I’ve always eaten chocolate and enjoyed it, so it’s an added perk that it come with benefits too. Don’t you think? This article has taken me on a massive exploration, so much so that I have about 25 pages now on how chocolate works biochemically on our brain and body. And it’s a challenge to make it concise but needs must so I will try!
How does chocolate affect us?
Thankfully it leans more to the positive. Admittedly though as you’ll be discovering, it’s the dark stuff, cocoa powder and cocoa nibs which hold most benefit and, ideally, as unprocessed as possible. So, hide your milk chocolate away, it’s time to tuck into the darker side of chocolate to reap the benefits.
Looking back in history, cacao (a very unadulterated format) was not only used as medicine but also seen as a fortifier by the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma, believing ‘a cup of this precious drink [cocoa] permits a man to walk for a whole day without food’.
Though there is a need for more medical research/controlled studies with larger numbers of participants, there is a definite rooting for the benefits of chocolate (when I mention chocolate, it also includes cacao powder and cacao nibs). I know it helps my focus, is a whizz for being ‘on it’ at meetings – maybe it’s the combination of theobromine and caffeine which means you avoid the jitters that a coffee shot may bring, plus it seems to be a fab digestive at the end of a meal and also gives va-va-voom.
So back to what the experts advocate with the benefits. It appears to have an influence on our cardiovascular system with lowering blood pressure, increasing blood flow with vasodilation and possibly reducing the risk of stroke. When it comes to boosting our memory, apparently daily consumption of a flavanol-rich drink (ideally unprocessed cocoa powder) can prevent memory decline in elderly people. There is also the beginning of talk about whether chocolate/flavanols could help with dementia, but a lot more research is needed.
What can chocolate do for us?
Keeping with the brain, dark chocolate can help enhance our mood. The cocktail of tryptophan and its cascading effect on the neurotransmitters, serotonin, tyrosine and anandamide (seemingly known as the ‘bliss’ molecule and present in the cannabis plant) stimulate the all-important dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter. It also helps with our movement too.
A couple of things I didn’t know before writing this article, are that it can reduce coughing (that’s down to theobromine), have a positive effect on our gut microbiome (lignin), suppress the stress hormone cortisol (magnesium) and even protect tooth enamel from erosion. There is also chat about it protecting the brain and improving its ability to change and adapt, as well as reducing inflammation in our body.
With the positives, there are also a few potential negative effects. Over-consumed or the wrong type of chocolate can obviously affect the brain and body in a negative way with disjointed blood sugar levels, weight gain and a craving for more.
Be warned if you have a sensitivity to histamine, as there is quite a bit of it in chocolate and if you suffer from migraines, you probably know that dark chocolate could possibly trigger them. It’s due to tyramine, though research says you need to eat 60g to trigger a migraine. Only you will know what works for you!
Finally with the benefits we need to factor in our lifestyles, diet and bear in mind that we are all unique and our body’s all work in different ways so what benefits one may not benefit another. All food for thought.
My menopause journey – which chocolate, when and why?
The menopause … are you one of those lucky souls who glided through it? Or did you, like me, feel, at times, that you were drowning? The one treat I didn’t deny myself was chocolate. Maybe it’s because at the time I was running Amelia Rope Chocolate and, quite literally, had a flat full of it!
I went through an early menopause (mid-forties) without HRT. I took supplements, adjusted my diet from time to time and started the day with a slice of lemon, freshly grated ginger and warm water – my saviour – and drank lots of water as I’ve always done. Quite frankly life was a series of tsunamis of night sweats, brain fogs, palpitations, inflammation, anxiety, feeling on the verge of tears at minor things, total exhaustion, hot flushes and a lot more. At the time I put it down to stress from my business. I only really knew I was in the menopause much later.
At the beginning of this year, aged 52, I took the plunge and started taking low doses of HRT and it’s really pepped my days up in more ways than I imagined. The turning point for taking HRT was Davina McCall’s ‘Sex, Myths and the Menopause’ on Channel 4.
Back to chocolate … I discovered through my journey there were times during the different phases when I could tuck into dark chocolate, others when milk chocolate was the answer and others when both were absolutely fine. I found dark chocolate triggered hot flushes them – it was like lighting a match and seeing an instant flame – especially in the afternoon or evening. I wonder if it’s the effect chocolate has as a vasodilator that increases the blood flow.
When tasting dark chocolate recipes, I would always make sure it was in the morning when my flushes were fewer. Milk chocolate was fine. White chocolate barely got a look in: it’s just too sugar-loaded; its reward is a cheap and empty energy pop which leads you to rocket down rather than up.
This is what worked for me. It may not work for you – we are all so magically unique. But do explore options. A little bit of what you fancy is so important even more so nowadays, don’t you think? See it as an adventure – fine tune and try different chocolate as you go.
P:S: I haven’t tried it, nor am I endorsing it, but while researching this article I came across a chocolate company in the US, who have created a patented and clinically proven product called Estro-G 100. They advocate it promotes a healthy mood balance, bone density, focus and energy.
What’s in chocolate?
Chocolate is a complex food containing more than 1,500 biochemicals. In its purest state (unprocessed cacao powder, cacao nibs, 100% cocoa or a high cocoa percentage), it can offer us an impressive number of nutrients.
Firstly, to the source and what the average dried cacao bean provides. More than half of each bean is in the form of cocoa butter (57%). This provides the snap factor and ‘melt in the mouth’ sensation due to its ability to be solid at room temperature and melt when inside the mouth. Twenty-five percent of the bean is made up of elements like fibre, cellulose and pectin.
