For the Love of Chocolate
Considering that Valentine’s Day just passed by, let’s discuss my favorite food group – CHOCOLATE. It’s true that the USDA doesn’t recognize chocolate as its own group on the food pyramid (or plate, depending on when you grew up), but my G’ma Street taught me that rich, dark chocolate is above and beyond the other sweets & treats, and in moderation, it's actually very good for you.
Chocolate is processed from the cocoa bean, which is rich in plant nutrients called flavonoids. Flavonoids are also present in other plant-based foods, such as cranberries, apples, peanuts, onions, tea, and red wine. As a group, flavonoids are considered anti-oxidants because they help the body’s cells to resist damage caused by free radicals that form as a result of natural processes, such as breathing, but also from environmental factors, such as cigarette smoke, car exhaust, or even overexposure to the sun. If our body is unable to combat the free radical damage with anti-oxidants, we can develop different diseases and health conditions.
The main flavonoid found in chocolate is flavanol. In addition to being an anti-oxidant, flavanol assists with the production of nitric oxide in the inner cell lining of your blood vessels, which causes them to relax and dilate, thereby reducing blood pressure and improving circulation throughout the body, including the brain. This means that eating chocolate regularly could reduce your risk of heart disease and improve cognition!
In addition to flavanol, chocolate is also rich in iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, and phosphorous, all of which are important minerals for your body. Your ability to transport oxygen in the blood and store it in your muscles to produce energy depends on iron, which requires copper to be absorbed and used. Magnesium and zinc are important for proper immune system function, allowing you to fight off illness, and also for regulation of blood sugar levels, which is important in preventing diabetes. Phosphorus is needed to form strong bones & teeth, and is required for your nerves to transmit signals. All are pretty important things!
You may be wondering about the fats and sugars in chocolate and thinking, “Surely those can’t be good for you at all!” That’s not entirely true. The fat in chocolate is a combination of oleic acid, stearic acid, and palmitic acid. Oleic acid is an unsaturated fat that is also found in olive oil and lowers LDL cholesterol levels. Both stearic acid & palmitic acid are saturated fats, which typically are linked to higher LDL levels, but recent research shows that stearic acid is more commonly associated with lower LDLs because it can be converted into oleic acid. As for the sugars, there is no way to spin that around into something healthy, so I will admit that chocolate is not perfect. But then again, what is?
Before you reach for your favorite candy bar as a healthy snack, remember that DARK chocolate is better. Dark chocolate is usually 50-90% chocolate solids, which contain the flavanols and essential minerals that are good for you. It also has much less sugar than more processed forms, so the negative effects are greatly reduced.
So next time you crave chocolate, eat it without the guilt - you're taking care of yourself, after all!