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I’m sure we’ve all heard that chocolate is the new superfood; on the other hand, we’ve also heard that chocolate is terrible for us.
What are we to believe?
Well, it turns out the answer is a bit complicated.
Chocolate, like coffee and tea, is loaded with over 300 powerful chemicals and antioxidants that deliver numerous health benefits (when consumed without milk and sugar).
The cacao tree was given the botanical name Theobroma cacao or “food of the gods,” while others have called it the “food of the devil.” It seems there is good and evil in chocolate—so let’s look under the hood!
Is Chocolate Heating or Cooling?
Chocolate, like coffee, is a fermented food, which is important to note because fermentation changes the properties and even seasonality of food. In general, fermentation requires lactic acid and/or yeast. Acidic bacteria and yeasts can change a cooling food to a heating food in the same way raw cabbage is cooling and sauerkraut is heating. Fermentation can preserve food during winter, boost digestive strength, and, if overeaten, can overheat the body.
According to Ayurveda, fermented foods are better in winter, when preserving vegetables would be needed, and not recommended in the summer, as they are heating (pitta-aggravating) due to the lactic acid fermentation process. So the extremely bitter (cooling) cacao bean becomes less bitter and more heating after fermentation, much the way milk is cooling and yogurt is heating.
Doesn’t Chocolate Have Antioxidants?
Fermentation can raise the temperature of the bean above 120°F and damage some of the delicate antioxidants, making cacao less bio-chemically active. Non-fermented cacao is available for those who want the full spectrum of cacao’s active nutrients.
ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) is a method of measuring antioxidants in your chocolate. The potency of your chocolate is measured by its ORAC score and raw non-fermented cacao scores the highest of all chocolate products.
- Raw cacao powder has an ORAC value of 95,500 per 100 grams
- Raw cacao nibs have an ORAC value of 62,100 per 100 grams
- Roasted cocoa powder as an ORAC value of 26,000 per 100 grams
So both chocolate and coffee in their fermented form are heating and probably more tolerable in winter. During winter, when serotonin levels and brain-derived neurotrophic factor proteins decline, chocolate’s ability to boost serotonin may be a good reason to eat more chocolate—not to mention that its heating properties help antidote the cold. Maybe that’s why hot chocolate is such a beloved winter treat.
Cacao is primarily harvested near the equator during hot dry months. Like all fruits, cacao’s natural bitter taste is cooling. We then process and ferment it, rendering it tastier but more heating. So if you are a pitta body type living in a hot climate in the summer, you want to recognize the potential heat of chocolate and other fermented foods like coffee.
Constituents of Chocolate
As many of us know from experience, chocolate releases neurotransmitters in the brain called endorphins (also called endogenous morphine), which can deliver feelings of euphoria and comfort—explaining its role as a leading comfort food.
Chocolate contains a chemical called theobromine (from the Greek theos [“god”] and broma [“food”]) which, interestingly, is both a stimulant and a sedative. It provides mental and physical relaxation while delivering an energy boost similar to caffeine. Caffeine, a stimulant, is also a key component of chocolate.
Chocolate is rich in the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is known as the anti-depressant, anti-anxiety neurotransmitter. This chemical reaction takes place in the intestinal tract, which may explain in part why the happy effect of chocolate is so instant.
Chocolate is also rich in an even more potent neurotransmitter called phenylethylamine, which has given chocolate nicknames like the “love drug” and “chocolate amphetamine.” It’s the phenylethylamine that may be responsible for the studies connecting chocolate to blood pressure and blood sugar changes, as well as the feeling of excitement and alertness often associated with falling in love.
Perhaps the most interesting chemical found in chocolate is called anandamide, which comes from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning bliss. This chemical is very similar to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active constituent in marijuana. Anandamide activates dopamine receptors in the brain—dopamine is a neurotransmitter that delivers a heightened sense of well-being or a high. It is sometimes called the “I’ve gotta have it” hormone because, when the brain becomes familiar with the effects of a dopamine-triggering substance like chocolate, seeing, smelling, or even thinking about that substance triggers the brain to send out the message: “I’ve gotta have it, now!”
