Nancy's Nutrition Corner

"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food," Hippocrates.

Charming Chocolate

You might have heard the good news: the powers that be have decided that chocolate is good for us. Those of us who have a relationship with chocolate couldn't be more pleased. It turns out that humans have included chocolate in their diets for thousands of years, and not just for dessert. The Aztecs, Maya, and Olmecs knew of the healing properties of cacao, and consumed a drink made of cacao seeds.

Tea, Wine, and Chocolate
Chocolate and cocoa are derived from the seeds of the cacao bean. Like most fruits, the cacao seed is full of antioxidants. These healing properties are derived from cocoa flavanols, the plant-based nutrients in cocoa which have been intensely studied for their health benefits.

Chocolate contains the same flavonoids found in red wine and tea. Flavonoids are potent antioxidants and have been linked to numerous health benefits. Surprisingly, chocolate has these antioxidants in even higher concentrations. One bar of dark chocolate has twice the flavanol content of a glass of red wine and seven times the amount as green tea. Most of these benefits have to do with their Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC). The ORAC is a measure of the ability of foods to neutralize harmful free radicals. Free radicals are associated with many diseases such as Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, cataracts, cancer and more. Chocolate is a concentrated source of antioxidants—other fruits and even vegetables don't come close. Prunes are in second place behind chocolate at 5,770 ORAC units per gram, but dark chocolate has 13,120 ORAC units per gram!

Chocolate Taken to Heart
One of the most common diseases linked to free radicals is atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Atherosclerosis begins when free radicals damage the inner wall of arteries encouraging fats and cholesterol to stick - resulting in plaque growth. There is substantial evidence showing those who consume high amounts of foods rich in antioxidants decrease their risk of heart disease. New studies indicate that chocolate may benefit the heart in several ways: 1) High polyphenol cocoa decreases blood levels of bad cholesterol. 2) In vitro studies have shown cocoa inhibits blood clotting, an effect similar to a mild aspirin. 3) Chocolate help relax the inner surface of blood vessels, resulting in a decrease in blood pressure.

How Much is Too Much?
It is best to think about the antioxidant content as you look at the percentage on the label of a chocolate bar - essentially, the higher the percentage of cocoa the better. Dark chocolate has the highest amount of cocoa and less sugar. Currently, most sources say about 6.3 grams of dark chocolate (one square inch) per day is sufficient for a tasty antioxidant boost.

Just for Fun - Chocolate, Better than Sex
Chocolate contains the neurologically active compound Phenylethylamine (PEA). PEA is a molecular structure found in many stimulants and narcotics. This structure encourages the release of natural opiates in the brain resulting in feelings of ecstasy. PEA is also naturally occurring and is produced in the brain when people fall in love, and in fact, during orgasm the brain is drenched in PEA! Happy Holidays....

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Nancy Silva, ND is a licensed naturopath with a penchant for good food. Her monthly column discusses the nutritional aspects of some of the foods available through LocalHarvest. You can contact Nancy from her listing on our website.

Back to the December 2007 Newsletter