It's been a relentlessly busy couple of weeks here at Blissful Vitality headquarters leaving me with little time to sit down and do much blogging, but with Valentine's Day right around the corner, it just wouldn't be right of me to let the day pass without a piece on my favourite food of all time, my "Desert Island Food"...CHOCOLATE. I mean, I just can't live without the stuff! I know, I know, it sounds like I have addiction issues (well....maybe...sort of....okay, yes), but the kind of chocolate that I dream of and savour every blissful bit of isn't your average, everyday grocery store check-out bar. It's the real deal. And there couldn't be a better gift to give your special someone this Valentine's Day than a good, healthy dose of it.
Cacao (the original raw form of chocolate) comes from the Theobroma Cacao tree is only grown in a very narrow geographical area of the tropics (approximately 600 miles north or south of the equator). Today, it is mostly grown in West Africa and Brazil, but is also cultivated in other areas of South America close to the equator, in Mexico, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, Hawaii and the islands of Samoa and New Guinea. What makes it even more special is that only about 3 - 10% of cacao trees actually mature enough to bear fruit, so it's no wonder that cacao has such a long history of being a valued food that goes beyond its rich and delicious flavour. While the origin of the cacao tree has been disputed for centuries, it is clear that the Olmec, Aztecs and Mayans all enjoyed cacao for at least 5000 years before Columbus got his hands on it and took it back to Europe with him back in the 1500's. It was considered so valuable that the Aztecs used it as currency and it has been used as such up until as recently as the last century. It was known as "the gods food" and was believed to have nourishing, fortifying and even aphrodisiac qualities (did I mention it's the perfect Valentine's Day gift??). The first suspected case of addiction to cacao was the Aztec emperor Montezuma who claimed it was more valuable than the golden goblets it was served in. Cacao, and all of the glorious chocolate treats that come from it, remains an important part of modern civilization. The U.S. Armed Forces include 3 4oz bars of chocolate as part of the rations for its soldiers and the same portions are sent into space as part of the food supplies for U.S. astronauts. So, I guess you could say that chocolate really is "out of this world".
Chocolate - It's Good for Your Heart!
At the heart of chocolate's health benefits are flavonoids, plant pigments that are responsible for many of the health benefits of many fruits and vegetables. Chocolate is just a sexier means by which to get them! But not only is chocolate rich in flavonoids, there are actually factors to chocolate that somehow drastically increase the body's absorption of the flavonoids. Chocolate is packed with "proanthocyanidins" which are similar to those found in grapes, apples, berries and pine bark extract. In fact, these proanthocyanidins comprise as much of 48% of the dry weight of the cocoa bean. But what do these flavonoids and proanthocyanidins do for us? Well, they're incredibly important for our cardiovascular health. One of the main areas of research into the health benefits of chocolate is its effect on cardiovascular disease. An ever-growing amount of recent studies suggest that:
Let's Hear it for Antioxidants!
Chocolate ~ An All-in-One Aphrodisiac, Love Potion and Antidepressant
Chocolate has a long-standing history of being associated with love. Take for example Valentine's Day 1997 where, in the U.S. alone, more than $709 million worth of chocolate was purchased. In 2000, Americans handed their sweethearts more than 35 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate (close to $1 billion worth!). Crazy right? Not really. Scientists have discovered a possible chemical connection to love. Chocolate contains a neurotransmitter called phenylethylamine ("PEA") that is released by our neurons at times of emotional euphoria, including feelings of love. One of the possible reasons why chocolate is one of the most addictive foods is because we get small doses of PEA each time we eat it. What is intriguing is that salami, pickled herring and cheddar cheese have significantly higher amounts of PEA than a comparable serving of chocolate, yet we don't experience the same feelings when we eat those foods. Although, if you ask me, there is absolutely nothing sexy about salami, pickled herring or cheddar cheese!
Another neurotransmitter found in chocolate is anandamine. Similar to THC (the chemical compound in marjuana that makes you feel "high"), anadamine is naturally produced in our brain and binds to the same receptors as THC which probably explains why, while eating chocolate will not make you "high", it is likely that you will experience some really enjoyable feelings or at least feel more relaxed and less anxious. Like other neurotransmitters, anadamide is broken down rapidly after it is produced by the brain, but the other chemicals in chocolate slow the natural breakdown of the anandamide, allowing it to stick around longer, leaving us feeling pretty darn happy when we eat chocolate.
Chocolate Helps Keep You Young!
This might be one of my favourite reasons to eat chocolate! One of of the flavonoids in chocolate known as epicatechin is responsible for triggering mitosis of our cells. For those of you who need to brush up on your anatomy and physiology, mitosis is the process by which our cells regenerate and keep us looking and feeling young. In a recent study involving mice, senile mice were given oral doses of epicatechin and the results showed that many of the biomarkers of the senile mice were shifted towards the biomarkers of young mice. Now what happens in mice doesn't always mean that the same thing will happen in humans, but it's a good enough reason for me to continue my regular dosing of high-quality dark chocolate. Even if it means one less crow's foot, I'm okay with that!
Not All Chocolates Are Created Equal
Alright, before you run out to the grocery or convenience store to load up on chocolate bars, listen to what I have to say here. The QUALITY of the chocolate you eat is what is key when it comes to getting the true nutritional value out of it that you want. A $0.99 Mars bar will do nothing for you but send your blood sugar through the roof and deposit a chemical bomb of artificial colours and flavourings and rancid oils that will no doubt find their way into your arteries. In order for your body to truly benefit from the magic that is chocolate, here are my recommendations:
So my friends, go ahead and treat your special someone with a big chunk of glorious chocolate this Valentine's Day and make the day blissfully delicious!
Jill Taylor is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. She is the mom of two pretty awesome teenagers, s very dramatic dog, a hedgehog and a snake (yikes!). Jill assists her clients in achieving true wellness through thoughtful and compassionate dietary and lifestyle coaching. Feel free to visit the "Contact" page to get in touch. Jill would love to hear from you!