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What is it about chocolate that makes us like to eat it? Is it the sensual taste? Or that silky texture as it melts in the mouth at just the right temperature? Whatever the secret, we love it! Apparently, according to research statistics, Ireland has been the greatest consumer of chocolate. Each person in Ireland ate nearly 12 kilos in 2007, while Americans consumed well over 5 kilos per person.
We can ask this question now because of the availability of darker chocolate brands. In fact, the higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the better. Anything over 85% cocoa solids is thought to be the best in terms of health benefits.
Cocoa for health?
In fact, cocoa was used as a traditional herbal remedy by the Mayan people around 1000 BC, who valued it so highly that they used the cocoa bean as a currency. They were certainly a prized possession and were used to make into a beverage which was drunk on special occasions by royalty in cups made from gold. But enough of the history. Scientists from Harvard University have conducted some extensive research into the health and medicinal properties of cocoa. Dr Eric Ding, PhD combined the results from twenty one studies which were carried out to determine the affects of health on chocolate consumption. The results surprised them. Chocolate consumption was linked to decreased blood pressure, raised mood and changes in cholesterol levels.
Cocoa and chocolate come from the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree which grows straight out of the trunks of the tree. Roberto Corti and his team of scientists in Switzerland have found some amazing health benefits from eating chocolate. Yes, really!
It seems they started this research because all the indigenous peoples who have traditionally eaten chocolate have very good health. The Mayans who drank it and Kuna Indians of Panama who eat huge amounts of chocolate everyday have no cardiovascular problems, no kidney function problems , little or no cardiovascular disease and much lower blood pressure. This got the scientists thinking that maybe it was not just the relaxed, sun-soaked lifestyle of these peoples. Maybe chocolate is not so bad for you after all.
Their research proved to be correct. A huge longitudinal study of nearly 35,000 women followed for 16 years, found that certain chemicals can protect the body against heart disease. Many of these chemicals are found in the cocoa bean. Flavinoids, a group of polyphenols help to increase the antioxidant levels in the blood and can be measured up to 8 hours after the cocoa is eaten. This is the same group of chemicals found in red wine, grape juice, some berries and certain teas.
They are still not completely sure why this works, but eating the cocoa has been found to reduce blood pressure by increasing the flexibility of the blood vessels and stops blood clots forming.
Cocoa contains chemicals which directly increase the levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These give you a natural feel-good message. Is it surprising that we automatically reach for a bar of chocolate to lift our mood? It is not just a great taste in your mouth, but when the signal hits your brain, you feel great.
Chocolate also contains both caffeine and theobromine – the two stimulators found in coffee and tea – but in much smaller concentrations.
It sounds too simple doesn’t it? But the reality is that chocolate contains a chemical cocktail of mood lifters which work together to energise and relax. Not only are serotonin levels raised, but the brain also releases other endorphins which make you literally feel happy. Not surprising then that King Montezuma of the Aztecs would drink a large dose before entering his harem!