Science of Food column: Chocolate is rich in antioxidants, magnesium, iron and fiber
There is something about chocolate that most of us cannot resist. Derived from the cocoa tree, theobroma cacao, chocolate has been enjoyed by humans since 1600 B.C. In fact, the name itself — theobroma — means “food of the gods” (in Greek “theo” is god and “broma” is food). The part we eat comes from the beans found inside the fruit of the tree, which look like little fleshy pods. This raw and unprocessed cocoa bean is the purest form of chocolate that we can consume, where all forms of chocolate are initially derived.
All plant-based foods, including our beloved chocolate, have a diverse range of biologically active phenolic compounds, and these are the antioxidants we all hear about.
Antioxidants are fundamentally an abundant source of electrons that benefit human health by countering ongoing oxidation inside the body, resulting in improved cardiovascular function, reduced inflammation and lower rates of cancer. In addition to this powerful antioxidant activity, cocoa is also especially rich in magnesium, iron and fiber and is naturally sugar-free, making it quite a nutritious and delectable treat.
Chocolate’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular effects have been supported by evidence collected through various laboratory tests and clinical trials. What we have learned from these tests is that the cocoa bean contains things with fancy names such as catechins and procyanidins, which are also found in berries, green tea and red wine, and these goodies activate specific healing pathways in the body.
For example, increased production of nitric oxide in the body is observed upon consumption of chocolate. This is important because in the body, this ultimately leads to improved cardiovascular health, as the nitric oxide pathway is important in maintaining the integrity of all the blood vessels. It also relaxes the blood vessels, which can help lower blood pressure. While you are enjoying the delicious cocoa bean, it will be helping to improve circulation by disrupting platelets that aggregate and adhere to the blood vessel walls, which can reduce blockages that lead to heart attack and stroke.
Chocolate contains small amounts of caffeine, although another similar compound called theobromine is present in more significant amounts. Having a similar chemical structure to caffeine, theobromine also has a stimulatory effect in the central nervous system, although its effects are weaker than caffeine. It is a known vasodilator, or substance that widens the blood vessels, and numerous studies have characterized the biological effects of this particular constituent of chocolate that acts to counter atherosclerosis, hypertension and other vascular issues in humans.
In chocolate, it is present in small enough amounts to provide this beneficial effect, but in dogs, theobromine is metabolized much more slowly. This can lead to a buildup of theobromine in the pooch, causing potential toxicity, and is the main reason why dogs should not eat chocolate.
WHAT TYPE TO EAT
Cocoa beans can be processed in a number of ways. All beans undergo an initial fermentation followed by a gentle roasting and dehusking process to unmask the bountiful bean. Grind up this bean to get the raw cacao powder. Try cacao instead of the more familiar cocoa powder for use in baking, smoothies or classic hot chocolate for the kiddos.
Cacao powder is made by removing much of the natural cocoa butter and further processing with an alkali substance such as baking soda for Dutch cocoa. Although some of the nutrients and good fats are lost during this process, it does still retain lots of antioxidants. However, read your labels carefully and look for basic unsweetened powder, as some cocoa powders contain extra sugar or additives that will decrease its nutritional value. Or try cacao nibs instead of chocolate chips. These nibs are just raw pieces of the cacao bean, so they are not too sweet and have a crunchier texture.
Milk and Dark
When buying chocolate bars, choose dark chocolate with the highest percent cocoa or cacao that your taste buds allow. Dark chocolate is nutritionally superior to milk chocolate because chocolate consumed with milk results in reduced antioxidant power and is usually loaded with sugar. Antioxidant molecules bind to specific proteins in milk that lower the absorption and thus the concentration in the blood. It is not wrong to eat milk chocolate once in a while, just know that excess sugar, milk and synthetic preservatives will outweigh any benefits of the plant-derived cacao beans.
Cacao also has the ability to curb appetite, yet another reason to have some after a meal to help turn off hunger signals and encourage satiation. So for the love of chocolate, and for your heart, body and soul, enjoy chocolate — in moderation, of course — every day.
Lisa Julian, Ph.D., has a passion for organic chemistry, the “molecules of life,” and its application to food and health. She’s the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches Science and Nutrition at the University of Colorado Denver and Colorado Mountain College. She can be reached at 970-401-2071 and email@example.com.