Chocolate also has two chemicals (N-linoleoylethanolamine and N-oleolethanolamine) that inhibit or slow the breakdown of anandamide, allowing the bliss chemical to linger for hours. As you see, chocolate has a potent effect on our minds and bodies on many levels.
Is it Addictive?
We can thank the rainbow of brain-boosting chemicals above for the addictive nature of chocolate. However, it should be mentioned that most of these chemicals exist in very small quantities in chocolate, and some researchers believe the amounts are not sufficient to make a psychological difference.
On the other hand, many of us can attest to that certain something about chocolate that keeps us coming back for more.
Chocolate and Flavonoids
While chocolate is most often thought of as a mood-altering comfort food, it is also known for its heart-healthy flavonoids. These flavonoids are the same constituents that give red wine, grapes, and berries their dark color and antioxidant effect. Interestingly, in all the studies, white chocolate (devoid of flavonoids) offered none of the cardiovascular benefits seen in dark chocolate.
A control study in Italy showed that risk for myocardial infarction was inversely associated to chocolate consumption, reaching a 77 percent decrease in risk for those who ate more than three portions of chocolate per day compared to those who consumed less than one.
In another study, 34,000 postmenopausal women on a high-flavonoid diet (including chocolate) had a 22 percent lower risk of developing coronary artery disease and men who consumed high amounts of cacao (2.3g/day) had a 50 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared to men who did not consume cacao.
Results from a meta-analysis of nine observational studies involving 157,809 participants suggest a significant reduction in stroke and cardiovascular mortality in those who ate the most chocolate compared to those who consumed no chocolate.
To Indulge or Not to Indulge?
With a third of the adult American population qualifying as pre-diabetic, it’s important to emphasize moderation and seasonality when consuming your favorite dark (only) chocolate or cacao.
Sweet tastes are everywhere: bread, pasta, rice, corn, fruit, fruit juice, and, of course, desserts. Bitter foods that offset the sweet taste are mostly found in bitter leafy green veggies and berries. The good news, as mentioned above, is that the cacao bean, much like the coffee bean, is actually bitter in nature. In this respect, both coffee and cacao (raw, non-fermented is best) are quite medicinal.
Over time you can train your taste buds to enjoy stronger dark chocolate from at least 70 percent up all the way to 100 percent dark chocolate.
Sugar Content in Chocolate
Dark Chocolate (40g of 70 percent cacao)
Fat 16 g
Saturated fat 11g
Milk Chocolate (40g)
Fat 15 g
Saturated fat 9g
Chocolate and The Nervous System
Mostly, the cacao in dark chocolate is highly processed and loaded with sugar. While higher cacao content indicates lower sugar content, it still delivers quite a jolt of sugar and insulin to the bloodstream, heart, and arteries.
If you do not have any pre-diabetic issues and your fasting first morning blood sugars are between 75-85mg/dL (find out more about home-testing your blood sugar here), then one or two small pieces a day of the darkest chocolate you can enjoy after your biggest midday meal may be fine. This is a maximum and remember: less is more. It’s best not to have on an empty stomach when it will act as a more aggressive stimulant.
Unlike coffee, the amount of chocolate found to deliver the most therapeutic effects is small. It doesn’t take much sugar to overstimulate the nervous system and push blood sugars to dangerously high levels.
For optimal health, I believe that we must break our addiction to the sweet taste and not replace one stimulant with another. Too many so-called healthy stimulants like coffee, cacao, tea, energy drinks, and sweets are never a good idea.
According to Ayurveda, a great effort is made to still and silence the mind, while our culture seems set on overstimulating it. Yoga has replaced meditation, shopping has replaced sitting on the back porch, and soccer tournaments have replaced family picnics. Somewhere in the past 20 years, we have lost the desire and know-how to still the mind and be at peace.
Chocolate of any kind is a stimulant. Yes, it has medicinal properties (barring the sugar), but if chocolate or the next exotic stimulant becomes our only avenue to contentment, then I think we have lost something most precious to the human mind—its silence.
Perhaps experiencing our true nature of joy, love, and happiness for no reason starts with experiencing the silence within. To move toward that, step one would be to acknowledge and break insidious addictions that keep us from being present with ourselves.
With regard to chocolate, from an Ayurvedic perspective, make it a special treat or a medicine in its raw, non-fermented form—not a daily habit.