Chocolate – Health and Hazards

Chocolate comes in all shapes and sizes. It is one commodity that can be manipulated to suit any situation; Easter time sees chocolate bunnies and eggs, Christmas advent calendars count down the days until December 25th and Valentine’s Day gives rise to heart and rose shaped symbols of love – chocolate. A craving for cocoa can be satisfied by a wide variety of tempting chocolate delights.

The history of chocolate lends itself towards mysticism and decadence. The Mayan people worshiped the cacao tree; cacao being the Mayan word meaning “God Food”. The Mayans roasted and pounded the cacao seeds and brewed these into a spicy, bitter sweet drink with maize and Capsicum peppers (chilies). The drink was reserved for ceremonies or for the religious and wealthy elite among the tribe. It was the Aztecs, who lived further up North from the Mayans, who considered cocoa beans to be an aphrodisiac, a reputation that has followed chocolate into the 21st century.

Today there is ongoing debate surrounding the health benefits of chocolate. A recent revelation stated that chocolate consumed daily in small quantities could reduce the odds of cardiovascular problems as well as have a significant effect on high blood pressure. Brian Buijsse, a nutritional epidemiologist and his team at the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Nuthetal, followed over 19 000 adults over a period of 10 years. The study included checkups and recurring questionnaires regarding the subjects’ chocolate consumption. The results revealed that people who ate an average of 7.5 grams of chocolate per day were at a 27% lower risk of heart attacks and were at a 47% lower stroke risk. They also had lower blood pressure than those who ate less chocolate. The researchers attributed these results to the high level of flavanols in chocolate. Flavanols are antioxidants which are more copious in chocolate with a higher cocoa level such as dark chocolate. Buijsse however does stress the point that eating as part of a balanced and healthy diet is important.

This is where chocolate may become a hazard to some, according to Dr. Bankole A Johnson, a researcher of addictive behaviour points out some surprising facts about chocolate. According to Johnson the ingredients in chocolate have a significant effect of the chemistry of the brain; chocolate contains cannabinoids, the compounds that cause the high from marijuana. However the concentration of these cannabinoids is too low to have an effect and it’s the caffeine, tyramine and tryptophan in chocolate that the brain converts into dopamine and serotonin; feel good chemicals. There is more to enjoying chocolate’s rich and creamy sweetness and chemicals. We are conditioned to recognise that the opening of a chocolate wrapper is a prelude to something enjoyable.

It seems though that the only real hazard to be associated with chocolate is the risk of it becoming too big a part of one’s diet. If eaten in small doses chocolate seems to be good for one’s overall health. If the consumer has self-control, and leads an active lifestyle, chocolate can be enjoyed almost without any guilty conscious. This is good news for chocolate lovers around the globe!

Jacqueline M. Faulkner

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