I Love Chocolate

I love chocolate. I admit it. I’m one of those people you could find wearing a T-shirt reading, “Hand over the chocolate and nobody gets hurt.” It’s definitely one of the major food groups. I could hug the scientist who named the cacao plant Cacao theobroma—literally, “chocolate God-food.”

There has been plenty of research now indicating that chocolate (sans the sugar) is actually good for you, but a little more encouragement can’t hurt. I recently read an article containing the phrase, “The incidence of fatal heart attacks correlated inversely with the amount of chocolate consumed.”[1] In other words, eating chocolate reduces your chances of dying from a heart attack. Pass the Toblerone!

Scientists propose that chocolate’s high levels of polyphenols, one type of antioxidants, are what makes it good for your heart. Research[2] shows that polyphenols also protect against strokes (by “thinning” the blood), boost the immune system (by stimulating the production of T-lymphocytes), and reduce your risk of cancer (by repairing cellular damage caused by free radicals). Even milk chocolate has about five times the levels of polyphenols as a similar quantity of fruit and vegetables.

Chocolate also contains calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, and copper, all elements our body needs. Talk about health benefits! Chocolate does all that, and it tastes wonderful too.

I was discussing my cocoa addiction with my dad, who is completely indifferent to the stuff, wondering why I crave chocolate and he doesn’t. Now it turns out that maybe it’s not in my head after all—it’s in my gut!

According to a study[3] done at the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland, those of us who love chocolate have a different assortment of bacteria in our digestive system, compared to those who aren’t so enamored. As yet, they’ve only established a correlation. No one knows if we crave chocolate because of our bacteria, or we have the bacteria because we eat a lot of chocolate. (What made me laugh was that this study was delayed a year, because that’s how long it took to find eleven men who didn’t eat chocolate.)

Chocolate contains phenethylamine (PEA), a chemical that triggers the release of endorphins, and theobromine, a stimulant similar to caffeine. It really does make us feel better—happier and more energetic. (The Nestlé study found that non-chocolate eaters have higher levels of taurine, an active ingredient in many energy drinks. Maybe they already have more energy, and so aren’t as affected as the rest of us.)

So, why not eat tons of chocolate? Well, chocolate does have its dark side. Cocoa butter contains the monounsaturated fat oleic acid, which reduces bad cholesterol levels, but it also contains the saturated fat palmitic acid, which raises them. And of course, fats have lots of calories. Not all chocolate is made with cocoa butter, and the cheaper substitutes are generally pretty unhealthy.

The biggest problem with chocolate is the added sugar. Unsweetened chocolate is amazingly bitter, and the more sugar used to correct this problem, the worse it is for you. All that sugar fills you up with empty calories, and sends your blood sugar levels skyrocketing. Diabetes, anyone?

You can buy sugar-free chocolates, but they usually contain sorbitol or another sugar alcohol, which can have some really unpleasant digestive side effects. Plus, the sugar-free stuff just doesn’t taste as good, at least to me. Maybe it depends on how desperate you are.

A probably better alternative is to go for the extra-dark chocolate bars. They usually have the percentage of cacao printed on the label, and some are as high as 70 – 85%. As cacao content rises, the amount of sugar drops. Of course, you have to really like dark chocolate to eat some of these! Try to find a brand that uses real cocoa butter, to make your treat as healthy as possible.

Another way to get your chocolate fix without ruining your health is to buy unsweetened cocoa powder. One tablespoon contains no sugars, 1g fiber, a mere 0.5g fat (and it’s the good kind), and only 20 calories.

Okay, but what do you do with this stuff? No, you won’t want to eat it straight, but… I use it to make hot chocolate. Use a heaping tablespoon of cocoa, add hot skim milk plus enough Splenda to make it taste good, and stir to melt. It settles quickly, so stir as you drink. Sometimes I use sugar-free raspberry syrup (the kind sold for making coffee drinks) instead of most of the Splenda. It’s soooo good!

Another sugar-free use for cocoa powder is in mole, the Mexican chocolate-chili sauce used on chicken. I’m still looking for the perfect mole recipe. Anybody have one they love?

[1] “Chocolate Helps Hinder Heart Disease,” by Marlowe Hood, AFP; http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/08/13/chocolate-heart-health.html

[2] “What are the nutrients that make dark chocolate good for you?”; http://ca.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20060824105203AAo0kQl

[3] “Bacteria Cause Chocolate Cravings,” Seth Borenstein, Associated Press; http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2007/10/12/chocolate-craving-hea.html?category=health&guid=20071012140000

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