Give Your Valentine “food of the gods!”

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Valentine’s Day is upon us! Everywhere you go, you see fabulous displays of heart-shaped candy boxes to treat your favorite Valentine. It is estimated that 58 million pounds of chocolate will be sold just this week leading up to Valentine’s Day. That represents estimated sales of over $345 million!

As a self-proclaimed chocoholic, I have often questioned how this seemingly-sinful indulgence can fit into my whole food, plant-based lifestyle without remorse? I combed the world-wide-web, searched dozens of sites to glean all of the health benefits found in chocolate. The good news is that there are several reasons to cautiously engage! But first, a few trivial facts.

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree, which literally translates to “food of the gods” (Theo meaning “god” and broma meaning food.) Information on chocolate dates back to 1000 BC. The cacao bean was once worshiped by the Mayan Indians for is medicinal purposes such as curing dysentery (gastrointestinal disorders). It was also known for its psychoactive and stimulating effects. Chocolate was reported to have restorative properties, much like the “fountain of youth.” The Emperor Montezuma reportedly drank 50 goblets a day of this bitter liqueur and Casanova took this “food of the gods” before bedtime as a subtle aphrodisiac.

Knowing modern science has progressed significantly over the last two to three thousand years, can we find some truths in these health claims? Let’s identify some of the naturally occurring phytonutrients found in the cacao bean that make it so amazing.

Chocolate is a plant-based food, derived from cocoa beans, found within the pod-like fruits of the cacao tree. Cocoa beans are processed, crushed, roasted and turned into a chocolate powder or solids that contains flavanols. One such flavanol is quercetin, a powerful antioxidant with antiviral, anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic activity. Quercetin has been shown to be protective against free radical damage associated with oxidative stress.

Cocoa beans are a rich source of polyphenols, which are also antioxidants that help keep us healthy and protect against various diseases. Polyphenols are found in other plant sources such as blueberries, lemons, green tea, garlic and broccoli to name a few.

Research studies have been conducted to test the theory that flavanols and polyphenols found in cocoa and dark chocolate are beneficial to the heart. One study focused on the effects of phytonutrients in reducing low density lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation. The results published in were affirmative,” Cocoa and dark chocolate may favorably affect cardiovascular disease risk….by reducing LDL oxidation….”

Now that we know LDL can be positively impacted by consuming dark chocolate or cocoa, can it also impact endothelial function? The endothelium is a layer of cells lining the blood vessels whose job it is to regulate the tone of blood vessels and blood flow via nitric oxide production.

The objective of one study was to investigate “the effects of flavonoid-rich dark chocolate on endothelial function, measures of oxidative stress, blood lipids, and blood pressure in healthy adult subjects.” The results were mixed for those of us who were hoping for a “YES!” The study concluded, “…flavonoid-rich dark chocolate improved endothelial function…in healthy adults.” But, “NO changes in oxidative stress measure, lipid profiles…were seen.” That is still good news as improved endothelial function increases heart function and blood flow through-out the body.

Rejoice all of my chocolate-loving friends! Yes, there are health benefits in our dark chocolate. Unfortunately, for those who love milk, semi-sweet or white chocolate, the story is bitter sweet. These treats contain fewer essential phytonutrients and are packed with saturated fat, sugar, milk and other ingredients that diminish their health benefits.

We aren’t sure if cocoa was the substance that gave Montezuma his revenge. Nor do we know if it was the priceless aphrodisiac that made Casanova so famous. However, it could also be the indulgence that potentially negates all of our healthy lifestyle practices. Eat cautiously!