Here's news that's hard not to like. Eating a small, 1.6-ounce bar of dark chocolate every day is good for you. Very good for you, find Mary Engler, PhD, RN, of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues.
Now here is a medical experiment you would love to volunteer for. Engler's team divided 21 healthy adults into two groups. One group got a Dove Dark Chocolate bar every day for two weeks. Like other dark chocolate bars with high-cocoa content, this one is loaded with something called epicatechin. Epicatechin is a particularly active member of a group of compounds called plant flavoniods. Flavoniods keep cholesterol from gathering in blood vessels, reduce the risk of blood clots, and slow down the immune responses that lead to clogged arteries.
Why Dark Chocolate Is Different
Not all chocolate is created equal. Dark chocolate contains a lot more cocoa than other forms of chocolate. And standard chocolate manufacturing destroys up to half of the flavoniods. But chocolate companies have now learned to make dark chocolate that keeps up to 95% of its flavoniods.
"Many people don't realize that chocolate is plant-derived, as are the fruits and vegetables recommended for a healthy heart," Engler says.
While a little dark chocolate is good, a lot is not better. Chocolate still is loaded with calories. If you're going to eat more chocolate, you'll have to cut back somewhere else. And remember that a balanced diet -- and plenty of exercise -- is still the key to heart health.
But have you ever wondered how this pleasurable sweet came to be?
Dating back more than 2,000 years ago to the time of the ancient Aztecs and Mayans who occupied what is now Central America, chocolate was cherished even back then. The Mayans were the first to discover that they could make a frothy, slightly bitter, beverage from crushed cacao beans. This beverage was reserved for royalty, priests, and the highest levels of society.
The Aztecs created a warm drink from the beans called chcoclatl, meaning "warm liquid," and they so valued cocoa beans that they used them as currency.
Christopher Columbus was the first to bring cacao beans back from the New World, but it was not until the conquistador, Hernando Cortez, actually tasted chocolatl in 1519 that the pleasures of chocolate were truly experienced by someone from the "civilized" western world. Cortez was the one to add sugar cane to the cocoa to soften the bitter taste. And upon his return to Spain, he re-introduced the modified chocolate beverage to the Spanish court.
The drink was such a hit that it led to the agricultural production of cocoa beans in Jamaica, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru. Spanish monks were even pressed into service to process the beans, and a new agricultural industry was born. The joys of chocolate spread throughout Europe, and the rest is history! Today chocolate is a highly popular treat for all and is served in numerous forms.
So, the next time you indulge in a chocolaty treat, say a little thank you to the Aztecs and Mayans who discovered the first cacao beans and to Hernando Cortez who made it all possible. You might also want to add a thank you to the scientists who have found all kinds of wonderful benefits to enjoying a chocolate treat.