There are a few indulgences that we will never tire of, and chocolate is the best example. An age-old treat that’s exquisite in its simplicity, chocolate is definitely everyone’s favorite. A perfect complement to a cup of espresso… a nice token of appreciation… the ultimate antidepressant… the list of its versatile usages and praiseworthy qualities is endless. But what’s in chocolate that really gets us up? And, most importantly for the health-conscious among us, is it good for our health?
The word chocolate actually means “bitter water” in one of the indigenous South American languages. This is because the seeds of the cacao tree have a very bitter taste and only develop that signature flavor during the fermentation process. When fermented, the beans are dried, cleaned, roasted, shelled, and ground into cocoa mass, the raw material of the chocolate. The chocolate as we know it is actually a combination of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and some sugar.
Just as it happens in romantic relationships, our love affair with chocolate is chemistry based. With every piece of our favorite chocolate, we ingest several psychoactive chemicals that stimulate our brain similar to the way cannabis does. Add some amphetamine-like compounds and traces of other stimulants like caffeine and you get the delicious pick-me-up.
And if you want to trace the origin of our love relationship with chocolate, it comes down to the combination of sugar and fat. It’s present in the treat and in our very first food, breast milk.
When we like something a lot, we want to make sure indulging is not bad for us. Even better is when our indulgences are good for our health. There is some evidence speaking in favor of wine and coffee, so what about chocolate?
Good news, chocolate lovers! Scientists at Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital are organizing a large-scale, four-year randomized study involving 18,000 people to really gauge the benefits of cocoa. Known as COSMOS (COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcome Study), the study will look at men over 60 and women over 65 without a history of cardiovascular disease and who haven’t been diagnosed with cancer over the last two years. The participants will receive three pills daily of either cocoa flavanols, multivitamins, combinations, or placebos, without knowing which ones they’re getting. The trial will also involve blood testing, physical exams, and cognitive check-ups to monitor the well-being of the study subjects.
Earlier research suggested that flavanols—cocoa compounds—offer protection against cardiovascular and brain diseases.
“There may be favorable effects on cardiovascular disease risk factors, including lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow and dilation of blood vessels, decreasing inflammation, and maybe improving insulin sensitivity and the ability to metabolize glucose,” explained JoAnn Manson, co-principal investigator of the study.
Scientists suspect that cocoa flavanols help promote the production of an important molecule that helps relax blood vessels, lowering blood pressure and improving blood flow. The COSMOS trial will hopefully reinforce the health-supporting action of cocoa in greater detail.
Of course, even if the results of the trial call for greater intake of cocoa, that doesn’t automatically translate into a doctor’s prescription to eat more chocolate. But perhaps we’ll be able to enjoy our favorite treat with less guilt.