Updated: Aug 6, 2020
They say money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy chocolate and that’s the same thing. We now have a few scientific reasons (or ten) to indulge. Research shows that chocolate can help us cheer up, chill out, and get a little smarter. But be warned: Not all chocolate is created equal.
In addition to improving our mood, chocolate also impacts brain health, heart health and even skin density. Before you go racing to the vending machine, there are a few things you should know. Here is the crash course on the science in chocolate.
Cacao vs. Cocoa
Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, which literally means “food of the gods.” The cacao bean contains almost 12,000 natural chemical ingredients making it the most pharmacologically complex food source in the Amazon rainforest. Cacao, the purest form of chocolate you can consume, is raw and unprocessed and the top source of antioxidants and magnesium of all foods.
Cocoa is the form of cacao that you can buy in just about every grocery store. Cocoa powder is produced through a high heat process to break down the raw cacao. Despite the processing, it still retains many of the nutrients and antioxidants that have significant benefits to the heart, skin, brain and stress levels.
Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) is one way we measure the antioxidants in foods. Antioxidants protect the body from free radical damage we can actually see like wrinkles and age spots. Free radical damage occurs in the brain, too.
The key is in the percentage of pure cacao in the chocolate. The higher the cacao levels, the more antioxidants it contains. The more antioxidants it contains, the better it protects the brain from free radicals, prevents premature brain cell aging, and promotes brain plasticity (which is directly related to intelligence).
Cacao nibs are whole raw cacao beans crumbled into small pieces and are the least processed form of chocolate you can eat. In addition to containing high levels of antioxidants, they also contain flavonoids. Flavonoids improve blood flow to the brain, and then gather together in the parts of brain responsible for learning and memory. This enhances memory, attention span, and problem-solving abilities for several hours after you’ve eaten the chocolate.
(Healthworks produces USDA certified organic 100% raw cacao nibs.) Pure cacao also stimulates the production of phenylethylamine, also known as the “love drug” for the blissful mental state it creates like that of being in love.
Chocolate also contains tryptophan, a compound that stimulates the production of endorphins and floods your brain with serotonin and dopamine. Endorphins bind to receptors in your brain and reduce your perception of pain and stress. In this pain-free, stress-free state, the serotonin and dopamine start to flow giving you a natural high. It’s like organic morphine without the addictive after-effects.
You can also get an energy boost from just a small amount of dark chocolate thanks to the high levels of magnesium it contains. While an estimated 80% of Americans are deficient in magnesium, this nutrient is essential for maintaining healthy nerve function, regulating blood sugar levels, improving metabolism, and increasing energy.
Magnesium is “nature’s chill pill” because it counters cortisol (stress) as it stimulates the production of serotonin. In addition to improving mood, a decrease in cortisol also improves your focus and concentration.
In addition to the brain-boosts we get, chocolate can help the body in many other ways like improving cardiovascular health, skin density, and blood pressure. One of the biggest benefits that researchers tout is the role dark chocolate may play in improving heart health. A meta-analysis of eight studies on the link between chocolate consumption and cardiovascular disease, found that people who ate more chocolate per day had a lower risk of both heart disease and stroke.
The bottom line: go dark and natural. Dark, unprocessed chocolate has more of the brain-boosting compounds and less of the bad stuff like sugar and fats found in milk chocolate and white chocolate.
As with everything in life, too much of a good thing ruins everything. So, go ahead, indulge... just don't overindulge.
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