When cold weather sets in, there’s nothing like curling up with a cup of hot cocoa. But did you know that chocolate has a rich and intriguing history? As a matter of fact, the ancient Aztecs would say you’re drinking (or eating) money!
From an ancient form of currency to modern recognition as a superfood, chocolate is a rich source of antioxidants and provides many health benefits for just about every body system, including your bones.
Intrigued? Then let’s explore this sweet, delicious treat!
A Brief History Of Chocolate
It’s been suggested that the old saying “as American as apple pie” would be more correct if it referred to chocolate cake instead. After all, apples and pies were common fare in Europe, but chocolate is a uniquely “New World” food – specifically, Mesoamerica.
Mesoamerica is a geographical region that includes central Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries, these indigenous civilizations domesticated foods that are familiar to us today: beans, tomatoes, maize, and, of course, chocolate.
They used the beans (seeds) of the cacao tree to make fermented beverages and a foamy, bitter drink of ground cacao beans mixed with spices and other foods. Residue of chocolate beverages has been collected from ceramic vessels dating all the way back to 1900 B.C. In southern Mexico, similar drinks called “Chilate” are still enjoyed today.
The cacao tree itself produces these coveted beans inside long pods, each containing about 35 cacao beans in a thick, pulpy mass. While the beans are very bitter, the pulp is quite sweet. There’s even evidence that this pulp was fermented by to make mankind’s first alcoholic beverage!
The ancient Aztecs acknowledged the beans as a gift from the god of wisdom, and they were highly valued and used as a form of currency. The Mayan people also connected chocolate with a deity– specifically, cacao beans were thought to be the food of the rain god Kon.
When Europeans were introduced to this irresistible bean, they added sugar. And it’s believed that the first spelling difference took place in Europe: “cacao” was accidentally noted as “cocoa” by a merchant involved in the cacao trade. Perhaps because it was easier to pronounce, the name stuck, and today we distinguish between cacao and cocoa as different forms of the same product (more on that in a moment).
Chocolate grew in importance and popularity in Europe and eventually the United States, and it became a staple food. Chocolate was even included in soldiers’ rations during wartime.
Current research supports the notion of chocolate as a staple food that could be consumed daily, albeit in small amounts and in the right form.
Before we delve into the various forms of chocolate, let’s take a moment to dispel a myth that came about due to a flawed study on chocolate consumption and bone density.
Study Finds That Chocolate Decreases Bone Density – Is It True?
If you’re following the Osteoporosis Reversal Program, then you know that dark chocolate is listed as a Foundation Food. Yet a published five-year study on the link between chocolate consumption and bone density basically placed it in the realm of “junk food”. But, as you’ll see, the study is clearly flawed.
A group of women between the ages of 70 and 85 were randomly selected from the general population and given bone density scans. They were then asked about their frequency of chocolate intake. The women who reported consuming chocolate most frequently (more than once a day) were found to have lower bone density and strength than those who ate chocolate less frequently.
Incredibly, the study authors themselves admit that “The current study has certain weaknesses.”1 That’s putting it mildly!
First of all, the amount of chocolate the women consumed is not mentioned; only the frequency. But it is crucial information. For example, if the women ate chocolate more than once a day, that could simply mean they ate two or three mini chocolate morsels four times a day, whereas those who consumed chocolate only once a day might have been eating an entire candy bar in one sitting.
Also, “Diet, lifestyle, or environmental factors that were either not measured or inadequately measured may account for the relation”1 between chocolate consumption and low bone density. In other words, we have no idea if these women were couch potatoes or athletes. We don’t know if they were balancing their chocolate intake with alkalizing foods, or if they ate a predominantly acidifying diet.
We don’t have any idea what their environment was like – were they indoors most of the time? Exposed to fresh air and sunlight? Also, the study does not mention if the women were taking supplements or medications.
All of these factors can significantly influence the study outcome, but one of the most shocking flaws is the neglect by the researchers to denote the type of chocolate the women consumed. By “chocolate,” did the women mean they ate artificially flavored chocolate, which is really flavored oils without very little cocoa in it? Or did they consume milk chocolate candy bars, unsweetened cocoa powder, or 85% cacao chocolate? What was the sugar content of the chocolate consumed, and did it contain high fructose corn syrup?
The reason this particular flaw is so significant is because the sugary, artificial junk that passes for “chocolate” is terrible for bone health, and is in direct opposition to dark chocolate, which is good for your bones and your overall health.
What Kind Of Chocolate Is Best?
There is a vast difference between processed, milk chocolate candy bars and polyphenol-rich dark chocolate.
So what’s the problem with milk chocolate? Besides the already known detrimental effect of milk on bones, its protein binds to the antioxidants that make chocolate healthy, preventing their absorption, and therefore undermining one of the primary health benefits of chocolate.
