(Health Secrets) Will you be giving or receiving a box of chocolates this Valentine’s Day? The Mayas, Incas, and Aztecs cultivated cacao, and it was often used as an aphrodisiac by the affluent and rich. Even today, we tend to place equal attention on the benefits of cocoa as a love potion as well as a heart tonic.
St. Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday first appeared in the writings of Chaucer in 1382. During the medieval period there was a new focus on chaste courtly love and this is when the familiar symbols of love began to appear–knights would give roses to their maidens and celebrate their beauty in songs from afar.
By the 1840s, Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday was celebrated in most of the English-speaking world. Richard Cadbury, a British chocolate manufacturer, created what was then called “eating chocolates.” Cadbury began marketing the new chocolates and sold them in beautifully decorated boxes.
Chocolates are made from cocoa beans, which are the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree. Chocolate has had social, religious, and economic importance in both New and Old World cultures.
Although cacao is native to Central and South America, Africa now grows about 70% of the world’s cacao. The football shaped pod, or fruit, grows from the branches or straight out of the trunk. The pods encase a sticky white pulp and about 30 or 40 seeds. The pulp tastes both sweet and tart and is eaten or used in making drinks. If you do bite into a seed straight out of the pod, it is incredibly bitter.
Due to its many health effects, the Mayans considered hot cocoa the drink of gods. Drinkable chocolate has been used for centuries to treat ailments. Spanish explorers brought chocolate back to Europe in the 16th century where sweetened warm versions were considered a health elixir. From the 16th to 19th centuries, hot chocolate was valued as a special drink, as well as taken as a medicine. In France during the 17th century, the French drank it to fight against fits of anger and bad moods.
Modern research has discovered that chocolate reduces levels of stress hormones in the body, especially in women. Cocoa’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties come from its abundant flavonols. Some of those properties can be lost due to over-processing.
Should you be eating chocolate?
Researchers from Yale University say the benefits of moderate cocoa or dark chocolates outweigh any potential risks.
Cocoa contains more antioxidants than most foods and has anti-inflammatory effects beneficial to heart health. Cocoa may directly influence insulin resistance and as a result reduce the risk of diabetes. Further, cocoa consumption may stimulate the immune response. Cocoa can protect nerves from injury and inflammation, protect the skin from oxidative UV radiation damage, and improve cognitive function and mood.
A 9-year study of over 30,000 women in Sweden found that those who consumed up to an ounce of high-quality chocolate 1 to 3 times per month had a 26% lower risk of developing heart failure. Women who ate 1 to 2 servings per week displayed a 32% heart failure risk reduction. The European Heart Journal reported that daily dark chocolate consumption over a 4-week period improved concerns in patients with congestive heart failure.
Research continues to demonstrate that antioxidants, such as those in cacao, help prevent cancer, heart disease, age-related macular degeneration, and aging in general because they fight free radicals in the body.
A Cornell University study shows the antioxidant concentration in hot cocoa is almost twice as strong as in red wine. Cocoa’s antioxidant concentration is two to three times stronger than that of green tea and four to five times stronger than that of black tea. Professor Chang Yong Lee added that more antioxidants are released when chocolate is heated.
Flavonoids from cocoa help blood flow, leading to lower blood pressure and improved heart health. Flavonoids also help prevent blood platelets from mingling together and forming clots. This sounds much healthier than taking blood thinning drugs. Recent research demonstrates that chocolate, like aspirin, has a biochemical effect that reduces the clumping of platelets.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science reports drinking hot chocolate can help you think better. Flavonoids increase the blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Researchers are starting to think dementia could be treated with cocoa.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in partnership with candy maker Mars, Inc. have launched a three-year study on the topic of whether taking chocolate pills will improve heart health. It will be the first large study, involving 18,000 people, to look into the potential role of cocoa flavanols in high-dose form, without the added sugar and fat of chocolate.
Chocolate has been shown to produce higher levels of physical energy and mental alertness. It is
- Lowers Alzheimer’s risk
Chocolate improves liver function for those with cirrhosis, is neuro-protective, and improves gastrointestinal flora. It also reduces symptoms of glaucoma and cataracts. It can slow the progression of periodontitis, improve exercise endurance, and protect against preclampsia in pregnant women.
Commercial instant hot cocoa mixes should be avoided. Most popular mixes are heavy on sugar, corn syrup, and vegetable oils, and light on cocoa. There are several websites explaining how to make healthy versions of instant cocoa from scratch.
Jaymi Heimbuch of the website Mother Nature Network suggests one of the easiest ways to include more cocoa in you diet is to sprinkle it over fresh fruit. She gives us these tips for buying cocoa powder:
• Look for certified fair trade. There are many great brands to choose from, and you’re helping to ensure workers get a living wage.
• It’s true that not all organic cocoa tastes as good as non-organic, so you’ll have to test a few out and see what you like best. Go for organic if you can.
• Look for a higher fat content. The really high quality cocoa that has lots of flavor can also have as much as 24 percent more cocoa butter than the cheap stuff.
Any time, not just Valentine’s Day, is a great time for giving chocolate to those we love! And don’t forget yourself!
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