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Chocolate For Health And Happiness

by Robyn Fadden

There’s a good reason why chocolate has been eaten for hundreds of years, from raw cocoa to gourmet confections: cocoa is nutrient-dense, good for the mind and body, and delicious.

Chocolate on store shelves looks significantly different from chocolate in its original form: a bean found inside the pulpy fruit of the South American cocoa tree. The beans go through a drying and roasting process to become cocoa butter and, later, cocoa powder and chocolate. The less processed the cocoa, the more direct the health benefits, with dark and bitter chocolate the best sources. Recently, raw chocolate has been lauded – and even called a “superfood” – for its concentrated array of nutrients that some say border on the medicinal.

Among the array of nutrient-related chemical compounds that make up cocoa are antioxidants, which can boost heart and overall health on a cellular level. Adding to that nutritional value, a square of chocolate provides potassium, iron, magnesium, and copper, which are all essential vitamins and minerals.

Along with its nutritive factors, cocoa’s most proven health benefit is cardiovascular: cocoa can lower blood pressure and keep blood clots at bay, thus lowering the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and the “good fats” found in cocoa can lower cholesterol levels if consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. Similar to coffee’s heart-health properties, the caffeine in cocoa adds to chocolate’s healthy package-deal: 50 grams of dark chocolate contains 10 to 60 milligrams of caffeine (whereas a small cup of coffee may have up to 180 milligrams).

For the most beneficial bang for your buck, choose high-quality dark chocolate and cocoa that contains as little sugar as possible – as delicious as sugar is, too much of it can interfere with chocolate’s health properties. While dark chocolate shows up low on the glycemic index and can help control blood sugar levels related to diabetes and hypoglycemia, the addition of glucose, sucrose, and straight-up sugar cane can eclipse chocolate’s benefits, especially if they appear at the top of the ingredient list. Some of the best ways to get your recommended daily dose of cocoa are 70% and higher organic chocolate bars, hot chocolate made from 100% cocoa, and raw cocoa nibs.

Not only does cocoa benefit the body, but it can also affect our minds – and our moods – for the better. Since cocoa increases blood flow throughout the body, it goes without saying that it increases blood flow to the brain, improving cognitive abilities. And while cocoa isn’t being lauded as the next Prozac, it does have documented effects on serotonin and dopamine levels. Of course, we don’t need scientific proof that eating chocolate is a pleasurable experience, but knowing that it contains phenylethylamine, the “love compound”, is another good reason to let it melt in our mouths more often.

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