Processed chocolate is loaded with sugar, including high fructose corn syrup, and typically contain preservatives, artificial flavors, colors, and hydrogenated oils. This is particularly true of mass-produced, inexpensive chocolate-flavored treats that appear in stores during holidays.
On the other hand, organic, dark chocolate that’s at least 70% cacao and contains no artificial additives is a healthful treat. Better yet, choose raw cacao that doesn’t contain sugar.
Cocoa vs. Cacao
It’s important to clarify the difference between these two terms, even if the original spelling difference was a slip of a merchant’s pen.The Latin name for the cacao tree is Theobroma cacao, and the pods and beans are called cacao beans. So “cacao” generally refers to products that are as close as possible to their raw, unprocessed state, straight off the tree.
Cacao butter is the fat that occurs naturally in the outer lining of the cacao beans. Once this is removed, the cacao bean can be finely ground into raw cacao powder (not to be confused with cocoa powder, which has the fat removed).
Cacao nibs are dried cacao beans that have been chopped up, and cacao paste is made from pulverized nibs that have been melted slowly over low heat.
The term “cocoa” refers to cacao that’s had the cacao butter removed and has been heated and ground to a powder. This is the most common form of chocolate, predominantly used to make hot chocolate and for baking.
Cocoa without added sugar, fats, and other additives (stay away from “instant” chocolate milk and hot chocolate mix) is healthful too. Despite the higher temperatures involves in processing, cocoa retains most of its antioxidants. Dutch-processed cocoa has a richer, less acidic taste because it has been processed with an alkalizing solution. It’s still acidifying to the body, though, as is all chocolate, which brings me to the next very important point.
Balance Chocolate Consumption With Alkalizing Foods
All forms of chocolate are acidifying. But as you will soon see, thanks to its rich nutrient content, you can enjoy it – even every day. Besides, the Osteoporosis Reversal Program is not about avoiding acidifying foods; it’s about balancing them with alkalizing ones to maximize your intake bone-building nutrients.
Chocolate is meant to be eaten in small amounts. A piece of dark chocolate about one inch long and ¼ thick is ideal, and if you eat this small piece slowly about half an hour before a meal, it produces a sense of satisfaction that helps prevent overeating. Eating another small piece after the meal also helps stop your appetite before you eat too much or head for a big dessert.
According to a randomized, crossover study:
“…dark chocolate promotes satiety, lowers the desire to eat something sweet, and suppresses energy intake compared with milk chocolate.”2
This fits perfectly with the 80/20 nutritional plan that forms the basis of the Osteoporosis Reversal Program. These small pieces of chocolate make up part of the 20% of acidifying foods that are included in the day’s food choices. The same is true for cocoa.
Given chocolate’s amazing nutritional and phytochemical profile, which we’re going to look at next, it makes sense to include this delicious food in your daily menu.
Key Phytochemicals And Antioxidants In Chocolate
Chocolate contains 300 known phytochemicals. Some of these substances have a remarkable effect on the brain, such as:
- Theobromine and caffeine. These two chemicals work together to give you a sense of increased energy after eating chocolate.
- Phenylethelamine is a relative of amphetamines and a stimulant, helping you stay alert and focused.
- Anandamide is a neurotransmitter manufactured in the brain that’s also present in chocolate. It produces a pleasant sense of happiness, and other chemicals present in the chocolate slow the breakdown of the anandamide, so the good feeling lasts longer than positive feelings produced by other neurotransmitters which are processed very quickly in the body.
Antioxidants levels can be measured by the ORAC method, or Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity. This is a measure of how much antioxidant activity is present– in other words, how well the food disarms free radicals.
According to a recent study, dark chocolate and cocoa powder have a higher ORAC rating than any of the antioxidant-rich ‘super fruits’ tested, including blueberries, acai berries, and cranberries.3
Here are the main bone-building antioxidants found in chocolate:
- Catechins, which stimulate osteoblast activity and perform a host of other roles in the body.
- Epicatechins are catechins that are especially important in osteoblast differentiation. In addition, epicatechins enhance muscle performance.4
- Oligomeric procynanidins are found in higher concentrations in chocolate when compared to other foods, including cranberries and green tea.
- Resveratrol actually improves balance and motor coordination in addition to its many other healthful benefits.
- In addition to these bone-building substances, chocolate also contains iron, magnesium*, copper*, manganese*, potassium, phosphorous, zinc*, and selenium.
There are other substances in chocolate that bear mentioning: oxalates and phytic acid.
Oxalates And Phytic Acid In Chocolate: Not To Worry
Oxalates and phytic acid are substances that bind to minerals, including calcium, making them less bioavailable. While it’s true that chocolate contains oxalates, the reality is that you should consume it in small amounts, especially in comparison to other foods high in oxalates, such as spinach, kale, and beets – to name a few. So the bottom line is, chocolate is a bone-smart food, and its oxalate content needn’t stop you from including it in your diet. And the same applies to phytic acid. Also, bear in mind that chocolate’s benefits extend beyond bone health, as you’ll read next.
