Maybe the reason chocolate is associated with Valentine’s Day is that it is associated with the release of phenylethylamine (PEA), a chemical released when we are falling in love. Chocolate also is known to affect pleasure receptors in our brain by stimulating endorphins. The theobromines in chocolate act like a mild dose of caffeine and are a brain stimulant. Of course, the carbs, sugar, and fat content of the typical chocolate bar all give us a burst of pleasure as well.
What you might not know is that dark chocolate, defined as chocolate with at least a 70% cacao (pronounced Ka-Kow) content, is a true health food. It is rich in anti-oxidants and packs three or more times the antioxidant strength of such antioxidant powerhouses as blueberries, green tea, and red wine. Though chocolate has a lot of saturated fats, they do not raise cholesterol since they are primarily oleic acid, which is like olive oil, and stearic acid, which is converted by the body to healthy mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Chocolate contains abundant minerals and vitamins and perhaps its long considered benefits in alleviating premenstrual symptoms have more to do with the amount of magnesium and iron in chocolate than its effects on the brain. Polyphenols and other flavonoids in chocolate protect blood vessels against cholesterol, are low glycemic, and help control insulin secretion. Emerging science shows compounds in chocolate can help reduce cancer risk, improve immunity, and increase memory.
Wow! That’s quite a lot of benefit to something considered so “sinful” as chocolate. Indeed, the term “Devil’s Food” was created for chocolate by stern Pilgrims who seemed to object to how good it made people feel.
The story of chocolate is an interesting one. It is, as you may know, derived from cacoa or cocoa beans. These grow in the Mesoamerican tropics, the Caribbean, and Africa as pods on trees. The pods are big, roughly the size of a small cantaloupe. They contain seeds that are white, thick, and gooey when harvested. These need to be dried and roasted to become the dark brown beans we associate with chocolate.
The ancient Mayans and Aztecs reserved cacoa for the nobles and wealthy as well as their priestly class. It was used in its pure form as a psychoactive drink meant to bring on spiritual visions and hallucinations. It was also thought to improve energy and strength and thus was also shared with Aztec soldiers. It was so valuable that the beans were used as currency in Mesoamerica as late as the 1850’s.
When Cortez, the Spanish conquistador found this product, he immediately brought it back to Europe with robust recommendations for its multiple medicinal qualities and it immediately became highly popular. Linnaeus, the father of modern botany named it Theobroma cacao, or “Drink of the Gods.”
Because of the complexity of gathering and preparing and shipping cacao or cocoa beans, it was a highly precious commodity in Europe. As a result, the Swiss, Dutch, French, Italians, and Spanish found they could stretch it by powderizing and mixing it with milk and sugar. Thus, the art of the chocolatier evolved over the centuries. And thus was born the modern day confection of milk chocolate. It is a long way from the original “bitter liquid” as the Aztecs called it and though tastier, less healthy.
I recommend a few ounces of dark chocolate daily as part of a healthy diet. Always look at the cacoa or cocoa content to see if it is 70% or more as this means you have eliminated much of the unhealthy dairy and sugar additives. Free trade cacao is also a value in that a larger percentage of the profits go back to the original native producers. Peak Nutrition in Galveston has a sumptuous array of high cacao content chocolate bars in various textures and flavors that are free trade and eco-friendly.
Enjoy your chocolate with your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day. Go with the dark chocolate knowing it is good for both of your hearts, minds, and spirits.
Dr. Sierpina is the W.D. and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB. Published in the Galveston County Daily News.