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Dark, milk, white, flavored with orange, mint, strawberry and the growing favorite — salted caramel —approximately 7.5 million tons of chocolate are consumed annually. But there are reasons chocolate, celebrated around the world on Sept. 13, International Chocolate Day, is so beloved and it’s not just that it tastes so good.
How did it get so delicious? That is a tale of innovation.
The Swiss have been perfecting chocolate since the early 19th century. Francois-Louis Cailler, took the granular texture of the cocoa bean to a smooth chocolate bar. Then world-renowned chocolatier Rudolph Lindt perfected that recipe by adding cocoa butter with a machine he invented called a conche.
But why does the vast majority of the world love it so much?
It’s a chemical thing. The ingredients and chemicals in chocolate have positive effects on our brains and bodies. It’s not necessarily the individual amounts, but the chemicals combined that result in the desired effect.
First on the chocolate inventory list is phenylethylamine, the catalyst in the release of endorphins and an increase in serotonin and dopamine — offering feelings of happiness and contentment. Phenylethylamine is also the chemical released by the brain when you are in love. So it’s with good reason we give in to the impulse buy stack of chocolate at the grocery check-out.
Additionally, the stimulant theobromine offers chocolate eaters a bit of a boost. This ingredient causes a similar energy lift as caffeine, but the effects of theobromine will last longer. Chocolate also contains the real caffeine deal with nearly 25 percent of the caffeine in the average 8-ounce cup of coffee.
So far, we’re happy, content and feeling wide awake and energetic. What’s next?
L-tryptophan is an amino acid that makes essential proteins and is not produced naturally by the body, so we get it from the foods we consume. And yes, chocolate has this too. Combined with the sugar carbohydrates in chocolate, this magic chemical, like serotonin, offers us a little chill-out vibe.
And one of the big winners is polyphenol — a valuable antioxidant found in various foods that protects the brain. It is often used as a supplement for those struggling with psychiatric or cognitive challenges as it has less harmful side effects than medications.
So now we know why chocolate makes us feel good, but there are health benefits to a moderate relationship with chocolate — most commonly dark chocolate.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, some chocolate has a positive effect on heart health. So, if you’re reaching for a fix and hoping to feel good about your choice, come over to the dark side.
It’s those magic antioxidants again.
The most impactful is flavonol — a phytochemical compound called epicatechin found in dark chocolate that offers a number of health benefits.
Epicatechin lowers the risk of heart disease and stroke by reducing blood pressure and increasing healthy blood flow to the heart. It offers immune-system stability, preventing an overactivity linked to some diseases. It also helps the body use insulin properly, combatting diabetes.
Those are the health benefits of the things epicatechin reduces in our bodies, but what are the gains?
Well, it offers some welcome gifts to our brains. These include a memory boost, increased response time and better visual acuity. In addition, epicatechin reduces the amount of oxygen required by athletes, increasing the volume of nitric oxide in the bloodstream so they can perform longer.
There is a long list of reasons dark chocolate should be a welcomed addition to our diets but it is also important to maintain a healthy and moderate relationship with the delicious treat. Sugar content and high carbohydrates are things to watch for.
Too much can counter all of the good it can do for us in moderation. According to Health Digest, “A diet high in sugar-rich chocolate can be a factor in the development of insulin resistance, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes.”
And Type 2 diabetes can lead to blindness, heart disease, stroke, nerve damage and kidney disease.
So, as you reach for your chocolatey favorite this International Chocolate Day, remember—chocolate is your friend, but consider it a fair-weather one.