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Aaaah Chocolate. Chocolate is one of the world’s most popular foods. Any well-appointed dessert table will have its share of fine chocolates. And any self-respecting man would have to consider chocolate as a gift to his sweetheart. But who would think that this rich, dark, decadent treat might actually have some health benefits. Let’s take a closer look and explore the world of chocolate.

Chocolate is produced from the seeds of the tropical Cacao (Kuh-Kow) tree. The fruit of these trees is a large leathery pod and in these pods lies the prized seed or bean that is used to make chocolate. The Cacao tree is native to Mexico, Central and South America. In this region the fruit of this tree was used extensively by early Mesoamerican people including the Olmec, Maya and Aztec cultures. These advanced cultures used this bitter bean in ceremonies, for medicinal purposes, and in a variety of culinary applications. The bean was so valuable that it was even used as currency.

Columbus was thought to be the first to bring Cacao back to Europe. In the early 1500’s Columbus sailed to the island of Guanaja, just off the coast of Honduras. It was here that he met the Mayan people and brought with him to Spain some of these beans that were originally thought to be some type of almond. But they went largely overlooked in lieu of other more exciting riches. Decades later Cortes would discover the Aztec’s. He observed Montezuma, the emperor of the Aztecs, dining on whipped frothy chocolate which he ate with a golden spoon. He noted that this culture was steeped in chocolate. Cortes would bring the knowledge of chocolate and how to prepare it back to Spain in 1527. Well, the rest is history. Now chocolate consumption spans the globe and throughout most of the world’s tropical regions Cacao trees are grown for their unique bounty.

Chocolate production consists of drying, roasting and processing the Cacao beans into chocolate liquor. This is chocolate in its purest form consisting of roughly equal parts of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. This pure liquor is then further processed into three general categories. Dark chocolate, which is made up of the highest concentrations of chocolate liquor and small minimal amounts of sugar added. Sweet chocolate, which has higher amounts of sugar and less chocolate liquor, and White chocolate, which has cocoa butter and sugar and no cocoa solids.

As for the health benefits of chocolate we are speaking of dark chocolate or chocolate liquor. We are not speaking of run of the mill chocolate candy bars or junk food treats containing chocolate. These high sugar, would- be-sources of chocolate often do not contain much, if any, real chocolate at all. Unfortunately, these options many times are overloaded with chemicals that mimic chocolate flavor and worse yet, they often don’t contain the more expensive cocoa butter, but rather less expensive and harmful hydrogenated oils instead. To see any potential health benefits from chocolate one has to consider chocolate in its purest form.

Darker more pure forms of chocolate contain things like theobromine, tryptophan, phenethylamine, and much smaller amounts of naturally occurring sugar and caffeine. Theobromine is a bitter alkaloid found in cacao and other plants. It is thought to have similar characteristics to caffeine therefore is implicated as a possible source for addiction to chocolate as well as promoting alertness. Theobromine is a vassodialor, which can help lower blood pressure, it is a diuretic and a heart stimulant as well as an affective cough reducer. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid and precursor to serotonin. Healthy levels of serotonin help to elevate mood and relieve tension. Phenethylamine is sometimes referred to as the “Love Chemical” and promotes a sense of calm. Dark chocolate has recently been determined to contain high levels of antioxidants, which reduce the formation of free radicals that can damage the body. According to a 2003 study published by the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, chocolate has higher antioxidant levels than red wine or green tea. Chocolate is also high in a particular saturated fat called stearic acid. And while most saturated fat is harmful, this particular fat does not raise levels of bad cholesterol (LDL). Chocolate is also high in magnesium which, along with its mood elevating properties, may explain why menstruating women crave chocolate since pre-menstrual syndrome can be exacerbated by magnesium deficiency.

The next time you want to satisfy your taste buds with a treat of some kind you may want to consider dark chocolate. You will satisfy your craving and receive some possible health benefits as well.

Written by DMK of Seven Grains