After this it becomes more interesting with the polyphenols/flavanols (4%) – including epicatechin, catechin, lignin, alkaloids (4%) – including theobromine and caffeine, proteins and amino acid derivatives (3%) – including tryptophan, tyrosine, anandamide, linalool, organic acids (3%), vitamins and minerals (3%) – including copper, magnesium, manganese, iron, potassium, zinc and finally volatiles (1%).
Isn’t that a massive amount of good-for-you potential?
The actual amount of these compounds in our chocolate really depends on how the cacao bean is processed. Key to our potential pop of these nutrients is the quality of the bean, how well the stages of the processing are handled, especially with fermentation and toasting, and then the manufacturing element to produce cocoa powder, cacao nibs or chocolate.
Another thing to factor in is whether there has been any ‘dilution’ of the cocoa mass by the addition of milk powder, sugar, lecithin (the emulsifier), vanilla and other flavours. Small craft chocolate makers tend to use a minimal number of additions, many making dark chocolate using just two ingredients cacao and sugar. You will find that larger chocolate makers are more likely to have the most additions in their product.
Who knows, perhaps over time, food labelling will dictate what benefits are in each chocolate?
Why is 70% dark chocolate preferred?
Quite simply 70% dark chocolate or above is the way to go! It has a heap more cocoa solids which is where the ‘good stuff ’is found including the flavanols, the all-important antioxidants, one of whose roles is to help keep the free radicals at bay.
Have you ever overindulged on dark chocolate? Doesn’t it seem to have a tipping point where you find your tastebuds are satiated after a chunk or two? When it comes to milk chocolate do you find there is often an internal fight as to how many chunks to tuck into and overindulgence becomes scarily very easy to achieve as well as leading to weight gain.
Whenever I eat dark chocolate, I find it gives me a pop of energy; I can focus, I find it a wonderful digestive and it stops any cravings. My secret ‘cheat’ before competing in a 5k run is to snitch a chunk or two of 100%. And yes, it does give me the edge in the race!
If you associate dark chocolate with bitterness, which it certainly was a decade or so ago, you might find that the dark chocolate available now surprises you with the flavour profiles. Chocolate made from Madagascan cocoa beans is a fantastic one to start on. It will take you on an adventure with flavour notes of red fruits, yellow fruits and much more.
If you struggle with the taste of dark chocolate, go for a ‘darker’ milk chocolate, say 49% cocoa solids, now available in some supermarkets, and then perhaps venture to 60%. Before you know it there will be no looking back and you will hit 85% cocoa solids no problem!
To learn more about the incredible flavour profiles in chocolate do treat yourself to a bar from an artisan small batch producer – their chocolate will teach your tastebuds about the phenomenal flavour profile of ‘proper’ chocolate.
Note to self – it does contain a high amount of fat and sugar unless it’s 100%, cocoa nibs or cocoa powder. So, moderation is required – well most of the time!
How do we strike a balance?
Do you, like me, find there seems to be a need for constant fine tuning to obtain balance? I’ve found that the aging process helps – one of the upsides perhaps?!
In my teens, 20s and early 30s I struggled to get any sense of balance especially when it came to things like chocolate. I wrestled with my weight. It was either all in or all out and a lot of ‘yo-yo’ dieting. Ring any bells? So, it was a bizarre twist of fate that in my late 30’s I found myself creating Amelia Rope Chocolate. Among the drivers behind the brand was to create chocolate that delivered on taste and quality rather than quantity. It was my constant companion. Strangely all weight issues miraculously evaporated.
In my dieting days I operated on deprivation. One item I wasn’t allowed was chocolate. I don’t know about you but I’ve found deprivation massages cravings, so much so that I felt compelled to over indulge. These days I ignore deprivation and allow myself whatever I like. Now what I find interesting is that my brain steers me to what it metabolises more efficiently and away from the foods I used to overeat, namely starch-rich and gluten-rich.
I eat chocolate several times a day. I just adore it. I mainly eat dark chocolate and aim for small amounts. I’m a bit spoilt with Chocolate Adventures as I’m lucky to have artisan chocolate in my samples bag. Occasionally you may find me diving into a chocolate box and sneaking a piece of milk chocolate especially if I’m visiting my parents – needs must!
I find the times I tuck into chocolate are mid-morning and usually mid-afternoon. Every now and then I will eat it in the evening but more and more I tend not to. If you struggle with your sleep and enjoy dark chocolate it may be best to have your last morsel early afternoon. Stick to milk chocolate in the evening.
Having been involved in the health world (I studied nutrition and herbal medicine, became a qualified aromatherapist and was a Practice Manager of a Doctors Practice), I aim to keep healthy; balance out chocolate and any indulgences with regular exercise (running, brisk walking), stretching and yoga, drink lots of water (usually away from meals as I learnt some time ago it can dilute your digestive juices and to avoid it around meal times) and make sure I take time out if I’m feeling overwhelmed or wiped out in the form of hanging out with friends or feasting on the wonders of nature.
Just a few final thoughts to share:
- Quality trumps quantity
- Avoid eating the same brand and the same cocoa % from them as your tastebuds can become numb to it
- Increase the cocoa percentage if you can, even if you remain with milk chocolate go for one as high as possible
- It’s calorie-rich whether it’s dark or milk chocolate, so moderation is key
Just see what works for you. Don’t forget there is also cocoa powder and cacao nibs – both delicious and readily available!
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