Once used as a currency and touted as “the food of the gods”, chocolate has a long history dating back to ancient civilizations such as the Mayans and Aztecs. But can chocolate be good for your health? Well, while chocolate isn’t about to be prescribed as a health food just yet, it certainly has some benefits that studies have suggested make it a heart healthy choice, and not just because chocolate is often the key to many women’s hearts!
Chocolate, and its main ingredient cocoa, comes from the cacao plant. In its raw form it contains many of the health benefits of dark vegetables. The benefits come from flavonoids, which act as antioxidants. Antioxidants protect the body from aging caused by free radicals, which can cause damage that leads to heart disease. Flavonoids are more prevalent in dark chocolate than in milk or white chocolate. Flavonoids also help relax blood pressure through the production of nitric oxide and balance certain hormones in the body.
Early colonial records indicate how cacao was used as a medicine and acted as a carrier in the administration of other remedies in the 1500’s. The medicinal value of cacao was in its ability to treat weak patients with a variety of dis-ease. It was particularly known to improve digestion and stimulate kidney and bowel function. Additional diseases that responded to treatment using cacao were anemia, fatigue, fever, low sex drive, respiratory troubles, poor appetite and low breast milk production. In addition to the cacao bean, the oil/butter was used in the treatment of skin problems including eczema, psoriasis and burns. Today, cacao oil is considered a beauty aid in its use as a skin moisturizer, and when combined with the cacao bean, is used to make the chocolate confectionery we’re familiar with.
That is all good news; however, most of the evidence for health benefits of chocolate comes from short-term uncontrolled studies.
At this time of year we celebrate Easter by giving chocolate eggs and bunnies on Easter Sunday. If you are indulging in some Easter Eggs these holidays then remember in terms of health benefits not all chocolate is created equal. Most commercial chocolate has ingredients that add fat, sugar and calories. Too much can contribute to weight gain, a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
For the best health choice choose dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 65% or higher. A hollow dark chocolate egg is your best choice; avoid the filled eggs if you are concerned about your waistline. Limit your intake to no more than 85g per day, which is the amount that some studies have shown to be helpful. However to avoid weight gain you need to factor in your chocolate consumption (approximately 450 calories for 85g of chocolate) so reduce you calories in other meals or step up your exercise.
All in all you should consider chocolate a treat food that is reserved for special occasions like Easter.