How many times have you heard someone jokingly say that chocolate is a dietary staple belonging to that “other food group”? Well, the addition of this melt-in-your-mouth confection isn’t likely to be recommended as a dietary supplement anytime soon, but there is some good news for chocolate lovers. Recent studies indicate that chocolate may tickle more than your taste buds. In fact, in moderate amounts, it may actually provide some health-giving advantages.

While this may be music to the ears of those who pledge allegiance to the sweet stuff, it should be understood that there are a few inherent drawbacks to consuming chocolate. For one thing, a single ounce of solid chocolate contains approximately 150 calories and consists of 40-53% fat. In addition, chocolate is a plentiful source of phenylethylamine, a compound that behaves similarly to amphetamine and which can trigger an allergic response or migraine headache in certain people. If broccoli had such attributes, all but few of us would have little difficulty in practicing avoidance. But, simply the aroma of chocolate can lure even the most health-conscious consumer. Why is it so hard to resist this culinary indulgence? In part, the answer may lie in human evolution and in our biochemical make-up.

It might suffice to say that we eat a thing because it tastes good. But there are other reasons beyond this simplistic model of thought that govern food selection. Preferences for sweet things is evident in the womb, long before outside forces have a chance to impact us. Many experts believe this hard-wired propensity is related to basic survival skills. In nature, most edible, good-for-you foods have a sweet taste (such as berries and fruit) in contrast to the bitter flavor of many poisonous plants. And, for devout chocoholics, chocolate may be craved in order to alter brain chemistry to produce a “feel good” response, similar to that experienced with increased levels of serotonin and melatonin.

Ever since Columbus brought forth cocoa beans obtained from his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502, chocolate has been a confection of reverence in Europe. But, for more than 200 years after it’s introduction, chocolate was known only as a beverage. A solid form didn’t become available until the 18th century. In France, this version became a popular “instant” breakfast. In the U.S., the first chocolate bar, as we know it, appeared around 1910. Since chocolate was valued for its stimulating effect, it became standard issue for the U.S. armed forces during World War II. Today, giving fine chocolates as an expression of love is a long-standing tradition. What would Valentine’s Day be without it? But, chocolate may pave the way to a person’s heart in more ways than one.

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, concluded that chocolate contains a significant amount of dietary antioxidants. Specifically, researchers are interested in the protective value of phenols (or phenolics), the naturally occurring chemicals responsible for keeping the fat in chocolate from becoming rancid. Phenols from other food sources, such as tea and red wine, have also been studied for their phenol content and are now being compared to those found in chocolate. While all of these foods contain antioxidant catechins, and the specific phenol epicatechin is common to each, they occur in varying degree and composition. For instance, chocolate contains four times the catechin content of tea. Researchers have also found that a 1.5 ounce piece of milk chocolate has a phenolic content and antioxidant affect nearly equivalent to a 5 ounce glass of red wine.

Why are phenols good for you? While researchers do not claim to have proven anything yet, there is mounting evidence that supports several theories that phenols may reduce the risk of heart disease. While studying what has come to be known as the “French Paradox,” scientists discovered a correlation between wine consumption and a surprisingly low incidence of heart disease in a sampling of the French population in spite of having high serum cholesterol levels. The apparent mechanism of phenols is to inhibit the oxidation of cholesterol in the blood, specifically low density lipoprotein (LDL), dubbed as the “bad” cholesterol. Oxidation of LDL is a leading cause of atherosclerosis (arterial plaque buildup), a major contributing factor in heart disease. However, while dietary phenols may prevent lipid peroxidation, they do not reduce serum cholesterol levels. This explains why the French residents involved in the French Paradox observation had high cholesterol levels but a relatively low rate of heart disease mortality. Other studies suggest that dietary phenols, including those found in chocolate, inhibit platelet aggregation and may promote “vasorelaxation.”

Aside from the role indicated in the prevention of heart disease, chocolate phenols may also affect immune function in humans. A recent study published in Cellular Immunology examined the effect of cocoa phenols on normal human blood lymphocytes in vitro. The researchers surmised that cocoa phenols regulate immune response by inhibiting mitogen-induced proliferation of T-cells, Ig production and IL-2 mRNA expression.

Other studies propose that chocolate-derived phenols exhibit anti-ulcer properties. In one recent study, the administration of cocoa phenols reduced gastric lesions and thiobarbituric acid secretion of the gastric lining in ethanol-induced ulcers in rats.

While chocolate may never be touted as a health food, it clearly does have some health-giving benefits to offer. Scientists now recognize that chocolate is an important source of dietary antioxidant phenols in addition to red wine and tea. In fact, just as an occasional glass of red wine is deemed healthy, indulging your sweet tooth with chocolate now and then may actually be good for you. Now, if scientists could just figure out how to get rid of all those calories…

Author's Bio: 

Karyn Siegel-Maier, owner of The Herbal Muse Press and founder of, is a freelance writer specializing in botanical therapies. She has written for many magazines, including Let's Live, Natural Living Today, Real Woman, The Herb Quarterly, Your Health, American Fitness, Mother Earth News, Delicious!, Better Nutrition, Natural Pharmacy and several web sites. She is also the author of The Naturally Clean Home (1st and 2nd editions, 1999 and 2008), 50 Simple Ways to Pamper Your Baby (2000) and Happy Baby, Happy You (2008). She has been the subject of numerous interviews with national magazines and newspapers and has been a guest on several radio shows, such as Gary Null's Natural Living and The Deborah Ray Show.

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