Overall Health Benefits Of Chocolate
Your skeleton isn’t the only body system to get a boost from chocolate. Here are some other benefits to consider.
Improved Cardiovascular Health
It’s well-known that the antioxidants in chocolate produce an anti-inflammatory effect, which is the main culprit behind cardiovascular disease.
Research reveals chocolate’s ability to assuage anxiety, which is bad for bones. After 30 days of consuming cocoa polyphenols, the 72 study participants reported a 10% decrease in anxiety.5
Lower Blood Pressure
High blood pressure can damage your bones and your kidneys, allowing bone-destroying toxins to build up. Chocolate helps arteries relax by stimulating the lining of the arteries to produce nitric oxide. This substance “tells” blood vessels to relax.
There was a myth some years ago that chocolate causes acne. But research shows that cocoa leads to increased blood flow to the skin, as well as improved skin density and hydration. One study concludes the following:
“Dietary flavanols from cocoa contribute to endogenous photoprotection, improve dermal blood circulation, and affect cosmetically relevant skin surface and hydration variables.”6
Improved Cognitive Function
When scientists conducted a study in 90 older adults who had mild cognitive impairment, they found that:
“…the regular consumption of cocoa flavanols might be effective in improving cognitive function in elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment.”7
So chocolate is good for your brain!
Chocolate Is A Versatile Food
It may come as a surprise that chocolate plays so many important roles in the body. It’s remarkably versatile in the kitchen, too – it can be consumed in various forms well over and beyond the inch-long piece I mentioned earlier.
For example, unsweetened cacao or cocoa powder can be added to many different dishes, boosting their antioxidant content without added sugar. I love to sprinkle my breakfast oatmeal with dark raw cacao or you can make sweet, bone-healthy brownies.
You’ll find even more chocolaty recipes and ideas in Bone Appétit, including one for Heavenly Chocolate Cake (page 122) that tastes so sweet and decadent you’d never know it’s sugar-free. And how about chocolate for breakfast? “Ooh Lala” French Toast (page 9) features chopped dark chocolate inside the toasted sandwiches.
Bone Appétit has many other chocolate dishes included in its 200+ recipes. There’s Non-Dairy Chocolate Delish (page 129) and Choco-Banana Delight (page 133). The latter recipe is featured in Quick Picks, a collection of super-fast, bone-smart foods included at the end of every section for those days when you’re short on time but still want to eat foods that build your bones.
Eat Your Way to Stronger Bones!
Discover over 200 mouth-watering bone healthy recipes for breakfast, smoothies, appetizers, soups, salads, vegetarian dishes, fish, and plenty of main courses and even desserts!
As you can see, chocolate definitely has a place in a bone-smart diet! So go ahead and indulge (in moderation, of course), knowing you’re doing something healthful for your bones, brain, heart, and so much more.
Till next time,
1 Hodgson, Jonathan M., et al. “Chocolate consumption and bone density in older women.” Am J Clin Nutr. 87. 1. (2008): 175-180. Web. September 16, 2016. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/87/1/175.full
2 Sorensin, L.B. and Astrup, A. “Eating dark and milk chocolate: a randomized crossover study of effects on appetite and energy intake.” Nutr Diabetes.1. 12. (2011): 321. Web. September 16, 2016. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3302125/
3 Crozier, Stephen J., et al. “Cacao seeds are a ‘Super Fruit’: A comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products.” Chemistry Central Journal. 5. 5. (2011). Web. September 16, 2016. http://ccj.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/1752-153X-5-5
4 Nogeuira L, Ramirez-Sanchez I, Perkins GA, Murphy A, Taub PR, Ceballos G, Villarreal FJ, Hogan MC, Malek MH. “Epicatechin enhances fatigue resistance and oxidative capacity in mouse muscle.” J Physiol. 589. Pt 18. (2011): 4615-31.
5 Pase, Matthew, et al. “Cocoa polyphenols enhance positive mood states but not cognitive performance: A randomized, placebo-controlled trial.” Journal of Psychopharmacology. 27. 5. (2013). Web. September 16, 2016. http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Con_Stough/publication/235385970_Cocoa_polyphenols_enhance_positive_mood_states_but_not_cognitive_performance_A_randomized_placebo-controlled_trial/links/00463523fcfc30c38d000000.pdf
6 Heinrich, U., et al. “Long-term ingestion of high flavanol cocoa provides photoprotection against UV-induced erythema and improves skin condition in women.” J Nutr. 136. 6. (2006): 1565-9. Web. September 16, 2016. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16702322
7 Desideri, Giovambattista, et al. “Benefits in Cognitive Function, Blood Pressure, and Insulin Resistance Through Cocoa Flavanol Consumption in Elderly Subjects With Mild Cognitive Impairment.” Hypertension. 60. 3. (2012). Web. September 16, 2016. http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/60/3/794.short