Today we are back with one of the most consumed foods, chocolate. Very few dislike it, it seduces us at any moment when we suddenly see a chocolate dessert. During summer, who can reject a chocolate ice-cream? The Mayas took it as health and youth elixir, and we have heard it multiple times, it is healthy. In deed, it is said that it helps with depression, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, it is even used as an aphrodisiac. Where do all these magic effects come from? are they true? let´s figure it out!
Chocolate main ingredient is cocoa or cacao, a fruit obtained from the cacao tree. Cocoa pod contains little amounts of phenethylamine, a naturally occurring compound known as “the love drug”. During euphoria, phenethylamine is released raising cardiac rhythm and blood pressure. However, there is no evidence that phenethylamine present in food raises phenethylamine brain levels, so chocolate’s aphrodisiac properties have not been clarified yet. Theobromine is another natural compound present in cocoa which is responsible for the stimulating activity. Cocoa and other foods coming from plants like tea, wine fruits and veggies are rich in natural antioxidants such as polyphenols (flavonoids or stilbenes like resveratrol) minerals (mainly, phosphorous and magnesium) and vitamins.
Cocoa even doubles the quantity of flavonoids and procianidins (flavonoids oligomers) present in black tea and other antioxidant-rich foods.
All these make cocoa a complete nutraceutical that we can add to our diet in order to improve our health. A recent study has summarized cardiovascular advantages of eating cocoa, including:
- Antioxidant, it inhibits LDL oxidation the so known “bad” cholesterol, what contributes to reduce the ateroma plaque.
- Arterial pressure regulation, and it decreases hypertension.
- Improves endotelium dysfunction.
- Antiaggregation, it inhibits platelet function.
Some sudies relate cocoas blood flow improvement to benefits in other organs. For example, is a countries Nobel laureates number related to its chocolate consumption? However, cocoa’s nutritional power is considerably diminished when its processed to white chocolate, milk chocolate, o soluble chocolate. Mainly, sugar and saturated fat is added in the production process, additives that increase addiction and sweetness and concomitantly dilute cocoas healthy properties. The following table compares nutritional content of cocoa compared to 4 variants of processed chocolate. Cocoa contains all nutrients and minerals unmodified, whereas soluble chocolate has 25 times its amount of added sugar, saturated fat level is much higher and vitamins and minerals are at much lower concentrations per 100 gr. of product. That’s the reason we relate chocolate with obesity and with an unhealthy lifestyle, its not pure chocolate what we are eating, it is sugar and processed fat that we find in chocolate desserts, cookies, creams or factory-baked goods.
Considering natural and cocoa’s processed derivatives composition, we can conclude that black chocolate, with over 65% cocoa content, adds polyphenols and other natural compounds to our diet, what protects our arteries and improves our health. On the other hand, processed cocoa derivatives have been industrially processed and, during fat hydrogenation, unhealthy unsaturated fats are produced, changing chocolate from a positive to a negative contribution to our healthy diet.
Obviously, as usual, some studies say yes, some studies say no. Several studies deny cocoas health benefits, like reducing inflammation (also here) or oxidation, this paper and this paper. However, the EFSA has approved its beneficial effects, at least in maintaining the good function of vessel´s endothelium. As this article in The Lancet illustrates, chocolate? yes, but with at least 65% of chocolate what will grant a high amount of beneficial naturally occurring chemical compounds 😉