Few questions can throw us so hopefully off guard as this one. The very thought of chocolate can evoke a warm, uplifting feeling - often accompanied by a sudden uncontrollable craving for this magical bestower of bliss. Anna and Elsa remind us of this more than once in the popular film, Frozen. However, it isn’t just fictional characters who revered this highly sought after delicacy.
In 1753, a Swedish biologist named Carl Linnaeus designated the official scientific name of the cacao tree “Theobroma cacao”, which translates to “food of the gods”. The term cacao comes from the Mayan fertility goddess, Ixcocao, who was a creator as well as a savior figure. The ritualistic use of cocoa as a drink puts it in the religious realm and through research, it has become clear that this bitter chocolate elixir was possibly the most important aspect of, even synonymous with, the Mayan religion. An ancient Toltec myth identifies Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god, as planter of the cacao trees in the tropics of southern Mexico. He was called "the god of light, the giver of the drink of the gods, chocolate." The name of their ceremonial drink is even his name! “Xocoatl” (pronounced sho-kwa-tal) is where we phonetically derive the word “Cho-co-late”. Both the Mayas and Aztecs regarded chocolate as a potent aphrodisiac, which might explain the connection to fertility deities.
The Aztecs also used cacao beans as currency and as food and drink for the privileged. Only 3 out of 100 cacao trees will even produce the coveted bean pods. It was definitely a luxury item and remains somewhat of decedent, guilty pleasure to this day despite its widespread trade and availability. Spaniards introduced the drinking of chocolate to Europe where, in the medical system of the time, those who could afford it used chocolate as a tonic and remedy. Now, the health benefits of chocolate are once again creating a buzz as research suggests that dark chocolate might possibly lower blood pressure and provide antioxidant benefits, among other amazing benefits!
Let’s get dark!
Ok, If you’re thinking “but isn’t chocolate bad for me?”, I have good news for you. There is a WORLD of difference between the processed and sugary milk or white chocolates and the slightly sweet, slightly bitter superfood that is DARK chocolate! While dark chocolate can be an acquired taste for some, many find they prefer it to its overly sweetened counterparts. From your brain to your weight and so much more, the health benefits of dark chocolate just might surprise you! Far from being a guilty pleasure, you might reach for this “food of the gods” a little more often.
First of all, what do I mean when I say “dark chocolate”? At what shade of brown does chocolate suddenly become super healthy for me? Well - the easiest way to remember is “the darker, the better”. While raw cacao nibs and extremely dark chocolate might be too bitter for some people, around 70% with a low sugar content is a good place to aim. So - let’s get into those benefits:
Chocolate is like a circus for your brain. It has been said that chocolate is more than a food but less than a drug. When you get a glimpse of what is happening in the chemistry lab of your brain on chocolate, you quickly understand that better. Dark chocolate is very energizing, not only containing natural caffeine, but also a stimulant called theobromine (recall the scientific name “theobroma cacao”). Eating chocolate also lights up your reward center, which means small amounts of dopamine. Both serotonin and endorphins are boosted by dark chocolate, which elevates mood.
Another mood booster found in small amounts in dark chocolate is “Anandamide”. Its name means “the bliss molecule” and it is a naturally occurring endogenous chemical that rarely shows up outside of the body. Our bodies produce it when we exercise, especially when burning fat. Anandamide is a THC-like cannabinoid with a host of health benefits of its own and lucky for us, one of those rare places in nature we can find it is chocolate. So go ahead and cheat a little. Grab some dark chocolate to get some of the same benefits of working out. Ok, we both know we should still exercise but maybe not kill ourselves in the process!
Thankfully, the flavonoids in chocolate have been found to protect cognitive function and prevent memory-decline! That’s huge, especially for our older loved ones. Flavonoids are packed with antioxidants, as are polyphenols which are also found in chocolate and promote blood flow to the brain. Also, the presence of nitric oxide helps to open up arteries, increasing blood flow throughout the whole body.
Speaking of increased blood flow, dark chocolate has a number of benefits for the heart as well! It really benefits the entire cardiovascular system! This powerhouse of a vegetable (yep, technically a vegetable) can remove LDL or “Bad Cholesterol” that block up arteries over time and cause several diseases and even heart attack. Removing LDL also decreases blood pressure allowing it to move more efficiently. Nitric Oxide, Polyphenols and LDL busters -- dark chocolate really gets your blood moving!!
Then there’s epicatechin, which gives dark chocolate its bitter taste. It may be a trade-off but is well worth the switch from sugary, fatty and overly processed milk chocolate. Epicatechin also helps to reduce blood pressure and can reduce the risk of stroke by up to 20% with as little as two ounces per week! Bonus: It can also boost your energy level through the roof.
Finally, those same flavonoids that prevent cognitive decline also help the body use insulin more efficiently, causing lower blood sugar levels. Good news for everyone but great news for diabetics. Which brings us to the next benefit...
Balancing your blood sugar has a great side effect - it promotes weight loss.
Plus, I already told you that you could just replace working out with dark chocolate! Ok, ok, just kidding - please don’t do that! But with all that extra energy, you’re sure to burn some weight with everything you do!
Exercise doesn’t have to be in a gym. If I’m going to be the guy who gets to come along and tell you that eating chocolate is good for you then you’d better believe I’m going to also tell you that you should be out playing -- whatever that means to you. Get out, have fun, and throw some dark chocolate into your snack routine while you’re at it.
Pretty Amazing, Huh?
Most of the benefits of dark chocolate have to do with its mind-blowing levels of antioxidants. The flavonoids and polyphenols that do so much to promote overall health are packed with disease fighting antioxidants. These little ninjas also attack free radicals which protects cells and prevents deterioration.
Besides its amazing antioxidant content, dark chocolate is also fairly nutrient dense with healthy doses of iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus and healthy fats.
Now, if only those scientists in the MyShroom labs could find a way to combine the amazing benefits of dark chocolate with the incredible health boost of their proprietary medical mushroom blends. That would really be something!