Saturday, June 11, 2011

Chocolate: It's Good For You!

Yesterday, a friend pulled out a small colorful bag from his pantry and offered me the foil-wrapped contents. Of course I took one. It was chocolate. Dark chocolate.

We’d been filming all afternoon at his place, a project for work. It had gone really well. Still, it was hot because we turned off the noise of the air conditioner. Plus it was late afternoon, the time of day when I feel weary and irritable.

As the chocolate melted in my mouth, pleasure took over. The tension tangibly fled, replaced by a sense of happiness. He offered me another but there was no need. One was enough.

Dark chocolate is good for you.

Research continues to uncover chocolate’s many benefits. As an antioxidant, its polyphenols help to prevent heart disease by inhibiting the oxidation of LDL cholesterol so it cannot stick to artery walls. The polyphenols also reduce the clumping of platelets, making chocolate a weapon against arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. It also helps prevent clotting, which leads to heart attacks or strokes. It acts as a blood thinner much the same way a baby aspirin does.

Chocolate reduces blood pressure in people with “mild hypertension,” research shows. High blood pressure can lead to stroke, kidney failure or dementia, among other things.

No wonder Dr. Agatson, the cardiologist who created the South Beach diet, encourages dieters to have a bit of dark chocolate a few times a week.

In the case of chocolate, more is not better. It contains fat in the form of cocoa butter and, of course, sugar. Eating too much will make you fat. It doesn’t take much chocolate to gain its health benefits. Just half an ounce per day, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Make that dark chocolate, by the way. Milk chocolate adds more fat and sugar and contains less polyphenols and other good properties. It can actually raise your blood cholesterol and contribute to acne.

Chocolate contains mood-enhancing substances, too. One is phenethylamine, which triggers the release of pleasurable endorphins and potentates the action of dopamine, a neurochemical associated with sexual arousal and pleasure, writes John Robbins in a Huffington Post article. Phenethylamine is released in the brain when people become infatuated or fall in love.

Another is anandamide (from the Sanskrit word “ananda,” which means peaceful bliss), which is naturally produced in the brain, so it has to be good, right? Turns out it binds to the same receptor sites in the brain as cannabinoids—the psychoactive constituents in marijuana—and produces feelings of elation and exhilaration.

Chocolate also raises serotonin levels in the brain. People with depression have less serotonin. Medications to treat depression, like Zoloft, Paxil and Prozac, work by raising serotonin levels.

So that’s why that piece of chocolate made me feel better.

To make the pleasure of eating chocolate last longer, I learned from my daughter to let it melt in my mouth over a few minutes. She claims that, in an experiment once, she made a piece of chocolate last for 20 minutes.

As it melts in my mouth, I like to experience the dark chocolate in different areas, letting it coat the top of my tongue, then sliding it beneath my tongue, along my gums and all inside my cheeks. In this way, I experience many of chocolate’s variations in flavor. I wonder, too, if it gets absorbed quickly into the bloodstream this way, thus explaining its immediate effects on my mood.

I buy organic, fair trade chocolate. Eating organically grown chocolate assures me of its total health benefits. It has no toxic effects from chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Why fair trade?
•More than 15,000 child slaves work on cacao farms in west Africa.
•Cacao farming has stripped the world of hundreds of thousands of acres of rainforest.
•Though the U.S. spends $13 billion a year on cocoa products, many cacao farmers are impoverished.

Buying fairly traded chocolate assures me that my momentary pleasure is not causing harm, even if it is on the other side of the world. As I let that chocolate melt in my mouth, I have no regrets, no twinge of conscience.

Mmmmm. And that makes it taste that much better.

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