Chocolate’s Natural Healing Compounds

Halloween and Valentine’s Day are long past, Easter is this month and every day is somebody’s birthday, anniversary or another cause for celebration. Of course, we learned long ago that we don’t need a special occasion to shower ourselves in chocolate, but many of us may never have realized that something so delicious and indulgent can actually be good for us!

An antioxidant powerhouse

Chocolate is packed with natural compounds called antioxidants that scientists have discovered can protect your body and promote good health. In fact, ounce for ounce, dark chocolate and cocoa have more antioxidants than do foods like blueberries, green tea and red wine. Surprised? Many people are. That’s because they forget that chocolate is a plant-based food.

“The main ingredient in chocolate is cocoa beans — the seeds of the fruit of the cacao tree,” says Debra Miller, Ph.D., Senior Nutrition Scientist with the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition, who has studied chocolate’s health benefits extensively. “Because of modern manufacturing and the common form of the ‘chocolate bar’, most people today don’t associate chocolate with its natural beginnings, but chocolate is essentially food of the earth.”

Scientists theorize that plants naturally produce antioxidants to help them survive harsh growing conditions and to protect them from environmental stress. These same compounds can aid the humans who eat the plants too. Recent studies suggest that the antioxidants in foods may reduce the risk of many kinds of illness, from heart disease to cancer. Antioxidants like those found in dark chocolate and cocoa have also been linked to some of the hallmarks of good cardiovascular health such as enhanced blood flow, healthy cholesterol levels and, in some cases, reduced blood pressure.

Dark chocolate and cocoa contain high levels of cell-protecting antioxidant compounds. Two tablespoons of natural cocoa have more antioxidant capacity than four cups of green tea, one cup of blueberries and one and one-half glasses of red wine.

Studies show that as soon as 30 minutes after eating one 40-gram serving of dark chocolate, blood levels of the two main antioxidants in chocolate, epicatechin and catechin, are heightened. They peak two hours after consumption and are cleared from the body after about six hours.

Antioxidants work by protecting your cells from damaging molecules called free radicals. These are basically unstable oxygen molecules that can trigger changes in the structure of normally healthy cells. This damage is thought to be an underlying cause of many chronic diseases. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals.

Free radicals are a natural by-product of life, but as we get older the natural antioxidants our body makes to fight them off begin to decline, experts say. The best way to recharge your antioxidant power is to get them through your diet. Now you know why your mom and your doctor always told you to eat your fruits and vegetables!

The kinds of antioxidants found in chocolate are called polyphenols, a large class of molecules found in fruits and vegetables like oranges, soybeans and berries. Dark chocolate and cocoa are particularly high in a sub-class of those compounds called flavanols, which are also found in red grapes and tea, hence the well-known benefits of red wine and green tea.

The reason dark chocolate and cocoa rank so high is that the antioxidants are very concentrated. Consider this: More than 10 percent of the weight of the dry raw cacoa beans consists of polyphenols alone. So the next time you’re feeling celebratory, or a little down, turn to chocolate – preferably dark – and you’ll be doing you and your body a favor!

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!