Tis The Season For Chocolate
We are in the midst of the chocolate season with Valentine's Day and Easter right on the tail of Christmas and Halloween! From October to March (half the year) is devoted to chocolate. With all the healthy benefits surrounding chocolate, why not just keep it around all year long! Chocolate is an amazing food. Not only does it taste heavenly, it has heart health benefits, possibly cancer health benefits and most definitely mental health benefits, just to name a few. I cannot think of any other one food that has all these qualities.
Chocolate is native to Mexico, Central and South America. Theobroma cacao has been cultivated for at least three millennia in that region according to Wikipedia. Cocoa mass was used originally in Mesoamerica both as a beverage and as an ingredient in foods. Sources seem to disagree as to when chocolate first arrived on the scene. One says as early as 1500 B.C. with the Olmec in modern day Veracruz and Tabasco; one says 1100 to 1400 B.C. in Honduras; and yet another says 400 A.D. with the Mayans. But, most sources agree it started as a frothy, bitter, spicy drink, and continued as a drink in some form for nearly all its history.
It was the explorer Cortez who first combined cocoa with sugar and other spices in the early 1500's to create a version of today's hot chocolate; and only royalty and the extremely wealthy could afford this drink. Quite a contrast to today! The chocolate bar came about in the mid-1800's, some say English, others say a Swiss candy maker. But no matter who or what the date, chocolate has long been referred to as the "food of the gods". We go along with that!
It all begins with the cacao (pronounced kuh-KOW) bean. First, the cacao bean is roasted and ground into a thick chocolate liquor (non-alcoholic). This liquor, hardened, is unsweetened chocolate. When pressure is added to the liquor, it pushes out the bean’s fat, called cocoa butter. Cocoa powder is made by drying and sifting the remaining material from the liquor.
In general, the higher the percentage of cacao, the darker the chocolate, the more intense the flavor and the higher the content of antioxidants. Unsweetened baking chocolate has 100% cacao; dark chocolate from 45-80%, semisweet or bittersweet at least 35%, sweet chocolate at least 15% and milk chocolate at least 10%. White chocolate is not truly chocolate, because it contains no cocoa liquor. It is called chocolate because of the cocoa butter. It has no antioxidants. The different types of eating chocolate are created by mixing varying blends of several main ingredients.
Dark chocolate: sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa liquor, and (sometimes) vanilla
Milk chocolate: sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa liquor, milk or milk powder, and vanilla
White chocolate: sugar, cocoa butter, milk or milk powder, and vanilla
Wow, pretty interesting. So, what about the health benefits? They are related to the percentage of cacao. Most of the health benefits are touted with dark chocolate, and experts recommend choosing at least 70% cacao. Dark chocolate above 70% cacao gets pretty intense. Dark chocolate is packed with flavonoids, a group of phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. Research shows that consuming chocolate increases the antioxidants in our blood.
A steady stream of population and lab studies link eating chocolate in moderation with heart health, including improving blood vessel function and lowering blood pressure. The flavonoids can slow the oxidation of LDL cholesterol (the "bad" type). When LDL cholesterol becomes oxidized it can clog blood vessels. Fruits and vegetables are also excellent sources of antioxidants.
Other possible effects under basic research include anticancer, brain stimulator, cough preventer and anti-diarrheal activities. And of course, there are numerous studies done on mental health and increased blood flow to the brain. Experts say chocolate contains Serotonin and Phenylethylamine both of which are mood lifting agents found naturally in the human brain and are released when we are feeling happy, in love or exercising. Eating chocolate also releases these agents into the system, thus it can provide a 'lift' when we are feeling down or depressed. One source reports that letting chocolate melt in your mouth is supposed to stimulate brain activity.
But too much chocolate can play a role in obesity and in some people may be related to headaches, especially migraines. If you have a risk for kidney stones, you may have to limit chocolate. And chocolate may interfere with some medications, check with your pharmacist. Always discuss any individual limitations of chocolate or precautions with your doctor.
So, once again, moderation is the key. If you have no medical limitations, Include up to an ounce per day of dark chocolate, 70% cacao if possible. For common chocolate choices, the percentage is often not stated on the package. So, choose the dark chocolate option if it is available. Along with that daily chocolate fix, include at least 30 minutes of exercise and three to four servings each of fruits and vegetables. Practice this regimen every day for a healthy mood and a great boost of antioxidant protection.
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