The Health Benefits of Chocolate

(originally published 08/04/2008)

In ancient times, the Aztecs revered the cocoa plant as a gift from the gods; today, many women also revere the cocoa plant as a gift from the gods. Native to lowland, tropical South America, cocoa has a rich history, with its earliest documented use around 1100 B.C.

For the most part, chocolate is eaten simply for pleasure’s sake, but it also offers health benefits. “ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) is a measurement for antioxidant activity in food. Of all the healthy fruits and vegetables the USDA has tested, the highest ORAC values were found in prunes, not exactly everyone’s favorite snack,” said Darlene Zembrod, trainer and educator for Ecco Bella. Luckily, for those who are anti-prune, Zembrod added chocolate’s ORAC value is more than two times higher than prunes, and dark chocolate has the same amount of flavonoids as red wine and four times the polyphenols of green tea.

Claire Polson, vice president of marketing and business development, Explorer’s Bounty, explained specific types of flavonoid antioxidants found in chocolate include epicatechin, catechin and procyanidins.

Lisa Francoise, owner and spa chocolatier, Sweet Beauty, noted, “We need to consume a diet high in naturally derived antioxidants to neutralize the free radicals our body is exposed to.” She added free radicals have been linked to premature aging and many diseases.

“Dark chocolate is full of antioxidants and can contribute to heart health, if eaten in moderation,” said Jessie Williams, CEO of EatPastry and partner of Organic Style, citing the large amounts of flavonoids found in chocolate. “Dark chocolate can also lower LDL [low-density lipoprotein] cholesterol, increase blood flow through the arteries, decrease blood clots and may help to lower high blood pressure.”

Zembrod agreed, noting cocoa can reduce blood’s platelet activity, thinning the blood as aspirin does, which helps improve immune function and reduce the inflammation of blood vessels.

One of the ingredients in chocolate, cocoa butter, is thought to be partially responsible for heath health. “Cocoa butter is a heart-healthy fat that does not raise cholesterol levels. In addition, it contains oleic acid, an unsaturated fat that actually raises the good HDL [cholesterol] levels of fat in blood,” said Zembrod. Williams added chocolate can also improve one’s mood, as it raises endorphin and serotonin levels in the brain.

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