So here’s the thing: chocolate as a substance is actually pretty fascinating. There’s no other food that has captured the cultural consciousness of the entire world, across both land borders and generations, in quite the way chocolate has. Our ancestors revered it as a drink of the Gods; some of history’s most famous seducers attributed their successes to its restorative, aphrodisiac qualities. In more recent history, people have begun to notice the positive effects chocolate has on our emotions, stress levels, and day-to-day health. Now science is beginning to understand why.
Now that we’re coming to All Hallows’ and the winter half of the year, the days are getting darker and taking care of our mental well-being is more important than ever. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a very real thing, and it can be all too easy to stop prioritising ourselves as we get ready to winter in. Autumn is a time when we should all take a beat to check in with ourselves and make sure that, despite whatever we’re dealing with and whatever battles we’re facing, we’re devoting some time to restoring our minds, bodies, and spirits. Good quality chocolate, as it turns out, can actually do all those things (and who doesn’t love a snack that can multitask?).
Let’s explore some of the ways fine chocolate can support our mental and physical well-being.
Chocolate is one of the world’s most complex chemical constructs; over 1500 flavour components(!) have been identified in high grade dark chocolate. In addition to their multifaceted aromas and taste sensations, many of these components serve other purposes in the brain that improve our mood, stress levels, and even cognitive function.
If you’ve been keeping up with us here on Better Chocolate, Better World, you might remember that the scientific name for the cocoa tree is Theobroma Cacao, or “food of the gods”. This is where we get the name for the chemical compound theobromine.
Theobromine is a stimulating phytochemical that’s similar to caffeine, but much milder and gentler on the system. It can be found in trace amounts in tea and herbs like yerba mate, but there’s a higher concentration of theobromine in cacao than we can find anywhere else. As well as being beneficial to the body (we’ll talk about that more down below), theobromine is thought to have a very relaxing, calming effect on the mind. The combined stimulating and relaxing effects of theobromine make chocolate a great choice for active high-stress situations, such as just before an exam or job interview.
Did you know: People say that dogs are allergic to chocolate, but what dogs are actually unable to process is the theobromine. That’s why some people report instances of cats and dogs eating small pieces of industrial candy without any adverse effects at all; the percentage of real cacao, and therefore theobromine, is so slight as to be negligible. The bottom line? Keep your furry friends away from all chocolate-based confections, but especially high quality, high percentage chocolate.
In addition to the theobromine, natural cacao is also high in flavanols, a compound found in several plant-based foods. Flavanols have been a source of fascination to food scientists for a while now; they’ve been proven to help improve blood flow to the brain, which in turn has a major effect on our mood, memory retention, and ability to concentrate. Incorporating high quality dark chocolate into your regular diet has been shown to improve the efficiency of the mind over time, and is currently being explored as a possible preventative measure towards neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Lastly, we have our star player: phenylethylamine. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but you may have heard it being called “the love drug” or “the pleasure drug”. Phenylethylamine stimulates the brain’s pleasure centres, encourages the production of positive chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, and imitates the feeling of being in love. As well as making you feel good in the moment, higher production of these chemicals is also shown to reduce symptoms of clinical depression over the long term.
High quality chocolate quite literally makes you happy on a biological, chemical level. Pretty cool, right?
Chocoholics have been championing the health benefits of the cacao bean for a while now, and it turns out we were actually on to something. Chocolate is composed of a whole slew of beneficial minerals and vitamins such as iron, fibre, magnesium, and potassium — all things that do us good in our daily diet.
Plus, cacao is absolutely loaded with antioxidants, rivalling trendy antioxidant-rich superfoods like açai berries and blueberries. In addition to the internal health benefits sprawled across the granola aisle, antioxidants are a big ticket buzzword in the cosmetic and skincare industry. They’ve been known to help fight environmental damage to the skin and prevent premature ageing.
Some of those chemical compounds that support our mental and cerebral health also have benefits in the rest of our body. Both theobromine and the flavanols present in cacao have been linked to lower blood pressure, anti-inflammatory properties, and cardiovascular health.
Taking care of our bodies is so important, and researchers are beginning to understand the deep, symbiotic connection between our physical health and our mental well being. When you indulge in fine chocolate that’s jam packed with health benefits, you’re also contributing to your mental and emotional wellness.
As a superfood, chocolate is a pretty spectacular miracle of nature. What makes it really special, though, is the way it’s bringing together people and communities across the world. Chocolate helps us connect with others, with our heritage, and with the land on which it was grown.
As we saw when we talked about the craft chocolate movement, supporting fine chocolate is having a very real impact on the world around us. When you indulge in this extraordinary, multifaceted nutritional compound, you’re also supporting independent businesses, artisan craftsmen, farmers leading the way for better agricultural relationships, and the rich, sensual history of chocolate as an art form. You’re becoming part of the story.
And the best part? Chocolate is super easy to share with a loved one. Research has proven what ancestral culture has known for a long time: the act of sharing food, of convivial mindfulness, of taking that special moment side by side to experience something wonderful together, has a huge impact on our level of happiness. These are the moments that help our spirits heal and grow.
Choose Your Chocolate
Here’s the fine print: not all chocolate is created equal.
Chocolate tends to get a bad rap when it comes to our health because so much of what’s available is loaded with refined sugars, artificial preservatives, and hydrogenated oils (gross). The only fat listed on the label should be cocoa butter — the natural vegetable fat derived from the cocoa bean. In general, the higher the percentage of cocoa in the bar, the better it’ll be for you; try snacking on 70% or higher for maximum benefits. Really high percentages (above 90%) contain almost no sugar and are fantastic for you, and can be great in more savoury preparations, such as added to a salad.
If you can, try to choose chocolate from companies that are ethical, passionate, and mindful of the quality of ingredients they’re using. It makes a big difference to both you and the world. Remember to reach for deep, high percentage bars with a trim list of the best ingredients — they’ll support your emotions, your stress levels, your brain, your body, your spirit, and they may even help create some shared memories with someone you love. What could be better for your well-being than that?