Many people associate healthy eating with foods that may not be so tasty. While desserts are not often considered the healthiest course of a meal, dark chocolate, when enjoyed in moderation, can be healthy.
Dark chocolate can benefit the brain, heart and even teeth. Researchers at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Dallas have discovered just why dark chocolate packs such a healthy punch. Otherwise indigestible portions of the chocolate are converted by microbes in the digestive system. In turn, the chocolate is transformed into anti-inflammatory compounds.
Researchers found that digestion in the stomach produces long molecules called polyphenolic polymers. These molecules are too large to cross the walls of the stomach to be used nutritionally. However, when the polyphenolic polymers meet lactic acid and microbes that inhabit the human colon, the polymers ferment and can be broken down further. These smaller molecules are then used by the body. The resulting material is anti-inflammatory and can prevent certain conditions, including cardiovascular disease, from developing.
One of the pitfalls of dark chocolate is the sugar and fat content of a candy bar, which can overshadow the health benefits. But those who consume the majority of their dark chocolate in the form of unsweetened cocoa powder can avoid such consequences. Roughly two tablespoons of cocoa powder per day can produce the desired anti-inflammatory benefits, and cocoa powder can be mixed into drinks, sprinkled over oatmeal and consumed in many other ways. Full-sugar, full-fat dark chocolate bars and pieces should be enjoyed sparingly, although they are better for your health than milk or white chocolate.
Interest in dark chocolate for its medical benefits has led researchers to study the efficacy of its anti-inflammatory compounds. A big study is already underway to see if pills containing the nutrients in dark chocolate can replicate the many health benefits, including helping to prevent heart attack and stroke. The pills are so concentrated they would be the equivalent of eating numerous dark chocolate bars, but without the negative side effects. The goal of the study is to see if chocolate can provide significant medical benefits without forcing consumers to eat so much sugar and fat. The study will be sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and Mars Inc., maker of M&M's and Snickers bars. The candy company has patented a way to extract flavonols from cocoa in high concentration and put them in capsules. Mars and some other companies sell cocoa extract capsules, but with less active ingredients than those that will be tested in the study. Some participants will get flavorless, coated pills that contain the cocoa flavonols, while others will be given a placebo. Eighteen thousand men and women nationwide are expected to participate.
In addition to anti-inflammatory properties, dark chocolate contains several chemical compounds that have a positive effect on mood and cognitive health. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, or PEA, the same chemical your brain creates when you feel like you're falling in love. Taking dark chocolate supplements may help a person's mind and body.