& Joannie Dobbs Monday,
February 14, 2005
The benefits of chocolate
No food is more tightly linked to romance than chocolate. With the scientific name Theobroma cacao, literally "food of the gods," the cacao plant is a source of special substances that can provide health benefits. Since its first recorded use by Europeans in the mid-1500s, it has been employed to treat more than 100 medical conditions.
Question: What are the beneficial components?
Answer: Cocoa powder is rich in a number of potentially beneficial phytochemicals, some of which might even have psychoactive effects that influence brain function and mood.
For example, chocolate contains moderate amounts of the stimulant theobromine -- enough to dilate blood vessels and stimulate the heart, giving that "feeling a little flushed" sensation.
Anandamide, a compound in the fat component of chocolate, can mimic the effects of marijuana in the brain, although it won't get you high. (One person challenged his positive marijuana urine test in court by saying he had eaten a large amount of chocolate. The novel defense was not successful; chocolate won't affect such a test.)
Many people crave chocolate, although researchers have not identified any one component that causes craving. The desire could be due to a combination of chocolate's components.
Some people avoid chocolate because it might contribute to migraines, so be careful whom you give it to. You could be remembered for a headache.
The main components that give chocolate a healthful image are flavanoids, similar to those found in red wine, green tea and most fruits and vegetables. They are thought to function as antioxidants, protecting against heart disease, cancers, possibly even aging.
Q: What about the fat and sugar in chocolate?
A: Since cocoa chocolate is bitter, it must be sweetened to be palatable. So chocolate is not diet food, being high in both sugar and fat. But the type of fat in chocolate has some redeeming features, as it does not, by itself, stimulate an increase in cholesterol. Keep in mind, however, that the sugar and fat in chocolate are a rich source of calories, and weight gain, alone, increases blood cholesterol.
Chocolate certainly has some redeeming nutritional qualities deserving of guiltless enjoyment (in moderation). But, don't expect to see it in one of the pyramid food groups -- except for the one that says, "Eat sparingly."
Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S. and Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.
are nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences,
College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, UH-Manoa.
Dr. Dobbs also works with the University Health Service
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