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Chocolate for Health

Updated on September 11, 2008

Chocolate and Cocoa for Health

Lately, chocolate has been in and out of the news due to a wide variety of studies on chocolate and health. Many studies have found chocolate to have different health benefits, most of which are due to cocoa itself. Plain, unsweetened cocoa could be considered a health food, but its final status all depends on what is added to it.

Cocoa, and as a result chocolate, has a high level of flavonoids, which are commonly known for their antioxidant activity. Dark chocolate (or cocoa) has been found to have more than four times the level of antioxidants found in tea, or twice that in red wine. Unfortunately, many flavanoids can taste quite bitter so they are removed from most chocolate, even the very darkest varietes. New processing techniques are being developed that could provide greater antioxidant levels in the future.

The antioxidants contained in chocolate have been found to lower blood pressure, protect the skin from sun damage, improve circulation, reduce the stickiness of blood platelets (blood thinner), improve the flexibility (elasticity) of blood vessels and perhaps inhibit fat buildup in artery walls.

Eating a piece of chocolate may make people feel better for a variety of reasons. Just the thought of enjoying a tasty treat may improve the mood. The sweet and fatty content might cause a rise in beta endorphin levels, enhancing pleasurable feelings. And the feel-good hormone serotonin is increased after a chocolate fix.

Chocolate or cocoa also contains some chemicals that improve our outlook. A small amount of caffeine acts as a mild stimulant, while a chemical relative, called theobromine, is simultaneously stimulating and soothing to the body, and even eases breathing. It also can calm a cough, especially in rich hot cocoa.

Phenylethylamine (PEA), a chemical found in chocolate, is a substance that our body naturally produces when we are in love. It's no wonder chocolate is associated with love. PEA is known to lower cholesterol levels and to dilate the blood vessels in the brain. This is a plus for most of us, though this might trigger migraines in a small number of people. Several other compounds in cocoa also can influence our physiology in positive ways.

Although, the flavonoids and other antioxidants found in chocolate provide the greatest health benefits.

Health Benefits of Cocoa and Dark Chocolate

  • Blood vessels may relax and be more elastic
  • Blood circulation may improve, even to the brain
  • May reduce the stickiness of blood platelets, 'thinning' the blood like aspirin, which could reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks
  • May help reduce blood pressure (hypertension)
  • May lower bad cholesterol levels and raise good cholesterol
  • Fat buildup in the walls of arteries may be inhibited
  • Hot rich cocoa can calm a cough (works better than codeine)
  • May protect the skin from sun damage and improve its appearance, and will not cause acne
  • Milk chocolate is one of the least likely snacks to cause tooth decay
  • Cocoa may have some anti-cancer properties
  • Sugar metabolism may increase due to reduced insulin resistance

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