Yes, you read the title correctly – chocolate is indeed a part of this healthy ingredient highlight series. How is that possible, you ask? Isn’t chocolate a sweet treat we eat feeling a little guilty? Is it far from what jumps to your mind when you think of health foods? Well, it turns out that cocoa is good for your health. So you can say goodbye to your guilt when you eat chocolates with a high cocoa content such as dark chocolate: you are treating not only your taste buds but your body too.
Chocolate is so widespread today some people might jokingly say it is their religion. Interestingly, chocolate and religion actually do have a historically close relationship.
History of Chocolate
The first traces of chocolate can be found in Mesoamerican civilizations as early as 600 BC. Believed to have divine origins, chocolate was drunk with spices and chilies rather than with sugar like today. It was usually prepared by priests for religious ceremonies.
When it was brought to Europe in the 1500s, chocolate was at the heart of many controversies among Christian Europeans, who viewed it suspiciously, fearing that it would corrupt morally those who consumed it. Priests debated whether consuming it was a sign of over-indulgence. Eventually, chocolate won over even the strictest of priests who declared that it was a suitable drink to have even during fasting periods. Today, chocolate fits any festive occasion: Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Valentine’s Day… Whether we are celebrating historically religious holidays, the interaction of the living and the dead, or love, chocolate is a central element in our celebrations.
Not only was chocolate used for religious purposes, it also had medicinal uses in Mesoamerican civilizations. Today, scientific studies show us that chocolate can indeed help your body steer itself towards better overall health.
Benefits of Chocolate
Cocoa contains flavonoids, giving chocolate strong antioxidant properties, which help your body steer clear from chronic diseases due to oxidative stress1. Indeed, antioxidants play an important role in preventing damage from free radicals (unbalanced atoms due to cellular processes in the body), which can lead to oxidative stress. A balance between free radicals and antioxidants is necessary to avoid oxidative stress and the chronic diseases that issue from it.
For example, chocolate will improve your cardiovascular health2. So don’t hesitate to follow your heart if it tells you to eat chocolate, you will be doing it a favor! The flavonoids present in chocolate increase the blood flow to the heart and lower blood pressure, ensuring that your heart functions better. In addition, chocolate prevents the formation of blood clots, reducing the risk of stroke3
Cocoa also contains magnesium. Researchers in England have recently studied the role of magnesium to our circadian rhythms – our body clock. Magnesium allows us to fall asleep more easily and have a more restorative quality of sleep4
Enjoying a piece of dark chocolate with your tea or coffee is not only a way to add some sweetness to your morning or afternoon, but it will also get your ready for a day of work – indeed, chocolate has been shown to enhance cognitive performances 5. A study even found a correlation between the number of people winning Nobel prizes and chocolate consumption in a country6! It is once again the flavonoids present in chocolate that have a positive effect, since they increase the blood flow to your brain, helping with memory, short-term cognitive function and the prevention of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Plan of Action for Chocolate
We are used to thinking of chocolate as a sweet treat, but there are many ways in which you can enjoy the taste and health benefits without binging on sugar. If you are craving a sweet chocolaty treat, a solution could be to look for baked goods that have cocoa powder in them, which is much lower in sugar and fat than chocolate, with all the health benefits. But chocolate isn’t necessarily sweet, it can also be absolutely delicious in savory dishes! Mexican mole sauce is a great example of this: made of a variety of peppers, onions, garlic, raisins, broth, cumin, cinnamon, herbs such as thyme and marjoram, tomatoes and of course, unsweetened chocolate, this sauce will give you a new appreciation of the delights of chocolate in a savory dish. You can also combine balsamic vinegar, unsweetened chocolate, honey and salt to make a delicious sauce to drizzle over roasted carrots or beats.
You can now enjoy eating chocolate with a clear conscience, knowing that you are helping your heart, your mind, and the overall health of your body!
Lisa Darmet is a freelance writer, whose passions include, not only eating, but also food and cooking and their connections to health, culture and society. She is a graduate of Hampshire College, Amherst, MA, USA with a specialty in “Cultivating Resiliency and Food Justice Through Community”. She is truly a citizen of the world and continues to explore cultures through world travel.