Volume 20 Issue 06 2012-02-10
With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, store displays are stacked high with the treats that seem to be synonymous with the season: cinnamon hearts, romantic conversation candies, and, of course, chocolate. Not too healthy—or is it?
You may be in for a (pleasant) surprise. Although there’s certainly no health factor in red-dyed, artificially flavoured candies formed from a chemical cocktail, chocolate is a different story.
Where in the world . . . ?
Chocolate has natural origins in the fruit of the tropical cacao (pronounced “ca-KOW”) tree, Theobroma cacao. Primarily grown in Africa, Central and South America, and other tropical regions, the cacao tree yields a fruit pod whose seeds are the source of chocolate. Although the seeds are incredibly bitter when eaten in their raw, unprocessed state—hardly the Valentine’s Day snack you’re thinking about—some natural treatment changes that. Fermentation under banana leaves and a week of sun-drying renders the seeds (now called “beans”) into something more “chocolatey” in flavour.
The final processing is completed in factories, where sugar or other ingredients are added, depending on the type of chocolate.
Why is it good?
If it’s frequently factory-processed, why is chocolate considered healthy?
First, chocolate contains very high levels of flavonoids, compounds that act as antioxidants. In fact, dark chocolate has flavonoid levels up to eight times higher than those found in strawberries! Antioxidants protect against cellular damage, which means reduced toll on the body’s overall physiology. In other words, you’ll feel better and more energetic and have improved cardiovascular function. Plus, antioxidants have great anti-aging benefits.
In addition to flavonoids, cacao also contains serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s important in maintaining a positive mood; perhaps that’s why chocolate is often seen as an aphrodisiac. Additionally, serotonin is converted to melatonin at night and promotes healthy sleep.
Before you go shopping . . .
Unfortunately, not all chocolate is created equal. For chocolate to have any health benefit, it has to be “real,” made from natural chocolate itself—artificially flavoured “chocolate” won’t do it. This kind is easy to tell because it usually tastes waxy or chewy.
Milk chocolate does possess some of the health benefits of chocolate, but it’s not the top choice because the other ingredients (like milk and sugar) dilute the concentration of the natural chocolate and therefore its benefits. Additionally, the high sugar levels are problematic.
Of course, consuming the pure cacao beans is the best option, but these can be costly and difficult to locate. For most of us, dark chocolate is the winner; it’s the most unrefined and usually has the fewest added ingredients, resulting in the highest concentration of pure cacao. You can often see the concentration written on the package when you’re comparing chocolate at the store. If you’re not keen on the 80 per cent dark chocolate (it can be pretty bitter!), then why not opt for a lower percentage, like 65 per cent? It will still give you an antioxidant punch, but avoid some of the problems of milk chocolate and artificial chocolate.
And how much?
You don’t need to consume the whole bar; one square of dark chocolate daily is a good way to gain its benefits. Remember, too, that it’s not a quick fix. Like most things, the health benefits of consuming chocolate occur over time.
This Valentine’s Day, start a heart-healthy habit with a small piece of chocolate—and keep it up for the rest of the year!
Katie D’Souza is an AU graduate and a licensed naturopathic doctor. She currently practices in Ontario.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for personal interest only; it is not intended for diagnosis or treatment of any condition. Readers are always encouraged to seek the professional advice of a licensed physician or qualified health care practitioner for personal health or medical conditions.