If you’ve ever felt down in the dumps and dug into a bowl of dark chocolate ice cream or ripped into the nearest Hershey bar, you may have felt a little better afterwards. But, do you know why?

Chocolate, in its purest form, is one of the “super foods”. It contains antioxidants, and several compounds that work with your brain’s chemistry to promote feeling good.

But, where does chocolate come from?

 

Does Chocolate Grow on Trees?

Yes, actually it does. Chocolate is the processed form of the cacao bean which comes from the Theobroma cacao tree. It was discovered over 2000 years ago in Central American rainforests and grows mainly in South and Central American countries.

The evergreen tree produces fruit called cacao pods and inside are the seeds, or beans which are dried and then processed to become chocolate.

 

Chocolate is Good for You?

Over the past few years, many research studies have shown the health benefits of dark chocolate.

Cacao beans are one the highest antioxidant foods in the world. Even more than blueberries and red wine. The antioxidants found in chocolate are flavonoids which are known to reduce free radicals (cancer causing agents), improve risk of heart disease, lower bad cholesterol, and control blood pressure.

But now, studies have found that dark chocolate can boost brain function and mood and may even lower anxiety and depression.

Cacao beans are high in soluble fiber, vitamins and minerals including magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and potassium.

The higher the cacao content, the more nutritious the chocolate.

What makes chocolate unhealthy is heating and over processing the cacao beans plus all the additives like milk and sugar to make it taste better.

 

How Does Chocolate Make You Feel Better?

 

Serotonin and Endorphins

Dark chocolate and cacao contain an amino acid called tryptophan that your brain uses to produce the neurotransmitter Serotonin, which can increase feelings of overall happiness. Serotonin is the feel-good chemical and influences your mood. Serotonin levels increase with the amount of cacao, so darker chocolate, or raw cacao gives you the most effect.

Also, cacao causes your brain to release endorphins which are also released during exercise. They lower our stress and give us a general sense of wellbeing.

 

Polyphenols

Cacao contains several antioxidants including polyphenols which are known to reduce anxiety and depression.

 

Phenylethylalanine

This is the chemical that produces the euphoric feeling of “falling in love” and is found in dark chocolate and cacao. Phenylethylalanine is a natural antidepressant that works with the dopamine in your brain.

 

Theobromine

Theobromine is a mild stimulant present in cacao, similar to caffeine. It produces a “high” that people experience after eating dark chocolate. It’s not strong enough to keep you up at night, but it does give you a boost of good energy. There is no caffeine in raw cacao, however, it is sometimes added to cocoa.

 

No wonder chocolate makes us feel good. But does all chocolate give us the same effects?

 

Quality Matters

Most candy bars have more sugar and dairy than they do actual chocolate and are not considered healthy. If fact, milk can mess with the digestion of the nutrients, making them less affective. According to foodmatters.com, “Research shows that dairy inhibits the absorption of antioxidants from raw cacao.” So, you are not getting the benefits you would from dark chocolate.

Milk chocolate may have a little as 7% cocoa, making up the rest in milk, sugar, and other additives.

White chocolate doesn’t have any cocoa at all, only the cocoa butter. It’s the least healthy of the chocolates as it contains mostly sugar and milk.

Dark Chocolate ranges from 50% cocoa up to 95%. You’ll get the most benefits from eating chocolate bars with at least 70% cocoa. However, dark chocolate still contains sugar, some quite a lot, and may also contain milk products. So, check the labels and make sure the dark chocolate you are consuming is mostly cocoa. When looking at dark chocolate, watch out for other ingredients that make it taste better. They’ll most likely have more sugar.

Raw Chocolate, or pure cacao and can be in the form of beans, powders or nibs, which are like chips. They contain no sugar or milk products and are the healthiest forms of chocolate. You can buy raw chocolate bars but check the label to make sure it doesn’t contain added sugar.

 

Eat Chocolate in Moderation

Just because it’s good for you, doesn’t mean you can eat unlimited amounts every day. Unless your eating raw cacao, most chocolate contains sugar, so you’re getting empty calories. Too much sugar leads to many health problems including gaining weight and unhealthy blood sugar.

Cocoa butter in chocolate contains the monounsaturated fat, Oleic acid, which is found in olive oil. But it also contains two saturated fats, stearic acid palmitic acid. You want to limit palmitic acid due to cholesterol levels.

Too much of a good thing isn’t good, but keeping to 1 oz a few times a week is the recommended amount according to Cleveland Clinic.

 

Cacao vs Cocoa, what’s the difference?

Once the cacao seeds are dried, they go through a heating process and what remains is cocoa. The nutrients in cacao are either reduced or even destroyed by the high heat which kills the naturally occurring enzymes in cacao.

The cocoa is further processed to produce chocolate. Milk chocolate has only a small amount of cocoa, around 10%. Dark chocolate can contain anywhere from 50% cocoa to 90%. The more cocoa, the more bitter the taste, but also the more health benefits.

 

Tying it All Together

Dark Chocolate or raw cacao is a healthy “super food” which contains antioxidants to promote heart health and brain function including mood.

The chemicals in cacao can make you feel happy with a sense of well-being or contentment. When choosing chocolate, look for the highest content of cocoa, or better yet, raw cacao.

So next time you’re looking for something to put you in a good mood, add some cacao to your smoothie, or grab a bag of nibs, or grab a bar of rich dark chocolate. You’ll feel better.

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