Chocolate is far more than a guilty pleasure. Experts extol the health benefits the dark decadence offers the body and mind and where the best wares are found
It is a sweet indulgence once reserved for royalty, a melt-in-your-mouth treat many crave and some deem downright addictive. And if chocolate isn’t good enough just being chocolate, there is increasing evidence the decadent culinary creation seducing sweet-teeth everywhere offers ample health benefits.
“I eat chocolate every single day,” chocolatier Brett Roy says from his Edmonton-based Sweet Lollapalooza boutique. And with good reason.
Citing research, including some from Johns Hopkins University which credits chocolate with lowering blood pressure, boosting memory and possibly guarding against brain injury after a stroke, he says it’s more than an extravagant pampering of the palate. “If you have 30 grams of chocolate on a daily basis, you can prolong your life by five years,” Roy claims. “Even though it’s good for you, moderation is the key – it’s still high in calories. But a little bit goes a long way.”
Even snails, sluggish as they might be, are up to speed on some benefits of indulging. Hotchkiss Brain Institute researchers in Calgary found flavonoid, a type of plant antioxidant found in chocolate, substantially increased memory retention in snails.
Researchers put Lymnaea stagnalis, which breathes through its skin or via a breathing tube, in oxygen-deprived water. The creatures were forced to use their breathing tubes but each time one opened, a researcher would poke at it. Within about a half-hour, to avoid an annoying tap on their tubes, the snails learned to keep them shut – a memory held for two to three hours, researcher Ken Lukowiak says of findings made by then-student Lee Fruson. By adding flavonoid to the water, training stuck for up to 48 hours, he says, lending credence to the belief that active ingredients in chocolate likely act directly upon neurons in the brain.
It’s just one of many studies showing chocolate does the body good.
An Australian study found an individual investing $50 a year on chocolate would save $50,000 in costs to treat cardiovascular problems. Findings in Finland showed women who ate it while pregnant had babies who were happier and more active. And research examining the Kuna Indians of Panama showed benefits derived from a daily diet which included drinking flavonol-rich cocoa included low heart disease rates. “They looked at the same tribe living elsewhere but without chocolate in the regular diet and found that wasn’t the case,” Lukowiak says.
Although it is not known exactly how active ingredients in chocolate benefit the body, it is believed flavonols – also found in green tea and red wine – help make new blood vessels. “I joke that if you drank green tea in the morning, had a little chocolate in the afternoon and drank red wine in the evening, you are actually in pretty good shape,” Lukowiak says. “It wouldn’t do most people any harm, that’s for sure.”
Calgary naturopathic doctor Meaghan McCollum prescribes dark chocolate to patients with blood sugar fluctuation issues. Acknowledging its health benefits, she also raves about its magic as a mood-enhancing food – the sense of spoiling oneself tantalizing even before taste buds are exposed to a sweet treat. “Chocolate makes everybody happy,” says McCollum, a woman apt to take her own medicine. “I love the indulgence of it and buy ridiculously expensive bars.”
Brad Churchill also extols the many virtues of chocolate, but he isn’t convinced it’s anything more than a decadent delight. “I can tell you definitively, it’s not what all the dietitians and health nuts are preaching about,” says Churchill, who owns Calgary’s Choklat, where scrumptious creations are made in-house from scratch.
“Even dark chocolate is at least 35 to 40 per cent fat and 30 per cent sugar – how can you, as an intelligent human being, say something that is 70 per cent fat and sugar is healthy? The health pundits say it’s ‘good fat,’ but the reality is fat is fat – it’s going to make you fat. You can have too much of a good thing. Take a block of cocoa butter and starting eating it – it may not clog your arteries but it will clog your jeans.”
That said, Churchill – who purports to be the only chocolate maker (that’s from bean to belly) in Alberta – won’t deny good chocolate is a delight. While his patrons may be lured by his creations, from chocolate drinks to dark chocolate and made-while-you-wait truffles, getting his recipe right was quite the grind. Several years and many batches of bad chocolate later, he finally forged the four ingredients – cocoa beans, cocoa butter (fat from the beans), sugar and Madagascan bourbon vanilla – into perfection.
Cocoa beans are picked from fruit trees in Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico and fermented and dried in the sun before arriving at Choklat, where they are roasted, crushed and then, 50 pounds at a time, put into refiners to be ground for two to four days. No preservatives or artificial ingredients are added, but patrons can choose from more than 200 fresh flavours, including peppermint plucked from an on-site “grow-op,” to add to tailor-made truffles sold at a premium people are more than willing to pay.
“It’s comfort food. It has a relaxing effect,” Churchill says. “I get it from my mom’s lasagna; some get it from mac and cheese.”
And those who figure they are hooked on chocolate – which at one time was included in U.S. soldiers’ rations in lieu of wages, might be right.
“Certainly, it has addictive properties, given that chocolate alters properties in areas of the brain associated with addiction, the same way alcohol can, the same way running can,” Lukowiak says. “That is why they are addictive; we get pleasure out of them. Mother Nature is pretty good at designing the brain to say, ‘You should do this.’ ”
Connoisseurs warn that not all chocolate is created equal and that the best contains 70 to 80 per cent cocoa.