Hello, Chocolate, My Old Friend

June 18, 2009 @ 8:31 pm | Filed under: ,

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.

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19 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Jamie says:

    Sounds like a great book!

    I love that you wanted to name your daughter Ananda! I remember thinking that name was pretty fantastic, too.

  2. Sue says:

    That’s the best news I’ve heard in a while. I think I’ll go dig out my Ghiradelli 60% cocoa chocolate chips!

  3. MelanieB says:

    So you mean all my cravings for dark chocolate while pregnant are really at their root a desire to protect my helpless unborn babe from those evil free radicals? I can live with that!

    Sounds like a great book. I’ll have to check it out.

  4. Sara says:

    Lindt 85% cocoa bars! Yummy! 70% for a real sweet treat.

  5. Jordin says:

    Sorry for the rant… I do think i will look up this book to read. All this news is good! And there are many non-dessert recipes that call for cocoa, that will give all the benefits without the sugar and fat. (I was unable to take advantage of an opportunity to do a cooking class, and i am so sad that i missed it!)

    But there is one thing missing from this book: the fact that chocolate is NOT fair trade. Meaning that there are children who arent eating much of anything picking cocoa beans for us. There are farmers being paid horribly for their crop. Also, the emmense amount of pesticides and herbicides used in countries, that arent regulated as they are in north america, to keep these beans and other crops ‘healthy’ are at distrubing levels.

    Since i have moved to a very small community i have been unable to find fair trade/ organic chocolate. And i am not saying that everyone should do that, but we must be aware of how and at what cost our food (even desserts) are making their way to our plate. But for now, i will keep buying Cadbury’s (preferably from england, less wax!)

    (this is the google search of chocolate and child labour, very disturbing. http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&rls=com.microsoft:en-us:IE-SearchBox&rlz=1I7ACAW_en-USCA298CA298&ei=Ink7SpX_B6WaMt6vyLEO&sa=X&oi=spell&resnum=0&ct=result&cd=1&q=child+labour+chocolate&spell=1 )

  6. Penny in VT says:

    You deserve a parade.

    So does Rowan Jacobsen.


  7. Ashlee says:

    Try Endangered Species Extreme Dark Chocolate! It’s 88% cocoa.

  8. Beck says:

    I am – as I found out very excitingly this past summer – VERY allergic to goji berries AND acai berries and so I must get my antioxidants from chocolate. Poor me.

  9. Anna says:

    Hey, it’s only 9am, but I think I’ll go grab a piece of chocolate.

  10. Melissa Wiley says:

    Jordin, the fair trade issue is missing in this post, but *not* missing in Rowan’s book. He gives the matter serious attention and includes a list of fair trade chocolate companies to order from.

    My bad; I ought to have mentioned it! I’ve been buying fair trade chocolate ever since Karen Edmisten brought my attention to the issue in a post a long while back.

  11. Beth says:

    We all knew that Professor Lupin knew what he was doing when he handed a huge chunk of chocolate to Harry after his first encounter with dementors!

    Great post, Melissa. The book sounds wonderful and so does the advice.

    (And I always loved the named Ananda too!)

  12. Jordin says:

    Both books you have mentioned by this author look so fabulous! I will have to get them!!!

  13. Karen Edmisten says:

    Lissa, I just read Fruitless Fall (thanks to you) and immediately started looking for his book on chocolate. 🙂 Thanks for your reactions here!

  14. Mary G. says:

    ANY reason to eat more chocolate … and the darker the better for me (and when we were in Austria you could get DARK chocolate!) ….

    I’ll have to check out this book ….

  15. The Sojourner says:

    Mmm. Too bad we don’t have any dark chocolate in the house right now.

    Also, every time I visit your blog my TBR list gets longer.

    Also, my boyfriend and I just added Ananda to our list of girl names.

  16. Endangered Species Chocolate says:

    I think that everyone in America needs to read that book because more people need to be informed that DARK chocolate can be healthy for you; although, it needs to have at least 70% cocoa content for it to be considered a health benefit.

    Jordin, not all chocolate is not fair traded. Our company (ESC) is ethically traded, which supports fair trade.

    Our cocoa is 100% ethically traded. We buy our cocoa from small properties, helping sustain the habitats and communities they are in. The farmers, from whom we buy our cocoa, are ensured humane working conditions and a fair price for their cocoa or a fair wage.

    Savor Chocolate. Save Our Planet.
    -Endangered Species Chocolate (www.ChocolateBar.com)