Chocolate Is Medicine

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Ease into fall with this healthy wonder

Summer vacation is over, and you just may need something to keep in your desk to ease the transition back into faster, more hurried times. My pick? Dark chocolate. Think really dark, as in 70 percent cocoa. The very dark chocolates contain less fat and sugar, and much more of chocolate's spectacular mood-enhancing and health-imbuing compounds.

Tropical origins

The rainforest tree from which cocoa originates is Theobroma cacao, which means food of the gods. There is a dispute among experts regarding the origin of cacao. But recent DNA research supports the notion that Venezuela's Maracaibo basin marks the spot where the food of the gods first sprang forth in nature. Sometime around 1000 B.C. the Maya, whose civilization flourished from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Pacific coast of Guatemala, are believed to have cultivated the cacao tree for the very first time. The Maya so highly valued cacao, they used cocoa beans as currency, and to pay taxes. From the very onset of its use, cocoa was assigned high status.

When Hernan Cortez returned to Spain from the New World in 1528, he told of a widely consumed food made from the fruit seeds of a tree. Cortez and his conquistadores described great plantations of Theobroma cacao throughout Mexico. His account of chocolate, its popularity and value, greatly piqued the interest of the Spanish. Cortez was chocolate's first and most important trans-continental messenger.

Cacao, The Tree

While Theobroma cacao may grow appreciably taller in the wild, the cultivated tree ranges between 13 - 26 feet in height. The large, distinctive fruit pods of the tree jut out directly from the trunk and the lower branches. Young fruit pods tend to be greenish in color, but as they mature over the course of 5 - 6 months they become elliptical in shape and bright red or yellow in color. The fruit pods average about nine inches in length, and typically contain 30 - 40 almond-sized seeds (what we know as cocoa beans) nestled in a pale white flesh.

Cacao is now cultivated in virtually every tropical area in the world. Cacao is grown commercially throughout Central and South America, Africa, the Caribbean, Indonesia, Malayasia, and the Pacific islands. This widespread distribution is testimony to the popularity of the tree and the heavenly fruit from which chocolate is made.

The Greatest Mood Food

Of the multitudinous compounds in cocoa, one is PEA, or phenethylamine. This chemical, which occurs in chocolate in small quantities, stimulates the nervous system and triggers the release of pleasurable opium-like compounds known as endorphins. It also potentiates the activity of dopamine, a neurochemical directly associated with sexual arousal and pleasure. Phenethylamine increases in the brain when we fall in love, and during orgasm.

Cocoa additionally boosts a sense of well being by increasing brain levels of serotonin, the so-called feel-good brain chemical. For this reason cocoa and chocolate provide a highly desirable mood boost to women during PMS and menstruation, when serotonin levels are often down. In fact, women are consistently more sensitive to chocolate than men. Women typically experience stronger chocolate cravings than men.

Yet another constituent in cocoa alters mental state in pleasurable ways. Anandamide (whose name derives from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss), is a cannabinoid, a member of the same psychoactive substances found in cannabis. Anandamide produces a global feeling of euphoria. This compound may account for why some people become euphoric or blissed-out when they eat chocolate.

Cocoa contains a wealth of naturally-occurring compounds. Of these, the most thoroughly studied are the methylxanthines. The two methylxanthines in chocolate are caffeine and theobromine. According to the Chocolate Information Center, a 50 gram piece of dark chocolate will yield between 10 - 60 milligrams of caffeine, as compared with a five ounce cup of coffee, which can yield up to 180 milligrams. Theobromine, the second methylxanthine, occurs at a concentration of about 250 milligrams in a 50 gram bar of dark chocolate. Like caffeine, theobromine is a central nervous system stimulant, though it is appreciably weaker.

Good For Your Heart!

Substantive science now shows that cocoa is very good for us indeed. Cocoa, which is the primary ingredient in finished chocolate, is rich in antioxidant polyphenols, a group of protective chemicals found in many plant foods such as red wine and tea, which have been the objects of scientific investigation for their beneficial influence on cardiovascular health.

Polyphenols are reportedly cardioprotective in two ways. First, they help to reduce the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or so-called 'bad cholesterol." Oxidation of LDL is considered a major factor in the promotion of coronary disease, most notably heart attack and stroke. Additionally, polyphenols inhibit blood platelets from clumping together. This clumping process, called aggregation, leads to atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries. By inhibiting aggregation, polyphenols reduce the risk of atherosclerosis. Since atherosclerosis is a major killer of American adults, the protection provided by the polyphenols in cocoa is of real value.

Cocoa not only inhibits platelet aggregation, but it thins the blood, thus slowing coagulation. In a study of healthy subjects given a strong cocoa beverage, platelet aggregation was reduced and fewer microparticles had formed than normal. Additionally, blood from the subjects took longer to form a clot than blood from control subjects. This study showed that cocoa performs the same beneficial anti-clotting activity as aspirin.

Daily Chocolate Rx

If you are diabetic, then only pure, unsweetened cocoa is advisable for you. Use it in baking and in smoothies. Otherwise, half a bar daily of semi-sweet strong dark chocolate will put a groove in your mood, protect the cells in your body, and help to maintain heart health. And, it will make running in the rat race just a bit more enjoyable. That's not bad for the world's most beloved confection.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at