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Benefits of Chocolate Are Too Good to Be True

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Chocolate beans being ground into Chocolate David LeBovitz

Chocolate has to be the world’s favorite food. Just the mere thought of it can bring a smile to your face and be a great picker-upper. Chocolate can make you glad, sad, mad, and everything in between — what other food can toy with so many of our emotions?

It is probably one of the most versatile foods we have. It can obviously entice your taste buds with its melt-in-your-mouth flavor, it comes in liquid in the form of rich hot chocolate or chocolate liqueur, even the smell of it invites a warm and fuzzy feeling. Folks have gone so far as to include it with their other comfort foods; you can buy chocolate-covered bacon and drink chocolate wine. (I think this might be the place to draw the line.)

So, what's behind this lure of chocolate? Actually, it is all in your head — literally. Eating chocolate stimulates part of the brain called the neostriatum and its production of enhephalin, a natural, opium-like substance. These chemicals surge when eating palatable foods, increasing the desire to eat more, thus the reason for our cravings. Ahh, the guilt is lifted the next time I reach for a piece of that sweet confection.

Actually, this is exactly what nutritionists are now telling us: that consumption of chocolate treats is something we do not have to feel guilty about because it is actually good for us, as long as it is the right kind and in moderation.

All chocolate comes from the cacao tree's pods, which grow straight out of the tree trunk. One tree can produce 2000 pods per year.

These pods are harvested and allowed to ferment, which changes the bitter flavor of in the beans into something more chocolatey. The seeds are then ground into a thick paste called chocolate liquor which, unlike other liquors, does not contain any alcohol. Then sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla, and milk are added in varying proportions. It is these proportions of added ingredients that determine which kind of chocolate is produced, whether it is unsweetened, bittersweet, semi-sweet, sweet, milk, or white.

It is the dark or semi-sweet chocolate that is being touted as good-for-you. Apples may have to share their spotlight, with the old adage being changed to “a dark chocolate a day keeps the doctor away.” Some of the health benefits of eating this sweet confection are:

1. It can help lower blood pressure in people with moderately high numbers, and also increase blood flow.

2. It can help reduce the buildup of plaque in the arteries, thus lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease by a maximum of 50 percent.

3. It is chock-full of antioxidants, which help protect the body from the effects of aging, and also it is showing promise in possibly preventing such diseases as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cataracts, and macular degeneration, to name a few. A serving of blueberries contain 32 antioxidants, while cocoa beans contain a whopping 621 of these protective molecules.

4. Besides the antioxidants, dark chocolate contains many other healthy nutrients. A 10-ounce chunk has 2 grams of fiber, 1.4 grams of protein, and is a decent source of iron, magnesium, copper, and manganese.

5. Eating chocolate actually makes you feel good. The small amount of caffeine it contains can provide a mental boost, and the chemical phenylethylamine boosts endorphins — the feel-good chemicals in the brain. The effect is similar to falling in love. No wonder chocolate has often been called “the love drug.”

6. Besides making you feel better, chocolate just might make you look better. Antioxidants and mood boosters reduce feelings of stress and also release stress hormones. This reduction could make your skin look better, because stress hormones break down collagen in the skin, making wrinkles more prominent. The flavanols in chocolate help make the skin healthier by improving blood flow to the skin, giving it a healthy glow and protecting against sun damage.

7. By increasing blood flow to the brain, chocolate can be called a brain food.

8. It is actually good for blood sugar levels. It contains flavonoids, which can help reduce insulin resistance which, in turn, can help prevent diabetes.

9. Are you ready for this one? The mineral theobromine in chocolate strengthens tooth enamel. Next time you visit your dentist, this could make for an interesting conversation, eating sweets to keep your teeth healthy!

Of course, like everything else, the key to keeping dark chocolate healthy is to be mindful of the amount of consumption. An ounce per day is the general guideline, otherwise you invite the risk of obesity. This also depends on the individual. Some people are natural chocoholics. They eat chocolate everyday, lots of chocolate everyday, and do not gain weight. As a matter of fact, some gain weight when they give up chocolate. That has to be the eighth wonder of the world!

For any of you chocoholics, if you ever get the chance you will want to visit Hershey Chocolate World located in Hershey, Pennsylvania, home of the largest chocolate manufacturer in the United States — The Hershey Company. This is probably the only place in the world where everyone lives and breathes chocolate. Being only a little over an hour from Jim’s hometown, we drove through there a couple years ago. The town even smelled like chocolate.

We have always known that chocolate chip cookies will pretty much get you through any life event. Now we have permission to eat chocolate for our health. So, what’s not to love? Eat on chocolate lover! (Just be sure it’s the dark).

And don't forget that the word cacao is a Greek word meaning “food of the gods.” Imagine that!