The Health Benefits of Chocolate
If you’ve ever looked for an excuse to eat more delicious dark chocolate, I’m sure you know about some of the health benefits that come along with its consumption. For one thing, a recent study found a correlation between countries with higher chocolate consumption and countries with a higher number of Nobel Prize winners. Does this mean that in order to win a Nobel Peace Prize you need to eat more chocolate? Well, maybe not, but you might as well use the study as an excuse to try!
People have been looking into eating chocolate for their health for many years now, and the studies are piling up to show that dark chocolate in particular can be good for you in a number of ways:
Heart and Circulation
Many studies have shown that chocolate is rich in a particular antioxidant called flavinol. Over the years, scientists have found that the flavinols in chocolate can reduce blood pressure and have an aspirin-like effect on blood circulation (thinning the blood and thereby improving circulation). It has even been shown to improve endothelial function (helping the lining of the blood vessels work better) in smokers and in non-smokers. Overall, these studies show that chocolate, like red wine and tea, can help to keep you heart-healthy.
Chocolate does contain a minimal amount of caffeine, but the majority of the energy that comes from chocolate is from a very structurally similar molecule, called Theobromine. Theobromine causes much less of a reaction in humans than it does in say, horses or dogs (which is why dogs shouldn’t eat chocolate,) but it does still cause a mild sense of happiness, and it tends to give you a small boost of energy. That is to say, if you’re trying to minimize your caffeine intake, you shouldn’t worry about chocolate, since it contains so little, but if you’re trying to stay awake, chocolate may still help you. (On the other hand, Theobromine metabolizes differently in horses, giving them too much extra energy, and consequently, chocolate is banned in horse races!) Speaking of Theobromine, some studies suggest that the presence of this chemical in chocolate may be one of the reasons why we like it and crave it!
Theobromine is not the only part of chocolate that gives you a sense of elation. Researchers have found that chocolate might slow down the destruction of a natural chemical in our bodies called anandamide, which gives us a natural high. Usually this chemical binds to receptors in our brains and makes us feel happier, but it naturally breaks down very quickly. Two chemicals in chocolate (N-oleoylethanolamine and N-linoleoylethanolamine) are postulated to slow down this process, causing us to be happier for longer when we eat more chocolate.
Finally, there have been some suggestions that there is a correlation between one’s love life and the amount of chocolate one eats. Namely, that chocolate is a form of aphrodisiac. Certainly, it has been thought of as one throughout history (even the Mayans ate cocoa beans to enhance their romantic experiences). Now, some research has shown that methylxanthine, a basic substance in the body (both theobromine and caffeine are examples of a methylxanthine), can help increase arousal, by blocking receptors in your brain that receive adenosine, which is what helps to make you sleepy and less aroused. So, chocolate (or just plain coffee for that matter) may indeed help your love life!
One more thing: the extra sugar in chocolate – even dark chocolate contains sugar and fat – can potentially have an adverse effect on your teeth. One study of workers at a Danish chocolate factory found that they had more teeth issues (including gingivitis) than a regular population would have. In other words, if you work at a chocolate factory watch out for your teeth! On the other hand, if you work in a chocolate factory, you’re probably eating more than the recommended “dose” of chocolate (three ounces a day.) Plus, another study shows that our old friend theobromine (found in chocolate) can do more than just give us a bit of energy and make us feel happier. It actually is shown to help reduce cavities! So there you go. Maybe the theobromine in chocolate will counterbalance the sugar! At any rate, the higher rate of teeth issues is not a reason to stay away from chocolate. You just want to be extra sure you always brush your teeth after you take that bite that will make you feel happy, healthy, and maybe even a little romantic.