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The Health Benefits of Chocolate

chocolate - yumm!After months of serious, research-based columns on medical marijuana and Big Island water quality, I thought I would lighten up a bit and write about a subject close to the hearts and palates of many of us -- chocolate!

Most of us love chocolate. Americans eat an average of 12 pounds of chocolate a year. Indeed, many of the people I see for nutritional consultation in my private practice express concern and a bit of guilt about their chocolate intake. I don't tell them that naturopathic physicians may also be found perusing the organic chocolate shelves at various health food stores on the island.

The history of chocolate begins in Mexico. In 1519 Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortes led an expedition into the depths of Mexico looking for gold and silver treasures from the Aztec people. The Emperor Montezuma, along with his subjects, welcomed these strange looking visitors as "white Gods, risen from the sea." The Spaniards were feasted and served a cold, bitter drink that was very popular among the Aztecs.

From the Aztecs the Spaniards learned that the drink has mystical connections, it being the product of the juice of the seeds of the cacao tree. Montezuma himself held that the drink not only gave him strength and energy, but also gave an impetus to his sexual prowess. To the Spaniards the drink was too bitter. By adding sugar, however, it was made more pleasant to their tastes. It was so good that Cortes decided to introduce this new find into the Spanish Court. He called it chocolatl and it became a delicacy among the Spanish elite, served piping hot. Soon Spanish ships were bringing regular supplies of cacao beans to satisfy a rapidly growing demand. Before long the drink spread across Europe. In England, they changed the name to the easier to pronounce "chocolate." In 1765 chocolate was introduced to the United States.

Today, traditional Mexican healers known as "curanderos" still prescribe chocolate for bronchitis and as a magical protection against snakebites and the stings of wasps, scorpions and bees. Among the Mixteca Indians in Madera, Calif., it is drunk widely as a beverage and believed to be especially beneficial for school children.

Methods of manufacture have been refined over the years and before long the chocolate drink was just the first in a long line of cacao seed based products. Today chocolate is found in profuse quantities and a variety of both pedestrian and gourmet presentations. So, what’s the truth: Is chocolate really bad for you? Let's look at both sides of the issue. First the bad news.

Research shows that large amounts of chocolate can cause migraines as well as upset stomachs and a variety of allergic reactions, including hives. A chocolate bar also contains a lot of calories – a bar of one and a half ounces has a whopping 220 calories and may contain up to 50 percent fat. For those sensitive to coffee and black tea, chocolate also contains caffeine, though in very small amounts. Enough bad news -- now the more important part.

Chocolate has a long history as a medicinal herb. One of the earliest recorded uses was to treat depression. Other conditions it has been traditionally used for include to treat anemia, to stimulate the appetite, to increase breast milk production, to alleviate tuberculosis and gout, to cure kidney stones, to improve longevity, to enhance digestion, to invigorate kidney function, to improve elimination and to increase sexual appetite and virility.

Chocolate contains vitamins A, B1, C, D, and E, as well as potassium, phosphorus, sodium, iron, magnesium, copper, zinc, and fluorine. The serotonin and tyramine present in chocolate provide a mild calming, balancing effect.

There have been a number of studies linking chocolate with health benefits. The darker chocolate with the most concentrated cocoa will of course be the most beneficial. And, unlike milk chocolate, dark chocolate contains no cholesterol.

Harvard researchers tracked nearly 8,000 males, with an average age of 65. Those men who enjoyed chocolate lived almost a year longer than those who did not. Those who ate one to three chocolate bars per month had a 36 percent lower risk of death (compared to the people who ate no chocolate), while those who ate three or more candy bars per week had a 16 percent lower risk.

Why? The researchers say that it might have something to do with antioxidants. The antioxidants found in chocolate block arterial wall damage caused by unstable molecules called free radicals. Chocolate contains the same antioxidant chemicals as wine (phenols). In the chocolate bar, phenols help preserve the fat. In our bodies, phenol can help prevent atherosclerosis.

Compounds called flavonoids that are found in chocolate have a number of positive effects. Flavonoids and the subgroup called catechins are found in dark chocolate at four times the amount that is found in green tea. These compounds inhibit platelet aggregation (clumping) which could cause a heart attack or stroke. There have also been studies indicating that the flavonoids found in chocolate relax the blood vessels and inhibit an enzyme that causes inflammation and arterial wall damage. Chocolate flavonoids possess a very unique chemical structure compared to other plant-based foods and beverages. These flavonoids are actually rarely found in food sources.

Ever wonder why some of us reach for a piece of chocolate when the blues start creeping in? Phenylethlamines, other compounds found in chocolate, not only elevate the mood, but also act as a mild aphrodisiac.

So it seems the potential benefits of chocolate may outweigh the negatives. But please do not use this article as a justification for overindulgence or perpetuating a habit. Strong chocolate craving may actually indicate an underlying nutritional deficiency, especially magnesium. Remember that a little chocolate goes a long way.

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