For centuries before becoming the sweet treat we know today, chocolate, the product of fermented cacao beans, was used as medicine. Early Aztec cultures concocted remedies using cocoa from the “chocolate tree” to ease intestinal complaints and upset stomach, control diarrhea, reduce fevers, and boost strength before military conquests. Later eras linked chocolate to other properties, such as a cure for “chocolatomania” cravings in the mid-1900s, which were believed to occur in young women.
In recent years, chocolate has been investigated for its high content of flavanols, a sub-class of nutrients known as “flavonoids” that are present in plant-based foods and have health promoting properties. Other foods that are rich in flavanols include: tea, grapes, wine and apples, though, chocolate can contribute significantly to a healthy diet. In the Dutch population, cocoa accounts for 20 percent of the total flavonoid consumption. Some of the most recognized functions of these nutrients are their ability to act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. In addition, chocolate is a good source of oleic acid, a healthy, monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil, and minerals such as magnesium, iron, manganese and copper.
- Breast Cancer: A study examining the eating habits of people in Greece and their health outcomes concluded that diets high in flavonoids may help protect against breast cancer.
- Blood Pressure: The flavanols in cocoa can increase the production of nitric oxide, which promotes the widening of blood vessels and can decrease blood pressure. A number of studies have looked at the link between dark chocolate and blood pressure, typically demonstrating small but significant reductions.
- Insulin Resistance: When compared with white chocolate, dark chocolate was found to significantly increase insulin sensitivity, and regular consumption of cocoa flavanols was linked to an improvement of insulin resistance.
- Cognitive function: The flavanols in chocolate may boost blood flow to the brain. In a study of elderly patients with mild cognitive impairment, regular cocoa flavanol consumption was associated with an improvement in cognitive performance.
- Appetite regulation: Participants in a study examining appetite and energy intake after chocolate consumption were less hungry after eating dark chocolate than milk chocolate. Participants also ate less after consuming the dark chocolate.
Important notes on chocolate: Milk may interfere with the absorption of flavanoids, so in order to achieve the benefits of eating chocolate, it must be dark, at least 70 percent cocoa. Also keep in mind that chocolate is best used as a replacement for whatever sweets exist in the diet and should be limited to an appropriate daily calorie range. Chocolate naturally contains caffeine, so in order to maintain quality sleep patterns it should be avoided in the evening.
Dr. Eva Dubin, founder of the Dubin Breast Center, is known for her fantastic chocolate, which she makes at home. Here’s her recipe—enjoy!
8 ounces good quality dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup raw almonds (chopped)
1. Break up chocolate into small pieces and place in a double boiler or a heat-proof bowl set over a pot of boiling water. Stir until chocolate melts, careful to prevent burning.
2. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Pour the melted chocolate onto the pan, and spread into a thin layer with a spatula.
3. Sprinkle the chocolate with sea salt, cranberries and almonds, and place in the refrigerator until the chocolate has cooled and becomes breakable (approximately 30 minutes).
4. Break the cooled chocolate into large pieces, and enjoy! Store your chocolate in an airtight, refrigerated container.
Alexandra Rothwell, RD, CSO, CDN, is a registered dietitian and specialist in oncology nutrition. She has worked within the Tisch Cancer Institute for the past 3 years, now focusing on breast cancer nutrition for the Dubin Breast Center. Alexandra provides individual counseling in the areas of wellness, weight management and symptom/side effect management, in addition to creating patient education programs in this realm.