Love Your Heart: The Amazing Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
Cocoa and chocolate are derived from the seeds of Theobroma cacao trees. The tree produces yellow pods, with a white fruit inside, and the seeds are contained therein. Cocoa contains more phenolic antioxidants than most other foods. In fact, cocoa has more phenolic phytochemicals and a higher antioxidant capacity than teas and red wine, which suggests that cocoa is more beneficial to health in terms of its higher antioxidant delivery. It also contains an abundance of magnesium. No wonder we love it!
The blend of nutrients in cocoa promote a variety of health benefits, most notably, healthy blood pressure and lowering LDL cholesterol. But cocoa is also being studied for anti-inflammatory properties, and its role in reducing diabetes and cancer risk.
Flavonoids, including catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidins are responsible for it’s high antioxidant activity. The epicatechin in cocoa is primarily responsible for its positive impact on vascular endothelium by helping to increase nitric oxide production and thereby maintain healthy blood pressure. Cardiovascular effects are also mediated through through the anti-inflammatory effects of cocoa polyphenols. The antioxidant effects of cocoa may directly influence insulin resistance and, in turn, reduce risk for diabetes. Cocoa can protect nerves from injury and inflammation, protect the skin from oxidative damage from UV radiation in topical preparations, and have beneficial effects on satiety, cognitive function, and mood. 
The main outcomes from 28 human intervention studies (between 2000 and 2007) for mostly healthy subjects consuming a cocoa beverage or a dark chocolate bar include improved endothelial function, decreased susceptibility of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) to oxidation, inhibition of platelet aggregation/activation, and decreased levels of F2-isoprostanes. Human trials conducted since 2007 also found that cocoa consumption positively affected blood pressure, cholesterol, oxidative parameters, glucose/insulin levels, platelet function, brain blood flow/cognitive function, inflammation,
and the skin 
Many people know that cocoa and chocolate contain theobromine, the bitter alkaloid in cacao, which is also found in tea leaves, and is in the same class of compounds as caffeine. It’s not as strong as caffeine but it’s still partially responsible for the slightly stimulating and uplifting effect of eating chocolate, especially dark chocolate, which contains more of this compound. Theobromine is not degraded by processing techniques and has high bioavailability. One ounce of dark chocolate can contain up to 200 mg of theobromine. Theobromine is also a vasodilator with a little diuretic effect which again, helps support healthy blood pressure. But it also releases the compound anandamide, which produces uniquely euphoric feelings of relaxation and contentment.
Of course, you won’t get all these health benefits from your typical milk chocolate. It’s dark chocolate that contains therapeutic doses of these beneficial elements, and the darker the better.
A couple of years ago, while shopping in a local health food store, I first came upon raw cacao powder, lined up next to all the other superfoods you can add to a smoothie. Raw cacao powder is not truly “raw”. It is fermented for a few days and then roasted. But it’s roasted at lower controlled temperatures for only the necessary amount of time to develop its flavor and release from its shell. The cacao is then chopped up to make cacao nibs, or milled into powder. This “raw” powder has many more of its nutrients left intact and is a better choice to use in smoothies or other raw healthy snacks.
In contrast, cacao being processed for cocoa powder goes through higher heat roasting and sometimes alkali extraction known as “dutch processing” to produce a darker richer cocoa powder, which will be used to make chocolate. Avoid the “dutch processed” cocoa powder, and stick with regular cocoa powder for baking and cooking as it will contain higher levels of beneficial phytochemicals.
Cacao has been consumed for generations in Mexican, Central and South American cultures and is one of the richest sources of antioxidants found in nature. The health benefits of dark chocolate are becoming very well-known and I feel just fine about indulging in a square or two of organic dark chocolate every day, as a healthier way to satisfy my sweet tooth!
Lisa Murray, RDN, LD
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