Louise H Connolly MD
and then doesn’t hurt.” Charles M. Schultz
Aaahhhh Chocolate! Don't you love it? Most of us do. Have a bite and you decrease your stress, lift your spirits, and get a deep sense of satisfaction. And it’s a brain builder to boot.
This wonderful bean, this gift from the Mayan culture in Central America, has a lot in common with the other foods we have been talking about in this Brain Health series - polyphenols in grape seeds, almonds, and blueberries as well as the flavanols and catechins in coffee and tea. In chocolate, it’s the flavanols and alkaloids which do the trick. The miracle is that in the right dose, the right way, it's a potent antioxidant, increases blood flow to your brain. supports your mitochondria and more. But did you know that chocolate can actually decrease your appetite and increase insulin sensitivity?
What is chocolate’s secret? What makes us feel so good? Chocolate has many secrets, I’ll name but a few. Bear in mind though, that the sum is much more than its parts. The taste, the feel and the smell can’t be synthesized and put in a capsule.
One of the best secret substances in chocolate is called "Anandamide". Scientists named it after the Greek word for bliss. And it is well named. This "bliss molecule" is naturally produced in our bodies. We release anandamide during peak experiences. Just when do women release it? When they ovulate. Men release it when they ejaculate. It's part of a runner's high. It's a fleeting and wonderful feeling. Personally, I could use more. Dark chocolate has the highest concentration of anandamide found to date outside of our own bodies.
Chocolate also contains theobromine. This alkaloid is related to caffeine but doesn’t give you the jitters, just the focus. Theobromine literally means “food of the Gods”. I’ll take that too. Perfect calm focus.
What else? Chocolate is a top source of tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, the neurotransmitter of happiness and positive mood. Dark chocolate improves blood flow to the brain through nitric oxide release. It protects the brain against free radical damage with its antioxidant flavanols. Chocolate also contains prebiotics, favorably influencing your microbiome, increasing bifidobacter and lactobacilli. Chocolate as a prebiotic? Sounds good to me. In turn, the prebiotics in chocolate influence the as gut/brain axis. The result is a large increase in BDNF, (brain derived neurotrophic factor) increasing synaptic growth and neuroplasticity. Learning and memory improve as cocoa flavonols penetrate and accumulate in your brain's hippocampus.
Then there is the generous amount of magnesium in chocolate, calming you down, lowering your blood pressure, relieving stress.
Back to anandamide, the bliss molecule. Don’t you want to know a little more about this one? Focus, relaxation, upbeat attitude, better thinking - they all sound good but bliss sounds better. We only discovered how anandamide works in 1988.
1988? What took so long? We were fighting two world wars when we could be exploring bliss? My goodness. Then we called this precious internal bliss machinery our “endocannabinoid system”. Bad name IMHO. It’s true that CBD and marijuana hit these receptors, but in a distorted way. The cannabinoids trick our bodies into making the real thing. Chocolate contains the real thing, our own bioidentical anandamide. This is an entire area of botanical research which needs further development: How do we fuel production and release of our own “bliss” molecules naturally? What is the proper care and feeding of “bliss” receptors in our brains? I’d like to know.
What's in the mix?
Who does the research on chocolate? Hershey, Mars and Nestle of course. Mars alone has done over 140 studies on chocolate, most of them positive. Based on this research, they formulated a capsule extract product called CocoaVia. It’s full of the good stuff. Despite the obvious bias, the research is well done and has independent validation. Some examples: In 2012, seniors with mild cognitive impairment consuming CocoaVia daily for 8 weeks performed better on tests of memory, verbal fluency and other measures of cognitive health than controls. Blood pressure went down, blood sugar improved, and oxidative stress markers were reduced. A follow up 2015 study, included 90 older people without cognitive impairment. These individuals were given a low, medium or high flavanol CocoaVia drink to consume daily over 8 weeks. There was a graded positive response in all measurements of cognitive health in this group compared to baseline. The higher the flavanol content, the better the cognitive performance.
Nestle took a different tact. They looked to isolate the perfect molecule from the many flavanols in chocolate. It was Nestle who discovered anandamide. Attempts to enhance and patent their finding failed. Later this research was used to create the psychedelic drug Ecstacy, the dangerous imbalanced child of amandamide in chocolate.
How do you pick a “really good” chocolate bar? It’s not simply a taste test if you want the health benefits. Only dark chocolate is good for you. But not all dark chocolate. You need to understand a bit about chocolate’s components, additives, processing and contaminants in order to choose. Even then it’s hard to pick the “good for you” bars. There is no transparency in this industry.
Chocolate is made up of 2 parts – the cocoa powder (the flavanols) has most of the good stuff. while the cocoa butter has most of the calories. The ancient Mayans considered the cocoa butter a waste product and discarded it. That certainly isn’t true today!
