Photo by Hillary Ehlen
Did your Valentine bring you chocolate? Along with flowers and kisses, chocolate is a traditional way to express affection. It just may be the ultimate gift when you learn about its health benefits.
Helping others live happier, healthier and more beautiful lives is my mission statement at Catalyst Medical Center. However, research shows that I should probably be prescribing dark chocolate bars to accomplish my mission.
Chocolate is made from the seed of the cacao tree. The nibs at the hearts of the seeds are ground and liquefied into the pure chocolate form, chocolate liquor. The liquor is separated into cocoa solids (the nonfatty component) and cocoa butter (the fatty part) which is bitter and chalky on its own. Cacao creates health magic via components like theobromine and powerful antioxidants called flavonols. But it needs some fat and sweetness to make it edible. Dark chocolate is much better from a health perspective than its sweeter relative, milk chocolate, and most research studies use dark chocolate. Yet, even dark chocolate can be high in calories, so eat in moderation, up to four ounces per week.
So what can chocolate do for you?
1. Healthier Hearts. Dark chocolate has anti-inflammatory properties, which decreases cardiovascular risk. It’s also associated with lower blood pressure and lower LDL “bad” cholesterol.
2. Fewer Strokes. A Swedish study found a 20 percent reduction of strokes in women who ate 1.5 ounces of chocolate once or twice per week (about the size of a Hershey bar) compared to another group who had less than one third an ounce.
3. Weight Loss. Dark chocolate seems to reduce cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods. It also contains enough fiber to help consumers feel fuller longer, reducing food intake and helping with weight loss in the right circumstances.
4. Decreased Diabetes. A study done in Italy in 2005 suggested that chocolate improves insulin sensitivity, which may minimize risks for diabetes.
5. Better Skin. Flavanols in chocolate can decrease sensitivity to UV radiation, protecting from sunburns and future wrinkles. Don’t throw away your sunblock yet because it should still be part of your daily routine.
6. Lose the Cough. Theobromine in chocolate can soothe the vagus nerve running through the chest. This nerve can be responsible for the long-lasting ticklish cough that persists even after you’ve recovered from your bad cold. Chocolate works almost as well as codeine cough syrup, with far fewer side effects.
7. Stay Smart. Harvard Medical School did a study, showing that two cups of hot chocolate per day improved cerebral blood flow and reduced cognitive decline in elderly patients. Chocolate also helps people feel more awake and alert.
8. Less Stress. Chocolate is a little indulgence that brings joy. In a small group of highly stressed individuals, daily chocolate intake led to improved mood and lower blood levels of cortisol.
9. Clearer Vision. A small university study showed improved blood flow to the retina, giving vision a boost.
10. Better Sex. A study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine reported higher levels of desire, arousal and satisfaction for women who ate chocolate daily. This is thanks to a substance in chocolate called phenylethylamine, which stimulates a positive endorphin rush.
Look for organic chocolate if possible, with a cacao level of over 70 percent. This indicates a higher concentration of healthy flavanols. Avoid chocolate with a label that says alkali processed, also known as “dutching,” as this reduces flavanol levels. Also avoid soy lecithin, if possible.
Check out my favorite local brand of chocolate, Widman’s. Their flagship store is just off 13th Avenue in South Fargo. The owner Carol, is an absolute delight! I discovered another great local brand from Fergus Falls, Minnesota, called Terrior Chocolate at the Red River Farmer’s Market. It’s worth a visit to their website, TCChocolate.com.
Other brands to check out include Pascha, Sweetriot, Taza, Askinosie, Vosges, Theo, Giddy Yoyo, Chocolove, Green and Black’s, Valrhona, Alter Ego and Endangered Species. Certain Godiva, Lindt and Ghiradelli bars fit the criteria too.
You’ll still want to read labels, as some processing differs for different bars in the same brand line.
I’ve seen some of these brands locally at ShannaLee, Zandbroz, Barnes and Noble, Natural Grocers, Hornbacher’s, Cashwise, Family Fare, O’Day Cache and TJ Maxx.
If you want to try some healthy chocolate desserts, check out OMGChocolateDesserts.com for fun recipes. Or check out this blog about chocolate by food writer & chocolate sommelier Estelle Tracy, 37chocolates.com.
Enjoy! There’s a lot to love about chocolate!