Guilty Pleasures

Chocolate bits heart.jpeg

Chocolate.  What does dark chocolate, bacon and endothelium have to do with each other? More on that later. As I was preparing to write this blog and contemplating my theme, a smile of delight crossed my face remembering the movie Chocolat about a woman who comes to a small French village and opens up a chocolate shop that puts the people in a frenzy. The powers of chocolate are manifested when it acts as an aphrodisiac with husbands becoming passionate with their wives again, other relationships are mended and an abused wife gets the courage to move out and work in the chocolate shop. The mayor is incensed.  He even writes sermons for the priest to preach against the sins of chocolate. The whole village confesses their love of chocolate!  But the best part is when the mayor in a fit of rage breaks into the chocolate shop one night and starts bashing the pieces of chocolate only to have a small crumb land on his lips and suddenly, as he licks it off, he comes under the spell of this guilty pleasure and begins eating everything in sight.  The next morning the chocolatier finds him passed out covered in chocolate! Great movie, great story - !Behold the power of chocolate!

And it is powerful for good reason.  After reading countless clinical studies, scientific abstracts ( a summarization of an extensive research document) and articles while doing research on this,  I will summarize 10 points of what this mighty superfood that comes from Theombra Cacao - fruit of the gods can do.

    •    Plant Phenols - Various clinical trials using 100 grams per day (of cacao) which is the recognizable amount needed for efficacy, reported that the plant phenols in cacao trigger the walls of blood vessels (endothelium), to relax, lowers blood pressure and improves circulation. What does this all mean? Well, the relaxation of the endothelium (blood vessel walls) is huge because that has to do with the potential risk of a cardiac event. According to the American Heart Association 83 million Americans suffered from some form of cardiac disease in 2012. Hello? Is anyone out there scratching their head like I am? A mere ten years ago it was 70 million. With all our "technology" and "pharmaceuticals" why is this number growing and not diminishing? Stay tuned for another blog. I definitely have some things to say about this. The lowering of blood pressure and improvement of circulation are domino effects of the relaxation of the endothelium.


    •    Flavanoids - Cacao is rich in flavanoids. Quick tutorial.  Most have heard the term "phytonutrient". Polyphenols are one of several phytonutrients. Polyphenols have two classes: non-flavanoids and flavanoids. Within the "flavanoid" category they have isolated over 4,000 varieties. Flavanoids occur naturally in cacao (and are in dark chocolate that has a cacao content of at least 70%). And what exactly do flavanoids do? They protect us from free radicals and oxidative DNA damage, and they help our bodies fight toxins.


    •    Epicatechin - Epiwhat? Epicatechin is a powerful antioxidant found in dark chocolate, and those who ate it had higher blood levels of the epic stuff than those who ate milk chocolate. The jury is out but it may be that the lactose in the milk chocolate interfered with antioxidant absorption. In any case, epicatechin are beneficial in preventing heart disease, cancer and diabetes - the three most common chronic diseases in the United States. And in those that have these diseases, it helps to relieves the symptoms. Some scientists believe it is beneficial in improving memory.


    •    Love - All we need is love love love, love is all we need. Yes, you heard me right. Love. Or, if you prefer, phenylethylamine (PEA). A natural substance found to possibly stimulate the same reaction in the body as the feeling of falling in love. It has a natural occurrence in the nervous system and acts as a neurotransmitter/neuromodulator and is an important constituent to the neurochemistry of infatuation and romantic love. In the brain it releases substances like dopamine and norepinephrine. The former is tied in to sexual drive, feelings of pleasure, and the brain's reward system. The latter causes heightened attention, increased heart rate, and is tied with the fight-or-flight response. Together, these neurochemicals result in the most common feelings of falling in love, sexual desire, giddeness or euphoria and nervousness (butterflies!).



    •    Theobromine - Theo-God, bro-brother, mine-pertaining to me. Pertaining to God, my bros and me? Well, actually, yes! In brief, it's a vasodilator (broadens the blood vessels) a diuretic - helps you pee more and better, and a "heart stimulator" - helps with arteriosclerosis, vascular diseases and angina pectoris. But, buyers beware! Theobromine is not in and of itself addictive, but can contribute to the overall feeling of addiction many chocolate eaters testify of. So, the theobromine factor in chocolate is something to be taken into consideration.


    •    Magnesium - Dark chocolate contains magnesium, one of the most important minerals in the body.  Magnesium is essential to activate over 300 different enzyme systems critical to life.  The main way the body conserves its magnesium supply is through the kidneys. However there are many ways it can be excreted out.  Things like diuretics, high intake of sodium and calcium, sugar, coffee, alcohol and high levels of the stress hormone adrenalin and noise are just some of the factors that prevent our bodies from getting the magnesium it needs.  People that are on the SAD diet (Standard American Diet) comprised of high-fat-high-sugar-white flour will have a low dietary intake of magnesium.  magnesium aids with fatigue, PMS symptoms, depression and irritability.


    •    Cognitive Function - Many studies have been done on the promising help one of the constituents in chocolate called methylxanthine has on improving cognitive function in older people.  One study involved a group of 90 elderly participants with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) who were given a cocao drink with either high, intermediate or low levels of this flavanol methylxanthine. After consuming this drink over an eight week period researchers found improvement in motor responses, working memory, task-switching and verbal memory for those given the drink with the highest flavanol content. Greater levels of flavanols led to higher overall cognitive scores than those participants drinking lower levels.

    •    Cacoa Butter - the fat in chocolate contains equal amounts of oleic acid - which is a heart-healthy fat, stearic acid and palmitic acid. They are part of what we understand as the "good" saturated fats.  They are necessary as carriers for the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and for the conversion of carotene to vitamin A.  They also have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-carie and anti-plaque properties. They actually lower choesterol and aid in a feeling of satiety.  Various studies have been done proving the people that eat high amounts of these healthy saturated fats were actually thinner than those that didn't! Saturated fats are NOT the vilified substances people think they are. So use butter, eat chocolate and don't buy into the low-fat thing, it's a complete fallacy.

    •    Stress Buster - Feeling stressed out? Grab a bar of dark chocolate. Researchers have found that eating the equivalent of one average-size dark chocolate candy bar (1.4 ounces) for two weeks reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the "fight-or-flight" hormones known as catecholemines in highly stressed people.

In conclusion, there really is no conclusion to the power of chocolate. Cacao researchers are exploring more in depth the limitless applications this amazing nutraceutical has and will have as it finds its way into many nutritional supplements for many purposes.  And just like Comte de Renaud in Chocolat, may we blissfully come under the spell of chocolate and use it for doing good to ourselves, and others!

Answer to the question in the beginning of the blog: the added nitrates in bacon turn into nitric oxide; nitric oxide and dark chocolate are both vasodilators, meaning they relax and open up the inner lining of our blood vessels - namely endothelium.

What are some ways you enjoy eating or giving chocolate?  Join in the discussion.