Chocolate: Food of the Gods
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Chocolate: Food of the Gods

Chocolate. The mere mention of it makes mouths water. Whether in a heart-shaped box, a rich three-layer cake, a warm, just-out-of-the-oven cookie, or a gooey candy bar, chocolate is the food most commonly craved by Americans.

And while Americans gobble up 11 pounds of the delectable treat per person per year, the Swiss eat twice that, making them the world's leading chocolate lovers.

Magic Beans

Suitors and sweet-lovers alike have the humble cocoa tree to thank for chocolate, whose botanical name, "theobroma," is Greek for "food of the gods." Cocoa beans were first roasted and enjoyed in Mayan and Aztec civilizations as a spicy drink called "chocolatl."

Eventually, these beans made their way to Europe, where, during Victorian times, a technique was devised for making solid "eating" chocolate. Chocolate-making techniques have evolved over the years, yielding a candy with a melting point slightly lower than normal body temperature, which explains why those truffles melt so nicely in your mouth.

A Good Bar?

Recent scientific research has hinted that chocolate may not be as sinful as traditionally believed.

Take antioxidants , for example, which prevent cellular damage in the body and subsequently help decrease the risk for various chronic conditions. Dark chocolate contains relatively high levels of antioxidant flavanols and proanthocyanidins. These substances fight dangerous free radicals, and also may help to relax blood vessels, improve blood sugar control, and help prevent blood clots.

But chocolate is by no means a "health food;" its antioxidants are delivered in a high-calorie, high-fat, fiber-free package. Fruits and vegetables also supply antioxidants but with virtually no fat, very few calories, a significant dose of fiber , and other healthful nutrients.

Cholesterol Concerns

Much of chocolate's exquisite taste and "mouth feel" can be attributed to the perfect combination of fat and sugar. One ounce of chocolate delivers about nine grams of fat, and a standard bar of milk chocolate is about 60% fat. Half of the fat found in chocolate is saturated fat—the kind that is traditionally thought to increase the risk of heart disease by raising cholesterol levels.

But stearic acid, the main saturated fatty acid in chocolate, appears to be an exception to the rule. Many studies have found that this particular saturated fat does not raise cholesterol levels.

There is, nonetheless, the issue of all those calories. Excess calories can lead to weight gain, which increases cholesterol levels and chronic disease risk.

A Stimulating Treat

Chocolate contains caffeine and a similar chemical called theobromine. Both mildly stimulate the central nervous system and could speed your heart up a bit and increase alertness. It's a relatively small amount of caffeine, though, containing 10 milligrams per average 1.65-ounce bar (compared to 80 milligrams in a cup of coffee).

Theobromine may offer some other benefits, as well. Thanks to the effects of this chemical, there is some preliminary evidence to suggest that chocolate may be helpful with prevention of chronic cough.

What's a Chocoholic to Do?

Here are some tips for satisfying your craving without overindulging:

Minimize
Often a small taste is all you need. Skip the two-pound bars and buy minibars (half-ounce or less) of chocolate. A half-ounce of milk chocolate, about the size of three Hershey Kisses, contains less than 80 calories and five grams of fat.

In addition, choose good quality dark chocolate over other types; dark chocolate contains higher amounts of healthy antioxidants, like those find in red wine and green tea.

Try Cocoa
Cocoa powder has most of the cocoa butter (the fatty part) removed. A tablespoon of cocoa can have as little as 20 calories and 0.5 grams of fat. Use cocoa instead of milk chocolate or baking chocolate in your cooking to give a chocolatey flavor with less fat. Or fix a warm mug of hot cocoa to soothe a craving.

Squirt Some Syrup
Top low-fat frozen yogurt or ice cream with chocolate-flavored syrup (made with cocoa). A tablespoon adds lots of flavor, and as little as 50 calories and no fat.

Explore Your Options
Check the supermarket for chocolate-flavored products, including nonfat and low-fat chocolate pudding, chocolate-flavored rice cakes, frozen yogurt, and milk, and hot cocoa

References:

Usmani O, Belvisi M, et al. Theobromine inhibits sensory nerve activation and cough. The FASEB J. 2005;19(2):231-233.

Vlachopoulos C, Alexopoulos N, Stefanadis C. Effect of dark chocolate on arterial function in healthy individuals: cocoa instead of ambrosia? Curr Hypertens Rep. 2006;8(3):205-211.



Last reviewed January 2007 by Marcin Chwistek, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.


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