Chocolate: Health Benefits

“A day without chocolate is like a day without fresh air,” some may say — oops, that’s me thinking out loud.

The history of our ability to enjoy chocolate spans nearly 4,000 years. The cacao tree, which produces the beans used to make chocolate, is native from southeastern Mexico to the Amazon. Researchers say its beans were first turned into a beverage as early as 1900 B.C. Cacao beans became a form of currency during the Aztec empire; no wonder quality chocolate is still highly valued. Chocolate was exported to Europe after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, where it was sweetened to offset the inherent bitterness of the cacao bean.

Although it took nearly a century to take hold in Europe, once industrialization enabled better production methods, chocolate’s popularity skyrocketed. The health benefits associated with dark chocolate (defined as 70% or higher cacao) confirm that enjoying chocolate closer to its original state (low- rather than high-sugar content) is the way to go.

Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), an organic compound that our bodies produce naturally when we become excited — creating a feeling similar to when we fall in love. Anandamide, another molecule found in chocolate, increases mood and decreases depression. According to a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, healthy middle-aged participants reported significant calmness and contentedness after 30 days of consuming a dark chocolate drink containing 500 mg of polyphenols. Polyphenols are important because they contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds.

The Nutrition Journal reported on a study that showed improved depression, anxiety, and other symptoms in subjects with chronic fatigue syndrome. A strong positive correlation was found in an analysis of studies, published by the Boston-based Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, among patients receiving antidepressant treatment, indicating a close relationship between effective pain relief and positive effect on the mood of the patients.

The simplest way to boost your cacao intake is to savor up to an ounce of dark chocolate daily. Not that any arm twisting is needed, of course, but other ways to include chocolate in your day are to add a tablespoon of cacao powder to a smoothie, blend your coffee with one tablespoon of grass-fed butter and one teaspoon of cacao powder, or make a rich mug of hot chocolate by using cacao powder to taste in unsweetened nondairy milk and a touch of honey.

Want more chocolate recipes? Try our Cherry-Covered Chocolate Cake, Dark Chocolate Peppermint Hot Cocoa with Homemade Peppermint Marshmallows, and No-Bake Fudge: Chocolate Ginger.

Susan Ojanen is an integrative nutrition coach in Bristol, Tennessee, and owner of smallstepswellness.com. She is passionate about helping clients worldwide achieve their health goals by creating sensible and maintainable lifestyle changes.

Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

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