Hearts and roses aside, there is perhaps no better representation of Valentine's Day than chocolate. There bittersweet confection has a rich history, artisanal tradition, and even enjoys superfood status. So whether you're enjoying chocolate-covered strawberries with a sweetie or treating your single self to truffles, rest assured that an occasional indulgence offers a host of health benefits.
Cacoa beans - the source of all chocolate - have long been a venerated crop. In parts of Central America, cacao beans were even used as currency as recently as the last century.
But cacao has a sensual side, too. Chocolate became known as an aphrodisiac in the 17th century - a quality that today's scientific research justifies. Two particular neurotransmitters found in chocolate are known to create euphoria and mimic THC in marijuana. Maybe that's why it feels so good to bite into a bar!
Money, love - and a delicious flavor? It's no wonder Americans love chocolate. In fact, we eat about 12 pounds of chocolate per person annually. This year, we're projected to spend $1.6 billion on Valentine's Day candy alone. Even US Army rations include chocolate bars, and US astronauts take it to space with their supplies.
Surprisingly, chocolate is a fermented bean product at its core. White cacao beans are harvested, fermented and dried, turning brown in the process. Chocolatiers buy the dried beans and then clean, weigh, blend, roast and shell them using their own secret recipes. The shelled cacao nibs are ground, melting into chocolate liquor - the (non-alcoholic) liquid form of pure chocolate. Poured into mold and cooled, chocolate liquor hardens inot unsweetened baking chocolate. To make cocoa from these blacks, cocoa butter is removed. For chocolate, cocoa butter is added, along with sugar and other ingredients.
Chocolate is rich in plant sterols and flavonoids, compounds that support healthy cardiovascular function. Chocolate, therefore, may help lower cholesterol, prevent blood clots, and protect against arterial damage. Flavonoids also have strong antioxidant capabilities that help fight allergy, inflammation, and even cancer.
Despite appearances that may suggest otherwise, not all chocolate is created equal. When choosing your chocolate, label reading is a must. The purest, healthiest chocolates include ingredients such as cacao, unsweetened chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, salt, or milk.
Avoid chocolates with additives like corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) or flavoring. Sometimes, it's not even real chocolate in those heart-shaped boxes; many pre-packaged confections are simply "chocolate-flavored candy." Read the fine print and be picky!
Also, the healthy nutrients in chocolate increase with its cocoa content, so select the darkest chocolate possible to take full advantage of its benefits.
A Final Reminder
While pure chocolate is one of the healthiest kinds of sweet treats, it still contains sugar, caffeine, and potent natural compounds that may be addictive. Moderation is always advisable.
Happy Valentine's Day!
-Emily Wade Adams, author of Natal Nutrition
photo credit: Amber Kercmar
Murray, M., Pizzorno, J., & Pizzorno, L. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. The Healing Power of Miscellaneous Foods. New York: Atria.
Weil, A. (2004) Natural Health, Natural Medicine. New York: Hougton Mifflin.