Indeed, chocolate has been used medicinally and regarded as an elite food for centuries. For some, such as the renowned biologist Carl Linnaeus, it was the ‘food of the gods’.
Writing in The Lancet in July 2010, Philip K Wilson discusses the historical perspective of chocolate in his paper ‘Centuries of seeking chocolate’s medicinal benefits’. He notes: “Chocolate’s medicinal benefits are traceable as far back as Aztec medical practice. There, remedies concocted from the cacao beans, which had formed in the pods produced by the ‘Chocolate tree’, were used to soothe stomach and intestinal complaints, control childhood diarrhoea, reduce fevers, expel phlegm by provoking cough, reduce the passage of blood in stool, and promote strength before military or sexual conquests.
“In later eras, chocolate remedies were thought to combat emaciation, decrease ‘female complaints’, delay hair growth, promote kidney stone expulsion, increase production of breastmilk, prolong longevity, both encourage and prohibit sleep, clean teeth, diminish one’s timidity, and prevent syphilis.”
Quite a list! Moreover, long before chocolates became gifts on Valentines Day, chocolate itself was being recommended as way of increasing libido and promoting fertility.
Today, there is some evidence that cocoa and dark chocolate may support cardiovascular health, while other effects under preliminary research include reduced risks of cancer, coughing and heart disease. One interpretation on the potential health effects of dietary chocolate is that it may lower blood pressure, improve vascular function and energy metabolism, and reduce platelet aggregation and adhesion.
Modern research suggests that the benefits of dark chocolate range from reducing stress to improving the quality of our gut flora. There have been studies on: the effects of plant-derived, saturated stearic acid fats on cholesterol concentrations; whether consumption of chocolate has an effect on the release of phenethylamine, anandamide, or serotonin; and the properties of high-quality dark chocolate, which has high concentration of the stimulant theobromine and is also rich in flavanols.
Some studies have shown increased concentrations of a particular flavonoid, epicatechin, after chocolate consumption: this substance promotes antioxidant activity that, in turn, decreases the activity of low-density lipoproteins. However, controversy remains over the extent to which, despite caloric concerns, chocolate’s beneficial ingredients effectively delay atherosclerosis and arteriosclerosis, inhibit blood platelet activity, stimulate blood flow, and reduce blood pressure.
The following benefits may apply to high-cocoa-content, dark chocolate consumed in moderation, so if your preference is for sweet milk chocolate this may come as rather bittersweet news! It’s also important to remember that the body is complex and our interaction with food items and chemical compounds are not always straightforward.
- Good for your heart
Some studies show that eating a small amount of dark chocolate two or three times a week can help lower your blood pressure. Eating dark chocolate improves blood flow and may help prevent the formation of blood clots arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
- Food for thought
Dark chocolate increases blood flow to the brain as well as to the heart, so it can help improve cognitive function while also reducing risk of a stroke. It also contains several chemical compounds that have a positive effect on mood and cognitive health. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), the same chemical our brain creates when we feel like we’re falling in love. PEA encourages the brain to release endorphins, so eating dark chocolate may make us feel happier.Dark chocolate also contains the stimulant caffeine. However, dark chocolate contains much less caffeine than coffee.
- Helps control blood sugar
Dark chocolate helps keep our circulation healthy to protect against type 2 diabetes. Flavonoids in dark chocolate also help reduce insulin resistance by helping our cells to function normally and regain the ability to use your body’s insulin efficiently. Dark chocolate also has a low glycemic index, meaning it won’t cause huge spikes in blood sugar levels.
- Full of Antioxidants
Dark chocolate is loaded with antioxidants, which may help free our body of free radicals that cause oxidative damage to cells.
- Contains theobromine
Dark chocolate contains theobromine, which has been shown to harden tooth enamel. Theobromine is also a mild stimulant, though not as strong as caffeine. It can, however, help to suppress coughs.
- High in vitamins and minerals
Copper and potassium in dark chocolate help prevent stroke and cardiovascular ailments. The iron in chocolate helps protect against anemia, while magnesium helps prevent type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.