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Antioxidant? Amphetamine? Aphrodisiac?

One surprising entry in the health food category is chocolate. The Aztec King Tezozomoc (1320-1426) regarded it as a divine substance and offered distinguished guests cocoa in a tortoise shell. Chocolate is a reputed aphrodisiac. Moctezuma (c. 1466-1520) is said to have drunk chocolate before entering his harem. The famous botanist Carl Linnaeus named the plant Theobroma cacao, i.e., food for the gods. Most of us like chocolate, but some of us crave it so much that they are virtually addicted.

Chocolate Can Be Healthy

Most people assume that anything that tastes so good just has to be bad for you. But according to Karon Harder, a clinical dietitian at Northwest Texas Health Care System, “chocolate can be healthy when it’s part of a varied diet. It’s not that chocolate is bad for you,” she says. “But what’s added to chocolate [mostly sugar, ed.] isn’t that good.”

A report showed that certain substances in cocoa powder inhibit 70% of cancer cells during a critical phase of their growth cycle. Japanese researchers showed that tiny amounts of cacao husk extract (called polycaphenol) are more toxic to human tumor cells than to normal cells. Pretreatment of mice with polycaphenol also protected them from lethal E. coli infections (Jiang 2001).

The eminent food researcher John Weisburger, Ph.D. concluded:

  • “The cocoa bean, and tasty products derived from the cocoa bean such as chocolate, and the  beverage cocoa, popular with many people worldwide, is rich in specific antioxidants” (Weisburger 2001).

Chocolate might also prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, and prevent heart disease.

  • “It would seem reasonable to suggest inhibition of the several phases of the complex processes leading to cancer,” Weisburger said.

Darker Chocolate

The darker the chocolate, the better it is for you, according to Joe Vinson, Ph.D. of the  University of Scranton. Weight for weight, he said, even milk chocolate has twice as many antioxidants as blueberries and dark chocolate has five times as many! And cocoa powder contains twice as many antioxidants as dark chocolate and is almost devoid of fat. If you want to get the benefit of cocoa without sugar or fat, you can add a teaspoon of organic cocoa powder to your morning cup of coffee. Many people find that it enhances the taste. This is called a caffè mocha, or a mochaccino.

Chocolate may also be good for your heart and digestion. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, headed by Dietrich Rein, Ph.D., found that chocolate inhibits the undesirable clumping of platelets.

“Cocoa consumption had an aspirin-like effect,” Rein wrote. Cocoa butter is mainly stearic triglyceride, which is less well absorbed than other fats and is readily excreted. Thus, cocoa butter hardly increases serum cholesterol ( Rein 2000).

Phenylethylamine

Chocolate is chemically complex. It contains phenylethylamine, an amphetamine-like substance that selectively elevates some brain chemicals that are associated with pleasure. Other chemicals in chocolate have the ability to bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, mimicking the effects of cannabis. So there may be something to the old folk tale that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.

I am not advocating an unrelenting diet of chocolate bars, which contain twelve grams of sugar and nine grams of fat per ounce. The famous Hershey Bar (by its own description “The Great American Chocolate Bar”), which weighs 43 grams, contains 220 calories, 8 grams of saturated fat, 25 grams of carbohydrates (but just 1 gram of fiber), 24 grams of sugar, and just 3 grams of protein. And Hershey’s is hardly the worst.

By contrast, a tablespoon of Trader Joe’s organic cocoa powder contains no sugar, half a gram of fat, 3 grams of carbohydrates, of which 2 grams is fiber. This yields 1 gram of “net carbs” per tablespoon serving. So while a Hershey bar will raise a diabetic person’s blood sugar by many points, the cocoa powder would have a negligible effect.

Negative effects of chocolate?

Chocolate may also have some negative health effects, particularly in migraine sufferers and among women with severe PMS. According to the American Migraine Foundation, chocolate is the second most common trigger for migraine attacks (after alcohol). They say that it affects an estimated 22 percent of people who experience migraine. Chocolate contains both caffeine and beta-phenylethylamine, which may trigger headaches in some people. But even they admit that “In actuality, there have been no studies or only negative trials for headache provocation for cheeses, chocolate, dairy products, soy isoflavones, and vegetables.”

So this connection is largely in the realm of anecdotal evidence, which is notoriously unreliable. Chocolate may increase kidney stone formation in those who are prone to that painful disease. But overall, we agree with the conclusions of David L. Katz and his fellow Yale University researchers who wrote an erudite 32-page review of the topic:

  • “Overall, research…suggests that the benefits of moderate cocoa or dark chocolate consumption likely outweigh the risks” (Katzx 2011).

We agree. But Arizona researchers once wrote a paper asking whether chocolate was a food or a drug (Brunisma 1999). So who knows? Perhaps someday the FDA will reclassify this substance and you will have to apply for an Investigative New Drug (IND) number just to get a chocolate bar!

References

  • Bruinsma K, Taren DL. Chocolate: food or drug? J Am Diet Assoc. 1999 Oct;99(10):1249-56. doi: 10.1016/S0002-8223(99)00307-7. PMID: 10524390.
  • Jiang Y, Satoh K, Aratsu C, et al. Diverse biological activity of polycaphenol. In Vivo. 2001 Mar-Apr;15(2):145-9. PMID: 11317519.
  • Katz DL, Doughty K, Ali A. Cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2011 Nov 15;15(10):2779-811. doi: 10.1089/ars.2010.3697. Epub 2011 Jun 13. PMID: 21470061; PMCID: PMC4696435.
  • Rein D, Paglieroni TG, Wun T, Pearson DA, Schmitz HH, Gosselin R, Keen CL. Cocoa inhibits platelet activation and function. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Jul;72(1):30-5. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/72.1.30. PMID: 10871557.
  • Weisburger JH. Chemopreventive effects of cocoa polyphenols on chronic diseases. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2001 Nov;226(10):891-7. doi: 10.1177/153537020122601003. PMID: 11682694.

Original Publication 2002