There are over three hundred compounds in cocoa beans and most of them have been chemically identified and studied in regards to their effects on our metabolism and health.
We know that cocoa’s caffeine content is mainly responsible for its bitter taste and part of its stimulating effect. Also, it has a number of “Xanthines,” which are also found in coffee and tea. Xanthines have stimulating effects on our hearts and arteries as well as a marked diuretic effect. Cocoa’s antioxidants are numerous, including “Polyphenols” (Cathechins) and “Flavonoids,” which are beneficial for our health.
Antioxidants are compounds found in vegetables that counter the negative effects of “oxygen free radicals” in our bodies. Oxygen free radicals are electrically charged oxygen atoms that we are all exposed to and have the capacity to disrupt the natural chemical composition of our cells, particularly DNA, in a way that may cause many types of cancers. The antioxidants minimize this harmful process.
Cocoa beans are produced in many parts of the world and processed in several different ways; the most common are fermenting and grinding them, which modify their chemical composition. Cocoa “liquor” is made from ground beans, and cocoa “butter” manufactured from the liquor form is mostly fat (Triglycerides) with high caloric content.
Cocoa beans were used as food and also as currency by Central American ancient cultures (Aztecs and Mayans) and were introduced in Europe by returning explorers. At the time, beans were an expensive delicacy.
Antioxidants found in chocolate, coffee, and tea—particularly green tea—have a beneficial effect on our bodies’ fat metabolism, reducing the negative effect of LDL (Low Density Lipoproteins), also known as “bad” cholesterol, on the heart and blood vessels. Antioxidants are found in all kinds of vegetables, particularly dark-colored leafy plants such as spinach, and also fruits. Organic vegetable as well as Concord grape juices are a convenient way to get antioxidants.
Flavonoids are also polyphenols that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties and may be beneficial in the treatment of some venous disorders.
Women are more susceptible to cravings than men are and chocolate cravings may be associated with the menstrual cycle due to the changes in hormonal blood levels when it occurs. Research shows that cravings may be associated with the need for sugar (complex carbohydrates) and chemicals found in chocolate, which participate in the metabolism of brain neurotransmitters, such as Trypthophan, an amino acid essential for the production of serotonin.
We have a preference for chocolate, not only for its chemical composition but also for its texture, smell, and flavor. Chocolate compounds also participate in the metabolism of pleasure-producing brain chemicals. Chocolate, as a mood-enhancer, is also useful as a dietary supplement in the treatment of mild depression.
Which type of chocolate should we eat? The most frequent answer is “any chocolate is good,” which is partially true. If we eat it in moderation, any chocolate is good, depending on our personal preference. Moderation is the key word, because if we prefer “white” chocolates, we are surely getting too much cholesterol—they are manufactured with milk and milk products. The cholesterol we consume comes only from animal sources.
If we think about the antioxidants benefits, dark chocolate provides the most. At this time, we can find dark chocolates with a cocoa content of up to 75 percent and over 80 percent—although they are more expensive and dense, with a generally bitter flavor.
Is chocolate associated with pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS)? The answer is no. PMS is caused by complex blood hormonal changes and their effect on certain parts of our brain. Would chocolate prevent PMS? Although minimal, there is some research that supports this concept. Again, it may be related to the effect of chocolate chemical on brain functions.
What about migraines? Cocoa and chocolate may trigger a migraine attack on patients who suffer from this problem. This is probably related to tryptophan levels; migraines may also appear after eating cheese (particularly aged and hard cheeses) and drinking red wine, for the same reason.
Xanthine-containing products such as cocoa, cocoa beans and powder, caffeine, and teas should be consumed very carefully, at a minimum during pregnancy because the unborn baby’s tissues (and effect on their forming brain cells) do not have the necessary enzymes to break down (metabolize) xanthines, specifically “Theobromine.”
The same applies to patients, of any age, suffering from asthma, high blood pressure, heart diseases (particularly arrhythmias), and gastro-intestinal disorders (gastro-esophageal disease/reflux or GERD).
Is there a chocolate “overdose”? Unfortunately, there is: it may happen after consumption of more than 300 mg of caffeine and more than 300 mg of theobromine—part of any type of chocolate, leading to extreme nervousness, inability to concentrate—important if driving any type of vehicles—anxiety, (a high risk for patients suffering from bipolar disorders), insomnia, and gastrointestinal problems.
As a reference, a regular cup of coffee is 8 ounces/240 milliliters and contains 75 to 100 milligrams of caffeine. Starbucks brand is 120 to 150 milligrams of caffeine. Theobromine: 25 to 35 milligrams/cup, double for Starbucks.
A final question: can my dog eat chocolate? The answer is … do not leave any chocolate within your dog’s reach. A small dog (8 pounds) could die by eating just a small piece or square of chocolate. A large dog (40 pounds or heavier) could eat a little square of chocolate without major problems.
Details: the average dark chocolate square weighs approximately 1 gram/0.4 ounces with a Theobromine content of 250 to 300 milligrams. A small, 8-pound dog would die with up to 50 to 70 milligrams/pound (100 to 150 milligrams/kilogram) of Theobromine. A large dog (40 pounds or heavier) could eat one or two little squares of dark chocolate without major problems. Visit our site for more health and medical information!
By Justine L. Miller, MD, PhD
Part 1 | Part 2
Photo courtesy of MedixNet