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A Public Service Announcement about Chocolate

           Not only is chocolate the world’s favorite treat, it is perhaps the most beneficial as well.  To start with nutrition, exciting evidence is mounting to show that the antioxidant polyphenols in chocolate, called flavonols, work to inhibit the formation of sticky ldl cholesterol oxidations that form blood clots and clumps on artery walls.  So consuming chocolate may actually help to improve blood flow and reduce blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular accidents associated with clots.  Do not expect your doctor to take you off your aspirin therapy in favor of chocolate therapy, yet the evidence is promising.
           Chocolate does contain a good bit of saturated fat, which is of course implicated in raising serum cholesterol levels.  However, eating chocolate has been proved to have a neutral effect on cholesterol levels (perhaps with the help of the soy lecithin that fine chocolates contain).  And cholesterol starts to become irrelevant if it does not stick or clump.  Also, naturally saturated fat like cocoa butter is highly resistant to rancidity, the oxidation process that releases free radicals implicated in a wide range of human ailments, from gout to cancer.  So chocolate not only contributes no free radicals of its own but also fights the free radicals from other sources!  Not bad for candy.glyphs2a02
          Keep in mind that high (natural) fat treats modulate blood sugar levels, discouraging the sugar spikes and resulting inflammation and mood swings associated with sugary snacks.  So chocolate treats are less likely than high-carb, low-fat treats to lead to obesity and diabetes.  And, finally, chocolate does not promote acne nor tooth decay, as has been claimed in the past.  In fact, it is likely that cocoa butter prevents some of the damage done by dental plaque by leaving a protective film on the teeth.
           All this healthy stuff would be of much less interest were it not for the feel-good side of chocolate chemistry.  Among chocolate’s more than three hundred chemical components are mild doses of several psychoactive drugs.  The stimulants include caffeine, theobromine (named for the cocoa tree itself, the food of the gods, theobroma cacoa), tyramine, and phenylethylamine, an amphetamine-like substance which releases dopamine to the appropriate brain centers of lovers and chocolate-lovers alike
 
         The uppers are mellowed by downers.  An ongoing marijuana study in San Diego, CA, has discovered that a substance in chocolate called anandamide enters the blood stream and bonds with the cannabis receptors in the human brain, producing a mild but measurable euphoria.  No average adult will get stoned on chocolate – the required dose is about twenty-five pounds in one feeding frenzy – but the trace chemistry is real.  This may be part of chocolate’s proven analgesic properties.  Some of the most effective pain relief medications have been designed around a pain reliever coupled with caffeine to help speed the analgesic across the brain/blood barrier.  Chocolate appears to be doing the same thing naturally.
          
The other important relaxant begins as the amino acid tryptophan.  One of its chemical products is serotonin, famous for promoting feelings of calm, relaxation, confidence, and well-being.  Tryptophan is also a precursor of melatonin, the circadian (waking/sleeping) rhythm regulator, and niacin, which has a host of functions (including cholesterol balance, leading us back to the nutrition side).  So it is clear that there really is a chocolate high that both invigorates and relaxes.  And it is legal.  And remarkably healthy.  Who could ask for more?
          
Keep in mind that all of these facts pertain to natural dark chocolate.  Milk chocolate might contain as little as half as much natural chocolate as bittersweet, so the benefits decrease accordingly.  And white chocolate is missing the bitter cocoa solids that contribute all of the drugs and most of the nutrients.  That is one reason why at bruce’s best we use only high quality dark chocolates for our centers, with a bit of milk and white for finish and garnish as needed.  Beware of imitations.  The products called coating, summer coating, compound, or chocolate-flavored-something-or-other are loaded with trans fat and typically very high in sugar as well.  And the cocoa powder they may contain is normally low in flavonols and other desirable components.  These imitations are sweet, cheap, and easy to handle; but they are not chocolate.

Detail from a mural at Cacaxtla, Mexico

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The Cacao God, from a Classic Mayan bowl

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