut microbial activity.
Researchers noted that the participants with higher anxiety levels showed a distinct metabolic profile showing a different energy homeostasis and hormonal metabolism after eating chocolate.
“Dark chocolate reduced the urinary excretion of the stress hormone cortisol and catecholamines, and partially normalized the stress-related differences in energy metabolism and gut microbial activities,” they reported.
The study provides evidence that a daily consumption of 40 grams [1.4 ounces] during a period of two weeks is sufficient to modify the metabolism of healthy human volunteers.
Dark Chocolate is the Key
Before you grab that chocolate candy bar, it’s important to understand that not all forms of chocolate contain high levels of flavanols.
Cocoa naturally has a very strong, pungent taste, which comes from the flavanols. When cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, ingredients such as sugar, milk and butter are added. The more chocolate is processed, the more flavanols are lost and the health benefits are reduced considerably. Therefore, to gain the health benefits of chocolate, it is best to choose chocolate that has the least amount of processing which is dark chocolate.
All the studies looking at the health benefits of chocolate have been based on dark chocolate. Dark chocolate and cocoa powders contain the highest levels of flavanol and other antioxidants, apparently responsible for the heart protective and stress-busting effects. In addition, the extra fat and sugar levels can contribute to unwanted weight gain.