Should you be feeling pangs of guilt as you lusciously bite off the ears of your chocolate Easter bunnies, don’t worry! You actually are doing something good for your health.
Go ahead, it's good for you!
Easter is here and one of the world’s most widespread passions is an integral part of it: chocolate! For many chocolate lovers, there is no match for that happy feeling following the consumption of this sweet.
Chocolate’s uplifting quality is a result of a substance it releases in the brain: serotonin, which can heighten the senses and brighten our moods. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, the chemical involved in the transmission of nerve impulses between nerve cells.
Rüdiger Lobitz, a nutritionist at the non-profit consumer protection organization “aid infodienst” in Bonn, explained that in our brains, serotonin is responsible for making us feel good.
“If we have a serotonin deficiency, we can get depressed,” said Lobitz.
Chocolate’s role in stimulating serotonin
Serotonin is formed by the amino acid tryptophan. Since our bodies cannot create it on its own, we have to take it in through our food.
Milk chocolate has nearly 50 percent sugar in it.
“Chocolate itself doesn’t contain high levels of tryptophan, but it has a lot of sugar and this sparks insulin production,” said Lobitz. Insulin, in turn, ensures that the sugar gets into our cells where it belongs.
The tryptophan is left over and can therefore reach our brains in an enhanced form and be synthesized into serotonin.
“But generally speaking, you can achieve the same affect, of course, with a banana or another sweet food, like pudding or fruit compote,” Lobitz added.
Dark chocolate dips blood pressure
People, especially women, have known for years that eating chocolate can make you feel good. But scientific research shows that not only does chocolate make us feel better, it has other benefits, such as battling cardiovascular diseases.
Different types of chocolate have different effects on the body.
Dirk Taubert from the Institute for Pharmacology at the University of Cologne conducted a pilot study on the effects of chocolate on blood pressure. The institute examined 13 patients who suffered from a form of high blood pressure called “systolic hypertension.”
Over a two-week period, the patients consumed a bar of dark chocolate daily. “We determined that their blood pressure dropped in the upper, systolic level,” said Taubert.
If a patient’s blood pressure was initially 150 to 100, the chocolate could bring it down to 145 to 100. “But when they received white chocolate, we found no effect,” he added.
“Our results indicate that certain substances in cocoa can reduce blood pressure,” said Taubert, since the darker the chocolate, the higher its cocoa content.
The antioxidant effects of chocolate
According to Taubert, so-called polyphenols in the cocoa bean are most likely the cause of the positive results. “The darker the chocolate, the more polyphenols are in it,” he said.
Red wine is also known for its antioxidant effects.
Polyphenols are common substances in the plant world, and can be found in many other types of food, such as apples, red wine or green tea. Nutritionist Lobitz explained that polyphenols also have an antioxidant effect on the body.
“This means they help guard the body’s cells from damage by aggressive free radicals, which normally develop in our metabolism,” said Lobitz. And this can, in fact, protect against cardiovascular diseases and some forms of cancer.
In fact, there are more polyphenols in cocoa beans than in green tea or wine, for example. “But I wouldn’t recommend anyone consume masses of chocolate just because of the phenols’ positive anti-oxidative effects,” Lobitz added.
Chocolate’s historical uses
Chocolate came to Europe in the 17th century, and quickly became a status symbol for the nobility, said Andrea Durry from Cologne’s Chocolate Museum.
“People at the time thought a lot about cocoa and did studies to determine whether cocoa or chocolate was good for your health,” she said.
There were several medical problems that were treated with chocolate. “For example, if you had an iron deficiency in your blood, they had a chocolate preparation with small pieces of real iron in it,” said Durry.
There were also chocolate bars similar to the health bars we know today. “They contained a type of grass for throat problems or coughing.” Chocolate bars with quicksilver in them were used for sexual diseases. “But actually, I’m not really sure if they worked,” she noted.
The bad news
The industrial revolution, of course, made the production of chocolate easier and less expensive, making the sweet more readily available to everyone.
Today, most people can afford to indulge in the health benefits of chocolate. “But chocolate is first and foremost a treat and should be considered as such,” said nutritionist Lobitz.
Chocolate’s very high sugar content is not good for your teeth or your waistline. But if you can’t resist, stick to dark chocolate and eat it in moderation.