It’s a complex food, chocolate. A recent survey conducted by the Chocolate Manufacturers Association showed that the sweet treat is by far the most popular flavor in the country. And why not? We turn to it during moments of despair, weakness, angst, agony, pleasure, delight, joy, anger, pain – and occasionally sheer boredom. One might consider it the ultimate indulgent ubiquity.
What’s behind this addiction – we’ll call it Chocoholism – is a mystery to researchers attempting to discover the true allure of chocolate. Some have suggested that women in particular are unconsciously drawn to the magnesium in chocolate; others, however, are quick to discount this theory, pointing out that magnesium-rich foods such as pickled herring and cheddar cheese are hardly the stuff of cravings worldwide.
Instead, nutrition scientists believe there is a psychological connection that enhances the desire for chocolate. Many women are familiar with the cravings associated with PMS. More often than not, the food of choice is chocolate. Celebrations often call for cake, where chocolate is again the clear winner in a variety of forms: Chocolate Ice Cream Cake, Chocolate Truffle Cake, Flourless Chocolate Cake. A bad day at the office or an inexplicable cranky mood can often be tempered by an intense chocolate feast.
Dr. Mindy Kurzer, Ph.D, a nutrition scientist at the University of Minnesota, offers a possible explanation for the phenomenon.
“Women who crave chocolate appear to do so because of its enjoyable sensory properties — its smell, taste and mouth feel,” she says, adding that “they also appear to have positive psychological associations with the food.”
Research has also shown that chocolate also offers a variety of nutritional benefits and may aid in the prevention of a variety of health problems. Among them is coronary heart disease. Red wine has long been recommended by cardiologists as an extra preventative measure in reducing the risk of the disease, yet at the same time, the American Heart Association cautions people not to begin drinking red wine daily if they do not regularly drink alcohol. An easy way to get the same benefits? Munch on a 1.5 oz. chocolate bar instead. It contains the same amount of phenolic compounds found in a 5 oz. glass of red wine.
Those very polyphenols make chocolate an antioxidant powerhouse. In fact, research has shown that cocoa powder contains more antioxidants than many fruits and vegetables, with dark and milk chocolates trailing not far behind. While researchers have yet to determine exactly how much content is actually absorbed into the blood stream, the positive effects of antioxidants can’t be ignored. They work to eliminate free radicals in the body, which scientists believe to be a fundamental cause of serious diseases like cancer and heart disease.
Chocolate may even slow the aging process by protecting the body from the stress it endures through oxidation, and it has been proven to raise high-density lipoproteins (HDLs, or “good cholesterol”). Researchers are quick to point out that the answer to chocolate’s allure might well lie in its power to release endorphins, the body’s natural stress reliever and feel-good inducer.
As with anything else laden with calories and sugar, it’s best consumed in moderation. A little bit of this clearly beneficial treat goes a long way!