When I was a little girl, chocolate bars were always a special treat I got when I behaved myself. So anytime I got good grades or helped with the chores, my mom would break two little squares out of the chocolate bar in the fridge and hand them to me. Sometimes, for lesser achievements, one square, but never more than two.
The chocolate commercials on television always had people running carefree through the fields, biting into the chocolate bars as if there were no squares marking out how much you could eat! Having been raised on the ‘two squares a day’ rule, that always shocked me a little.. and made me jealous. Oh, how I longed for the day when I had the freedom to buy my own bar of chocolate and bite into it at will!
However, as I grew up, I was being told repeatedly by my dentist, dermatologist and others that chocolate wasn’t good for me, and every time I had a bite, I’d feel guilty. Turns out, while my doctors were a little right (chocolate does contain a lot of sugar and milk, which aren’t necessarily good for adults), they weren’t wholly right either. Chocolate – especially dark chocolate – does have a lot of benefits, including:
1) Preventing heart disease: The cocoa matter in chocolates doesn’t get easily digested by the stomach and small intestine and some of the cocoa makes it all the way to the colon. Here, bacteria breaks the cocoa into smaller particles and it gets absorbed by the blood stream. These particles help reduce cardiac inflammation.
2) Reducing anxiety: Remember in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when Lupin gives Harry a chocolate bar when he passes out in the train, and Harry feels much better after he eats it? The magic there was the science of chocolate. Chocolate stimulates the brain to release a chemical called endorphin, which make you feel better. The reason for this is not completely understood, but it is suspected to be the presence of an enzyme called phenylethylamine (PEA) found in cocoa beans. So, if you ever need a pick-me-up, grab a dark chocolate bar – it will have a high PEA content. Incidentally, the same endorphins (a.k.a “happy hormones”) are released when you go for a run or fall in love.
3) Preventing cancer (maybe): It is suspected that chocolate may prevent cancer better than “power fruits” such as berries and pomegranates. Although we have not yet performed dedicated studies to check if chocolate indeed prevents cancer, we do know that there are things called free radicals. They interact with components in the cells of your body and cause damage which leads to cancer. Chocolate contains a substance known as ‘antioxidants,’ which are known to get into your body and interact with free radicals present there and neutralize them.
4) Lowering cholesterol: Chocolate also contains a substance called polyphenol which has been shown to produce “good” cholesterol and decrease the total good cholesterol to bad cholesterol ratio. However, this is true only for dark chocolate.
5) Reducing risk of stroke: When scientists fed dark chocolate to mice and then induced a stroke, the scientists found that damage to their nerve cells was reduced. This is because dark chocolate contains epicatechin – a compound known to increase certain cellular signals which shield our nerve cells from getting damaged during a stroke.
This is by no means a complete list. However, most of these benefits are only associated with dark chocolate. Milk and white chocolate contain a lot of milk, sugar, butter, cream, etc., which can be detrimental in large quantities, and less cocoa — the healthy part.
My childhood doctor was right in discouraging me from eating chocolate, because at that age I would’ve only indulged in milk and white chocolate. As a child, your body is programmed to like sugary food because the presence of sugar indicates a lot of calories and nutrition. Children also tend to dislike bitter food because poisons are usually bitter so this is a way to ensure we avoid them. When you become an adult, you do not crave as much sugar – partly because you aren’t growing at such a rapid pace anymore, and partly because of social conditioning. We’re conditioned – by our parents, health blogs, etc.. to start eating bitter, spicier food and we learn to appreciate them and even develop a preference for them.
So as I grew up, I stopped liking milk and white chocolate (the ones you can bite into) and started migrating to darker chocolates (the kind you let melt on your tongue). However, since the best way to eat dark chocolate is by letting it melt on your tongue and not bite into it, this, sadly, means that my childhood dream of biting into a bar of chocolate will go unrealized.