Long before we ate chocolate just for the sheer joy of it, it was a bitter beverage reserved for religious ceremonies and medicinal uses only.
Mayan receptacles dating back to 400 AD have been discovered to have residue of cacao (cocoa) in them. It was considered “food of the gods” until Hernan Cortez took it back to Spain in the 1500’s. He gave it to his soldiers for ” resistance and to prevent fatigue”.
Fast forward to the 18th and 19th centuries, and you will find over 100 documents describing the medicinal uses for chocolate.
More recently, a meta analysis was published in the August 2011 issue of the British journal BMJ. After controlling for confounding variables like weight, physical activity, education and other dietary factors, reduction in heart disease and stroke risk (37% and 29% respectively) occurred in the groups eating the most chocolate. (great justification for my daily Dove dark fix). Even though the studies included a total of 100,000 no cause and effect was established as these were observational studies.
The health benefits behind the consumption of chocolate are generally attributed to flavonoids. This is the same family of compounds found in tea, red wine, grape juice and other plant foods. Flavonoids have strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory
and anti-clotting properties. Specifically, flavonoids increase the production of nitric acid in the body which helps relax and dilate blood vessels resulting in lowered blood pressure and perhaps other cardiovascular benefits. Cocoa flavonoids may also inhibit the absorption of cholesterol as well as reduce oxidation of LDL (lousy) cholesterol, making it less harmful.
Dark chocolate and milk chocolate come from cacao beans. The process of drying, roasting and fermenting the beans reduces the bitter flavor and the healthful flavanol levels. Americans appear to prefer the taste of milk chocolate over dark, but most of the research involves dark chocolate at least for now.
White chocolate is not chocolate at all but rather a blend of cocoa butter, sweeteners and flavorings. No cocoa solids = no flavonoids.
Ounce-for-ounce, dark chocolate containing 70-85% cocoa solids has more calories and fat than chocolate containing less. Cocoa solids contains potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, oleic fatty acids and fiber besides the flavanols. Not a bad nutrient profile when included as part of a heart healthy diet.
My take-home message is simple: while eating chocolate (yum!) may yield some cardio-protective benefits, enjoy it sparingly. Eating too many extra calories from any food will contribute to weight gain and undo any potential benefit gained. When you do indulge, choose the darkest chocolate that you like.