Would Stone-Agers have been chocoholics?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2006

Chocoholics take heart! Your desire for this great gift is quite natural. When our distant relatives wandered into Central and South America they discovered the tree on which the cocoa bean grows. The Incas, the Mayas and the Aztecs called xocolatl the gift of the gods and only those in power enjoyed the bitter brew. They treasured the cocoa bean for its aphrodisiac effects, which may have been due more to the pepper and other ingredients that they added to it. Spanish explorers concocted a drink made from powdered cocoa and introduced it to Europe early in the 16th century. Three hundred years later an English confectioner invented the chocolate candy that so many of us enjoy almost daily.

Could chocolate be a health food? That's a big jump but scientists have uncovered some genuine nutritional value in chocolate. Among the Cuña Indians of Panama, for example, the dark chocolate that they produce themselves and that they have savored for centuries seems to lower blood pressure. When they move to urban areas and switch to commercial cocoa preparations their blood pressure tends to rise. Although researchers attribute the difference to flavonoids present in dark chocolate, a move to the city involves other factors that are likely to raise blood pressure, including less physical activity, poor dietary habits and stress.

From a nutritional perspective there is an enormous difference between varieties of chocolate. Any real benefits apply only to dark chocolate. Most milk chocolate bars contain powdered milk, sugar and saturated fat. White chocolate consists of cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla and milk.

More than half the fat in chocolate is saturated but it's of the type that has little or no detrimental effect on cholesterol. About one-third is oleic acid, a monounsaturate that is also found in olive oil and that has beneficial effects on cholesterol.

Besides fat, dark chocolate contains three groups of substances that affect our health: minerals, flavonoids and biogenic amines. These constituents of chocolate could have beneficial long-term effects.

Dark chocolate contains fairly high levels of magnesium, a deficiency of which is associated with high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythm and stroke. A single serving of dark chocolate - about 1½ ounces - provides 15% of the recommended daily intake of this mineral. Scientists have found that a deficiency of magnesium might explain some of the symptoms of PMS (premenstrual syndrome). Chocolate also contains other beneficial minerals such as calcium, copper and potassium.

The cocoa bean is, of course, a vegetable and it contains flavonoids similar to those that occur in apples, onions and wine. Flavonoids function as antioxidants, protecting us from harmful free radicals that form as we go about daily life. Environmental pollution, cosmic radiation, infection and the natural chemical processes of the body generate these free radicals, which accelerate aging and cause cancer.

Biogenic amines include caffeine-like substances that stimulate our metabolism. Other members of this group include cannabinoid-like fatty acids that are related to chemicals in marijuana and which affect mood.

So enjoy your gift of the gods this St. Valentine's Day! Just make it the dark variety for better health.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.