More than a sweet gift, it's medicine for the heart and soul
By Georgina del Ángel Cabrera Original Print Publication: February, 2007
Try this mix:
Nutritional Value: 60 Kcals. (250 KJ)
280 ml of water
3 cucharadas (tablespoon) of chocolate (cocoa) without sugar
1 cucharadita (teaspoon) of pure honey
When the Spaniards came to Mesoamerica they found more than precious stones and gold; indigenous peoples also introduced them to the cacao seed used to brew the bitter drink called xocoatl or chocoatl. Held sacred for its medicinal and ceremonial uses, only soldiers, priests and kings were allowed to take the drink considered fit only for gods.
Phenylethylamine and tryptophan, found in cocoa, create an effect similar to falling in love.
Cacao (cocoa), the basis of chocolate, derives from the Mayan word “kakaw,” the name given the seed of the cacaoatero (Theobroma cacao) tree. It grows in warm climates and produces a green, orange or reddish brown fruit shaped like a small papaya. Kakaw originated in Mesoamerica and, much like maize, gave shape to the economic and social structures within the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec cultures.
While the indigenous people drank fermented cocoa with honey, chili, fruits, maize, flowers or herbs, the Spanish added milk and sugar and took it back to Europe in 1544.
The Incas, Mayas and Aztecs also used cacao to heal. They drank it to energize and restore the soul while increasing the natural heat of the body. Applied to the body in a buttery consistency, cocoa also served as a powerful anti- inflammatory.
Recent clinical research has highlighted the cardioprotective benefits of cocoa. It’s a powerful antioxidant, has anti-inflammatory effects, and increases high density lipoproteins (HDL ), improving blood flow and stabilizing arterial pressure. It also contains the amino acid tryptophan which promotes the creation of serotonin, the hormone that sparks good moods.
Falling in love with chocolate
Falling in love might seem like a matter of the heart, but in reality it’s a complex neurochemical process that begins in the brain. Chemicals released in the hypothalamus accelerate the production of hormones and initiate a chain of physiological events. Substances like dopamine, adrenalin and serotonin are then produced, triggering all the symptoms of being in love: uncontrollable joy, an accelerated heart rate, an increased learning capacity, and a sense of wellbeing.
Phenylethylamine and tryptophan, found in cocoa, create a similar effect. The desire to maintain those euphoric effects, in turn, fuels some people’s intense cravings for chocolate.
So, the more chocolate the better? That depends on what’s in it. Pure cocoa is healthy, but the things that make it delicious too--milk, honey, refined sugars or other types of fats--make a huge difference in caloric count, and on its positive effects within the body. (Dark chocolate, for example, with its higher cocoa content, has been noted for producing healthier physiological effects than white or milk chocolate).
To get the health benefits of chocolate without putting on the pounds, try a daily dose of cocoa with water and honey. One cup (240 ml) is sufficient to make the heart healthy, and to comfort the mind and soul.
Georgina del Ángel Cabrera is a nutritionist and researcher at the Salvador Zubirán National Institute of Nutrition in Mexico City. Her specialty is nutrition in the treatment of chronic and degenerative diseases.