We’ve been hearing about the health benefits of dark chocolate for a couple of years now—woowoo antioxidants, right? But have you read up on the subject? I hadn’t, until Jane insisted I order a copy of Rowan Jacobsen’s Chocolate Unwrapped: The Surprising Health Benefits of America’s Favorite Passion. Rowan, you recall, is the author of Fruitless Fall, the book on bee colony collapse I wrote so much about last month.
His chocolate book proved just as interesting and illuminating.
Published in 2003 (which is to say, on the cutting edge of the chocolate-has-health-benefits revelation), Chocolate Unwrapped is a close look at what chocolate is, how it’s produced, what role it has played in history, and—the best part—exactly why it is good for us. I knew a good bit of the history, having researched cacao and cocoa for a book myself many moons ago, but I enjoyed the thoroughness of Rowan’s examination.
What I appreciated most was the in-depth look at antioxidants—what they are and why we care. I mean, we’ve all been inundated with the ANTIOXIDANTS GOOD message these past five or ten years, and we’ve seen dozens of lists of antioxidant-rich foods. If you’re on Facebook you’ve probably had those darn acai berries rubbed in your face more times than you can count. “Although everyone has heard of antioxidants,” Rowan writes, “most people have only a hazy conception of what they are.” Bingo.
“What,” he goes on to ask, “is so magical about antioxidants? How can they help prevent such a wide range of diseases?” The answer has to do with free radicals—something else I knew about in a hazy FREE RADICALS BAD, ANTIOXIDANTS GOOD way. But the science of it isn’t hazy at all.
Free radicals are molecules gone bad: they have had one of their electrons knocked off, or have had an extra electron forced upon them, so they have a charge. But (as we all remember from chemistry class), molecules don’t want a charge, they want to be neutral, so free radicals search their environment for a place to unload their extra electron, if they have too many, or steal an electron if they are one short.
Of course, the molecule victimized by the original free radical now has a charge of its own. So what does it do? It turns around and does the same thing to its neighbor. A chain reaction occurs that continues until something else comes along to intervene.
Now picture a free radical in your body. If it steals an electron from one of your cells, you then have a chain reaction of radical cells in your body. If it attacks your DNA, so much the worse. Cells don’t respond well to having their molecular structure altered. Cancer is just one of many diseases resulting from this. Blame free radicals for everything from wrinkled skin to memory loss, immune system deterioration, and arthritis….The average DNA receives 10,000 “hits” from free radicals per day.
Well, that cheerful information is enough to send me running to the fridge for my favorite comfort food. Fortuitously, it turns out that’s exactly the right move to make.
Enter the antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals in several ways. The polyphenol antioxidants in chocolate are molecules composed of a ring of six carbon atoms. Some of the bonds between the carbon atoms are double bonds, but a single bond between carbon atoms is all that’s necessary for the molecule to hold together, so polyphenols can easily “shuffle” their bonds to have one free to latch onto a charged particle that comes along—like a free radical. They then carry the free radical out of the body with them when they are excreted through normal processes.
As you can see, your body needs a constant supply of polyphenols and other antioxidants to continously eliminate free radicals from the body. Chocolate is one of the best places to get this supply.
This is where Elaine shoves Jerry: GET OUT! I mean, it’s a bit of a jump from “ANTIOXIDANTS GOOD and chocolate’s got ‘em” to “chocolate is one of the best places to get this supply.” Oh but listen:
A bar of dark chocolate has twice the antioxidant content of a glass of red wine and seven times that of green tea. What about fruits and vegetables? They don’t even come close. Oranges have 750 antioxidant units per 100 grams, kale 1770. Blueberries, poster-children of the antioxidant world, have 2400. And dark chocolate? More than 13,000.
Of course, as Rowan points out quite clearly, the cocoa bean is actually the seed of a fruit. And when he says “dark chocolate,” he means the darker, the better—certainly not milk chocolate, so full of sugar and milk powder that the actual cocoa content may be quite minimal. His examination of the history of chocolate illuminates the path the seeds traveled that led to their being so heavily diluted with sugars and fats that it is practically impossible for a contemporary Westerner to think of chocolate as anything but dessert (ergo a wicked indulgence).
Also discussed is chocolate’s famed (and quite factual) mood-lifting power, containing as it does a number of brain-affecting chemical compounds, including caffeine (in minimal quantities, however), theobromine (another mild stimulant), seratonin, tryptophan, and PEA (phenylethylamine), a chemical which, “like speed and heroin…triggers the release of natural opiates in the brain, which brings on feelings of ecstasy.” As if that weren’t enough, there’s anandamide, a “pleasure chemical” found in chocolate that is “almost identical to the THC in marijuana.”
(Bonus children’s literature connection: according to this book, anandamide was named for the Sanskrit word for bliss. In junior high, I was dead set on naming my firstborn daughter “Ananda,” after the awesome dog—stay with me—in Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, A Swiftly Tilting Planet. According to Mrs. L’Engle, the word meant “that joy in existence without which the universe would fall apart and collapse.” I thought that sounded like a pretty fine name for one’s child. A bit much to measure up to, perhaps, but I planned to call her Nan for short—an homage to Anne Shirley Blythe, of course.)
Anyway: Chocolate Unwrapped: fascinating book, another excellent source of discussion between my children and me, and exactly the justification I needed for my mid-afternoon daily dose. And, yes, for me, where chocolate is concerned, the mantra has always been: the darker, the better. Free radicals, begone.