Thinking of eliminating chocolate as a New Year's Resolution?! Not so fast…


by Laura A. Bushey, M.A., Certified Health Educator & Personal Holistic Chef


It might come as a surprise just how many different health benefits are offered by these simple, yet decadent, foods.  The evidence increasingly shows dark chocolate and vanilla can be powerful tools in the prevention of chronic and debilitating conditions like heart disease and cancer.  So, treating yourself to a small amount every day may be just what the doctor ordered.

Vanilla beans are one of the most expensive, non-pungent spices (second to saffron) used as a flavoring agent in a wide variety of drinks and confectionaries.  The fragrantly rich beans have a peapod-like shell that contains small, black seeds containing the spice’s medicinal properties.  Mayans used vanilla beans to flavor chocolate drinks centuries ago, long before Starbucks became a household name.

The chief beneficial non-nutritive disease preventing phytochemical found in vanilla beans comes from a class of phenols called vanillin.  Vanillin, protects the body’s cells from free radical damage.  Excess free radicals may cause diseases, including cancer.  Vanillin boasts antioxidant benefits as well as anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.

Vanilla beans are often used to make vanilla extract, baths and teas and are known to help relieve pain, aches, stress, anxiety, depression, gas, fatigue, vomiting and nausea.  Vanilla extract may also be used as a natural astringent to cleanse skin due to its antioxidant and antiseptic properties. Imitation extracts can be found, but do not always retain the same chemical compounds.

Chocolate comes from a tropical plant called the Theobroma cacao tree.  The tree produces large cacao pods, which grow from the limbs and trunk of the tree. The beans grow inside the pods.  Upon harvesting, the beans go through a fermenting and drying process. The beans are then cleaned, roasted and the shell is removed to produce what we know of as “cocoa.”

A 2012 study in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension found that regular consumption of cocoa flavanols might be effective in improving cognitive function in elderly individuals with mild cognitive impairment. It’s also possible that flavonoids found in chocolate may decrease concentrations of bad cholesterol and reduce blood pressure. Flavonoids, appear to be protective against cardiovascular disease through antioxidant, anti-clotting and anti-inflammatory properties by increasing blood flowTo match the study you’d need to consume roughly 3.5-ounces of chocolate with at least 70-percent-cocoa. A 2011 Swedish study reported that moderate chocolate consumption may lower the risk of stroke.

If you’re a fan of the sweet stuff, you’re probably jumping for joy by now!

But all chocolate is not created equal. The more chocolate is processed through fermentation, alkalizing, roasting, etc., the more flavanols are lost. The most flavanol-rich options are usually dark and bitter, like cocoa powder and baking chocolate. Before you reach for that Hershey’s bar, understand that manufacturers may add in hydrogenated oils, extra sugar, and other unnecessary ingredients to make it taste better.

Try these bars instead:

-Chocolove XOXOX Extra Strong Dark – 77% Cacao
-Green and Black’s Dark – 85% Cacao
-Dagoba Eclipse – 87% Cacao
-Scharffen Berger Extra Dark – 82% Cacao
-Lake Champlain, Fair Trade organic Dark – 55% Cacao

This sweet news also comes with a dose of moderation attached to it. Realizing chocolate’s benefits doesn’t mean you should skimp on fruits and vegetables. Nor should you consume all the chocolate your heart desires—but feel free to enjoy the chocolate your heart needs!

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