Percent chocolate refers to the sum of both the cocoa powder and the cocoa butter. But the amounts of each varies enormously from product to product. One 85% dark chocolate bar can be mostly cocoa powder while the next is mostly cocoa butter. The first is good for you, the second isn't. But they are both labelled 85% dark chocolate. The difference is not on the label. What you really want is the highest cocoa powder content possible. Given two 85% dark chocolate bars, the one with the least calories usually is the highest in flavanols but not always.
The added sugar is another factor. It’s in the other 15% of the “85% dark chocolate” bar. Of course the sugar content also ups the calories. Sugar and butter together is a true recipe for over consumption. The chocolate industry certainly understands this. Sales increase. Eating high flavanol dark chocolate can help reduce food cravings and is deeply satisfying. Try 4 squares – 1/6th of a bar. Nibble it slowly and you’ll see. It lowers your blood sugar and decreases risk of diabetes. In sharp contrast, eating mass produced poor quality chocolate fuels cravings, enticing you to eat more, and leads to diabetes. Just think about Chocolate Rocky Road Ice Cream, sold by the half gallon. Now add some Hershey’s chocolate syrup on top. Just try to stop.
Flavanol content promotes health but flavanols are very bitter. If you taste your chocolate, and it is NOT bitter, chances are that it has been alkalinized or “dutched”. This process removes the bitterness, but also removes the flavanols. Look at the label – if it says all natural and the bar is bitter, chances are it’s the real thing. Avoid alkanized or “dutched” chocolate, the good stuff has been processed away.
Heavy metals in chocolate? You bet. Even in organic chocolate. The heavy metals, mainly cadmium and lead, can be in the soil. The plant just likes to wick them up into the bean. The amount of heavy metal contamination for individual chocolate products can be hard to come by. Consumer lab has some information, and I have other sources. But sourcing chocolate for a specific chocolate bar changes, and with the sourcing, the heavy metal content changes. Furthermore, not all brands are tested to begin with! See what I mean by lack of transparency in this industry? Cocoa powder (hot chocolate) tends to be the most contaminated with heavy metals. Cocoa nibs have less, chocolate bars have even less while the extracts are clear. Unfortunately, when Consumer Lab tested extracts other than CocoaVia, they contained little if any flavanols! So I can’t recommend them.
Consumer lab tested the flavanol content, calories, heavy metals, and price on a variety of chocolate products last year. The best products tested included: Endangered Species Dark Chocolate Bar with 88% Cacao, CocoaVia Extract, and Bakers 100% Dark Chocolate. I encourage you to join their site. It’s inexpensive and the information you receive is top notch. My personal favorites include Sprouts Columbian 85% Chocolate Squares and Bakers 100% Unsweetened Dark Chocolate as well.
I encourage you to try Endangered Species Dark Chocolate Bar with 88% Cacao. It’s fair traded African chocolate. Cadmium content is low. Flavanol content is high. A portion of the profits goes to protecting Jaguars, an endangered species. It is not “dutched”. And it is reasonably priced for a high quality chocolate. Taste is smooth and slightly bitter. Optimal dose would be 2/5 of a bar, (181 calories, $1.35 a day)
For those who really do not like bitter taste, I would try CocoaLove Extra Strong. Its taste is more light and fruity, its flavanol content is a tad lower and its cadmium a little higher. You need to consume 2/3 of a bar here to get an optimal dose. ( 254 calories, $1.60 a day)
CocoaVia is the product used in the above studies. CocoaVia sets the standard for optimal dosage of flavanols (375 mg flavanols a day). Minimal dose is ½ of that. Its advantages are that it is very low in calories (30 cal/day), no cadmium, moderate caffeine. Its major disadvantages are that it’s a capsule, so no enjoying the taste! Its price is comparable to Endangered Species. It might also be beneficial for those who just can’t stop eating chocolate, even if they slowly nibble at the good stuff. Now, there are CocoaVia powders on the market. The best is the unsweetened dark chocolate powder you can add to drinks. Again, the advantages are low calories and no cadmium. Disadvantages are price ($3.00/day), unsavory additives (especially in the fruit flavored packets) and whatever decrease in flavanol content occurs when consumed in a hot liquid. Me, I'd stick with the capsules.
So, for those who don't like chocolate, but want to lower their triglycerides, increase blood flow throughout the body,protect against cardiovascular disease AND think more clearly, please try CocoaVia capsules three times a day. For the rest of us, consider Bakers 100% Dark Unsweetened Chocolate (4 pieces, 142 calories, 58 cents a day). Or the above alternatives. I’d also consider mixing it up. Take one CocoaVia capsule in the morning. And finish your day with 1/3 to 1/2 bar Endangered Species Extra Dark.
Remember, the minimally effective dose is half of what is listed above. And buyer beware. I would ONLY buy the exact bars listed above. There is no transparency in this industry! All in all, chocolate is truly a food for the Gods. It’s good for you in so many ways. The darker it is, the less cocoa butter and sugar it contains, the better.
Finally, I wish all of you bliss! Until next time.