Why Dark Chocolate?

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       Photo by Steve Miller on February 1, 2015

Ashton Harris

Love is in the air.

With Valentines Day quickly approaching, I find myself surrounded by an abundance of red roses, cheesy greeting cards, and ginormous teddy bears (honestly, who buys those anyways?) But probably the most characteristic component of Valentine’s Day is the isles upon isles of chocolate in your local grocery store.

While walking through one of the multiple isles solely composed of chocolate, I find myself going through the same thought process every year.

“Is this chocolate going to make me gain weight?”

“Is chocolate really THAT bad for you?”

“Check the nutrition facts. How many calories are even in this?”

This overanalyzation of nutrition facts during a universal holiday can be related to today’s fascination with health and wellness. Think about it, how many people do you know that own a personal fitness device? How many constantly check to see the number of steps they have reached or how many stairs they have climbed?

Sure, one could argue that this may have to do with an interest in technological advancements, but if that is true, wouldn’t nearly everyone own a hoverboard?

Here’s the thing, unlike the hoverboard craze, nutrition does not “attach” itself to any age group. Instead, nutrition is universal. You could see a sixteen year old and a seventy-year-old American citizen both wearing the same FitBit, performing the same function. With this in mind, if any food, especially if it is as satisfying as dark chocolate, is claimed as “healthy,” chances are everyone will be talking about this sooner than later. And in fact, that has been the case with dark chocolate.

The health benefits of dark chocolate are all rooted in a high concentration of cacao in comparison to other forms of chocolate. In lay mans terms, the higher the percentage of cacao, the more natural the chocolate.

Cacao originates from the cacao fruit tree, also know as the Theobroma Cacao. This certain tree produces cacao pods. When these pods are split open, hundreds of cacao beans pour out. Overall, the cacao beans are at the root of every dark chocolate recipe. Whether the beans are turned into a paste or a powder, the taste and texture of these products will resemble dark chocolate.

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     Cacao pods on Theobroma Cacao; Minipedia

On the other hand, when milk chocolate is made, cacao is manipulated structurally and chemically in order to create a higher percentage of cocoa, which is probably the more familiar form of chocolate. When cocoa is made, cacao undergoes a heating process, which breaks the bonds within the substance in order to alter the shape to produce cocoa.

Milk chocolate, the most popular form of chocolate, is not only heated but also processed with an alkalized solution in order to change the overall taste; the chocolate becomes much less acidic and much richer in taste.

Overall, if you are really craving dark chocolate, the only place you need to look is on the branches of a Theobroma Cacao tree. But you might have to wait a few hours for you milk chocolate to be heated and alkalized. Sounds delicious, right?

So is it true that the more natural the chocolate, the “healthier” it is?

The main factor that would explain this statement is the presence of flavonoids and antioxidants in dark chocolate; the high cocoa content in dark chocolate results in high levels of flavonoids and antioxidants.

Flavonoids function to reduce platelet activation and create a cardiovascular mechanism called the French Paradox, which means that a population has a low rate of cardiorespiratory complications with a high sugar diet.

On the other hand, antioxidants slow down or prevent the oxidation of other molecules within the body. When molecules in the body oxidize, they create cellular by-products, called free radicals, which are highly unstable. In order to gain stability, free radicals attack healthy cells. This then causes healthy, or normal, cells to act in a very similar way by attacking others in an attempt to gain stability.

Overall, both flavonoids and antioxidants should lead to an improved and efficient physiological system in the human body.

In regards to flavonoid function, the Association of Operating Room Nurses performed a study in 2003 to prove the assumption that the flavonoids in dark chocolate result in improved vascular function. In this experiment, participants’ blood was tested before and after consumption of a variety of chocolate, including white, dark, and milk chocolate. The results of the study evidenced that white chocolate did not reduce platelet activity while milk chocolate slightly reduced platelet activity, but did not reduce platelet production. On the other hand, after the consumption of dark chocolate, the participants’ blood showed reduced platelet production and activity.

In summary, white and milk chocolate artificially produce platelets, which can lead to unnecessary blood clots, such as those in the arteries of the heart. However, since dark chocolate limits platelet production, the formation of unnecessary blood clots is greatly reduced, therefore improving the cardiovascular system.

On the other hand, Louisiana State University professor, John Finely, performed an experiment in 2014 to demonstrate the idea that the presence of antioxidants in dark chocolate benefits the physiology of the human body. In this experiment, his students recreated an artificial human digestive system in order to visually observe the effects of cacao.

The human digestive system contains a variety of micro-bacteria that aid in digestion by breaking down food particles. When food is broken down, energy is created so that the body may perform certain processes that require energy.

Initially, Finely explains that the micro-bacteria in our digestive tract ferments the antioxidants in cacao, therefore allowing the bacteria to properly create energy, without the interference of free radicals. Before conducting this experiment, Finely was aware that the composition of bacteria varies in each individuals’ digestive tract, so some results could be more beneficial than others.

After observing the effects of cacao on the digestive system, Finley noticed that the digestive tracts exposed to cacao expressed an increase in insulin sensitivity.

In regards to a background on insulin, this hormone is used to signal liver cells to absorb sugars, such as glucose, in order to decrease blood sugar levels. When one is diabetic, he or she has trouble producing insulin, so blood sugar levels are relatively high.

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   Diagram explaining how insulin stimulates cells to intake  sugar; Pearson Biology

But what does “insulin sensitivity” mean?

Insulin sensitivity has to do with how well a body responds to insulin. Those that are highly insulin sensitive require very little insulin to store sugar. On the other hand, those that have low insulin sensitivity, typically diabetics, require greater amounts of insulin for cells to intake certain sugars.

Finley’s observations portrayed the relationship between high insulin sensitivity and cacao, which means that the ingestion of cacao could then result in a delay or prevention of being diagnosed with diabetes. Overall, the ability of cells to readily absorb sugar can be related to the high levels of antioxidants in cacao, which reduce the presence of free radicals.

However, though dark chocolate proves to benefit the physiology of the human body, it is important to enforce proper portion control.

For instance, too many flavonoids could result in a complete absence of platelets. This means that when your body requires the formation of blood clots, such as a scab on a small cut, the platelets will not be available to the affected area.

On the other hand, too many antioxidants can result in the disappearance of free radical cells. At first, this may seem to be a good quality for the body to possess. However, free radicals force the body’s immune system to adjust to and fight against these foreign invaders; this can therefore speed up the immune system response the next time it is introduced to a certain free radical cell.

In conclusion, when you are at Walmart on Valentine’s Day, go for it! Splurge and buy some dark chocolate, now knowing the benefits that tag along!

But always remember, too much of a good thing CAN be bad for you.

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