By Dr. Michael Miles
Special to the Crier
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and for many of us it is a celebration of love that is dipped in chocolate. This delectable culinary delight has captured the hearts of humankind for centuries. Though most of the cocoa plants from which it is derived are now cultivated in Africa, it was originally discovered here in the Latin Americas.
Scientists have ardently tried to determine which of the 300+ ingredients found in chocolate are responsible for the extreme attraction that humans feel for it. They discovered a number of alkaloids (caffeine, theobromine) that are linked with serotonin and could arguably provide the connection. There are some constituents (phenethylamine) that stimulate the release of endorphins and are associated with a strong sense of well being. There are even cannabinoids (anandamide) found in chocolate.
Some scientists believe that the emotional benefits of chocolate are much simpler than can be derived from intense scrutiny of its individual components…they conclude quite simply that chocolate’s real benefits are proffered by its unique combination of aroma, texture and taste. They claim that munching on a bar induces sensations that could be even more pleasurable than listening to one’s favorite music or winning the lottery…or even falling in love.
Regardless of the origin of the “love” connection, some of the physical constituents of cocoa, or their combinations, have real health benefits. Dark chocolate has substantial amounts of antioxidants (resveratrol) in it that have a protective effect against free radicals, which are associated with cancer, hardening of the arteries and aging.
Cocoa is known to have constituents that are protective of the heart. These polyphenols (epicatechin, gallic acid) are the same ones that are found in red wine and green tea. They can reduce the oxidation of the “bad cholesterols” that contribute to hardening of the arteries. They can also inhibit platelets from clumping together.
From a health standpoint, the very best ways to benefit from chocolate are to consume the actual cocoa powder or to eat only a moderate amount in its “dark chocolate” form.
Dark chocolate’s composition is regulated by the government. The amount of cocoa beans in dark chocolate usually ranges from 35% to 99%. A distinction is made between cooking chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate and milk chocolate.
When the Europeans got a hold of the cocoa beans they began processing them by adding sugar and milk. This is the derivation of what is now known as “milk chocolate.” The sugar content often is as high as 75-80%. This amount of sugar may contribute to some individual’s development of hypoglycemia or diabetes.
Some “dark chocolates” on the other hand have very little sugar added. The bittersweets may legally have up to a third of its ingredients be sugar. Semi-sweet chocolate may contain 50% sugar. Milk chocolate may get away with only 10% cocoa.
Regardless of the specific ingredients in chocolate that makes it so irresistible and delectable, we are certain that it will always have a place in our hearts and be forever linked with love.