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Chocolate: A Not-So-Guilty Pleasure

For some, laughter is the best medicine. For others, it comes in a far more delicious, chocolate-y form. No matter your stance on the healthcare system, it seems that Americans are united on the chocolate front. Throughout history, chocolate has been an important part of many people’s lives and today, chocolate is the most craved food in the U.S.  So what is it that makes chocolate so great? Why does (almost) everyone like it? What does it do for us?

Well, we can start with the F-word that’s become far more of an abomination than any four letter word: fat. The thing that everyone wants to eat but no one wants to be. Maybe you’ve been trained that all fat is bad and no fat is always better. The truth is, while there are definitely a lot of bad fats, some fats not only taste good, but can be good for you! Cocoa butter is the main source of fat in chocolate, and contains multiple glycerides (fatty acids). It’s comprised of about 33% oleic acid, 25% palmitic acid, and 33% stearic acid. You’ve probably heard of oleic acid, the monounsaturated primary component of olive oil. It’s been shown to have a positive effect on lipid levels and has been often referred to as “heart healthy”. Often, it’s the saturated fats that you have to look out for. But worry not, because stearic acid, despite being saturated, doesn’t really affect your cholesterol levels. So the good news is, next time you turn to chocolate to mend your broken heart, you don’t have to worry about furthering the damage!

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If you’ve been in the grocery store or on the internet or even walked on a busy street in the last few years, you’ve probably heard of antioxidants. Just in case you’ve been on a really long backpacking trip or simply need a quick refresher, these are molecules that neutralize harmful free radicals caused through chemical reactions in the body. Foods delivering hearty doses of these compounds have become increasingly popular amongst consumers, with good reason. Significant research has been done to understand all the health benefits of antioxidants in food. Cocoa is a rich source of polyphenols (those cool chemical structures with rings and branches) with antioxidant properties, including flavonoids like epicatechin and catechin and procyanidins. And even better, there’s a lot of them! Dark chocolate actually has more flavonoids than tea and wine and a procyanidin level comparable to apples. These molecules are some of the major reasons that dark chocolate might be considered healthy, as the 3rd highest food source of antioxidants. Unfortunately, the addition of sugar, milk, and cocoa butter dilute these phenolic compounds, striping the antioxidant properties from milk chocolate.

Another group of molecules found in chocolate are the alkaloids, a class of compounds that contain basic nitrogen atoms. Maybe you’ve never heard of them, but you’ve definitely consumed them. And it’s possible you’re even mildly to moderately addicted to them. Caffeine, our favorite psychoactive drug, is one of the alkaloids found in chocolate. As with antioxidants, dark chocolate contains more caffeine than milk varieties. Not as much as your cup of coffee, but significantly more indulgent. Theobromine is another alkaloid found in high levels in dark chocolate. Theobromine is a much weaker stimulant, and mainly acts as a vasodilator and diuretic in us humans. For our furry friends, however, it’s a different story. Anyone with a dog knows not to give them chocolate (I hope. And if you didn’t know yet….don’t feed your dog chocolate. Even if he really wants it), and this is why. Theobromine is toxic to dogs because they metabolize it so slowly, making even one chocolate bar enough to cause poisoning.

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If you’ve never had a hankering for a delicious piece of chocolate to pick up a slow afternoon or as a treat after dinner, you’re definitely part of the minority. Chocolate is among the most craved foods in the U.S. Since so many of us crave this sweet satisfaction, many have wondered whether chocolate may have some sort of psychoactive effect. While chocolate does contain some cannabinoids (chemicals in the same class as the active ingredient in marijuana), they are found at extremely low levels and have negligible physiological effects. Other chemicals found in chocolate have also been explored, but scientists have yet to find evidence that they have any drug-like effects. Still, there’s no denying that satisfying your chocolate craving is blissful. This could be linked to its known effect on neurotransmitters. Just like exercise, love, and laughter, chocolate consumption has been linked to increased endorphin and serotonin release.

So far, this all sounds great. The fat in chocolate isn’t that bad for you, there are some beneficial antioxidants in there, a bit of caffeine and some chemicals that make your brain happy. So why isn’t chocolate the next super food? Why is it even considered a guilty pleasure? Well, when it comes down to it, the overall health effect of chocolate is still unknown. Multiple studies have shown positive health outcomes associated with chocolate consumption, including decreased lipid oxidation, anti-hypertension, and anti-inflammatory properties. But multiple studies have also shown otherwise. Ultimately, as with most things, chocolate has some beneficial and some not so beneficial components.

If you were looking for the green light, the absolute assurance that chocolate is just as healthy as kale and better for you than a superfood smoothie, I’m sorry I didn’t deliver. But hopefully next time you give in to the temptation, your treat will be a little sweeter. No, not because of the added sugar, but because of the chocolate nuggets of wisdom you can share with your craving companions.


What’s your favorite chocolate dish? Mole? Cupcakes? Plain ol’ chocolate? Send us a picture for a chance to be featured on @Foodseum’s Instagram page.

Categories:   Smarts

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