This is a question that, when I give a lecture to either doctors or the lay public, most everyone gets it wrong. I am not talking about the chocolate one finds in a Hershey’s kiss or chocolate bar, because the problem with these is that they contain too much sugar. I would consider them a very unhealthy food. Ah, but chocolate with no sugar, that is a whole different story. What I would like to do is introduce everyone to the science of chocolate. First off, where does chocolate come from? It comes from the tropical Cacao tree, where it is found in pods.
Here we see a picture of the beans that are found in the pod. They are roasted and ground up, then turned into chocolate:
When one adds the sugar to these products, that is when the damage occurs. Dark chocolate has both cocoa butter and cacao fiber, both of which science has proven to have health benefits. The cacao fiber is the part of the cocoa bean where most antioxidants are found. This is why dark chocolate with high cocoa solids, and thus more cacao fiber, is considered healthy chocolate. So, now let us get to the science.
Dark chocolate is rich in minerals, such as iron, magnesium, and zinc (think anti-viral). The cocoa in the dark chocolate contains some amazing compounds called flavonoids and antioxidants, which have many health benefits. Chocolate is considered one of the best antioxidant foods known to man.
The following chart clearly shows this:
Antioxidants will neutralize free radicals. Free radicals are highly unstable molecules that are naturally formed when you exercise and when your body converts food into energy. Your body can also be exposed to free radicals from a variety of environmental sources, such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, and sunlight. Free radicals can cause “oxidative stress,” a process that can trigger cell damage. Oxidative stress is thought to play a role in a variety of diseases including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and eye diseases, such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Remember that oxidative stress is one of the major causes of the failure of the immune system (again think virus infections). There is no question that dark chocolate is a superb antioxidant. In a study published in the October 2017 Journal of Community and Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives, the antioxidants in dark chocolate were found to reduce oxidative stress, which scientists think is the primary cause of insulin resistance and subsequently diabetes. By improving your body’s sensitivity to insulin, resistance is reduced and, in turn, the risk of diseases like diabetes decreases.
Also, at the center of chocolate’s health benefits are flavonoids. Most dark chocolate is high in flavonoids, particularly a subtype called flavanols, which are associated with a lower risk of heart disease and a variety of other conditions. As I have already said, some studies suggest chocolate or cocoa consumption is associated with a lower risk of both insulin resistance and high blood pressure in adults. These plant pigments are responsible for many of the health benefits of many fruits and medicinal plants, but chocolate may be a much more sensually pleasing vehicle. In addition, there is evidence that not only is chocolate rich in flavonoids, but that factors in chocolate somehow dramatically increase absorption of these compounds. The key flavonoids are procyanidins, which are similar to those found in grape seed extract, apples, berries, and pine bark extract. There are a few of these flavonoids that garner attention, such as PQQ.
PQQ (pyrroloquinoline quinone) restores youthful cellular function and can extend the lifespan. PQQ helps generate and restore mitochondria, especially in aging cells. It allows the mitochondria powerhouses to work more efficiently. Dysfunctional mitochondria contribute to body-wide degeneration. Many of the diseases of aging have one thing in common; namely, they involve mitochondrial degeneration. Remember that mitochondrial degeneration leads to shortening of our telomeres. Shorter telomeres lead to aging. But it turns out PQQ has many other beneficial aspects.
A team of researchers from China and Italy found that when PQQ was applied to human cells in culture, it delayed cellular senescence. A growing body of research suggests that reducing cellular senescence may lead to increased health and lifespan. Remember that a senescent cell is a cell that should have died but did not. These cells are like zombies, in that they attack normal cells. A senescent cell will increase inflammatory factors in various areas of the body. There is now a new name for this inflammation; it is called inflammaging. ‘Inflammaging’ refers to the chronic, low-grade inflammation that characterizes aging. We see that inflammation and aging are more or less synonymous. One causes the other to take hold. Recent studies have shown a way that PQQ may be able to slow aging even more, by reducing the activity of certain age-accelerating signaling pathways.
The following is a chart shows different foods and the amounts of PQQ they have:
Another important bioactive compound found in chocolate is Epicatechin, which is classed as a flavanol. Epicatechin is a natural flavonoid. It has been reported to possess an immense antioxidant effect, which contributes to its therapeutic effect against a handful of ailments. Epicatechin has many different functions. It will increase Nitric Oxide for increased vascularity and blood flow. It will lower cholesterol levels due to its natural antioxidant properties, while improving endurance and insulin sensitivity, regulating blood sugar levels, and stimulating muscle protein synthesis. A very fascinating property of Epicatechin is that it is a myostatin blocker.
Myostatin is a type of protein called a myokine, which limits the level of muscle growth. Animals lacking myostatin, either due to a defective gene or because they have been treated with compounds that inhibit production, show huge increases in muscularity. In other words, the brakes on muscle growth are removed by the inhibition or absence of myostatin.
Myostatin became famous within the bodybuilding community. It has been considered the holy grail of muscle building.
Below is an example of a cow which has a gene that blocks myostatin. If you block myostatin in a human, a similar result will be obtained:
A number of supplements have been designed to inhibit myostatin production over the past 20 years, but these have all been discarded as not working well. What is the exact epicatechin/myostatin connection? Research with epicatechin indicates that it increases levels of Follistatin, a special type of protein found in the muscles. Follistatin binds to and thereby inhibits the actions of myostatin in the body. In a nutshell, more Follistatin equals less myostatin, which in turn means more muscle mass and less fatty tissue.
A study conducted on males of an average age of 40 showed that approximately 170mg of epicatechin per day, dosed at 2mg per kg of bodyweight, resulted in almost a 50% increase in Follistatin and a 16.6% decrease in myostatin, alongside a strength increase of 7%. In a second study, researchers provided participants with 50-200mg of epicatechin a day and were amazed to find that their Follistatin levels were 250% higher after just 5 days! In a study performed on mice, researchers found increases in nitric oxide and endurance that persisted even in the absence of exercise. In other words, epicatechin supplementation offers bodybuilders the potential for better muscle pumps and endurance even when they are not training. The same may hold true for the average person.
As one can see, chocolate is one of the best health foods one can eat. Just remember to leave the sugar out. Do as I do, buy unsweetened chocolate and melt it in the microwave. When it is melted, then add some cinnamon (another great supplement) and Stevia as a sweetener. Sometimes we will add a bit of rum to spice up the flavor. I will typically buy my chocolate in bulk. Also remember that chocolate is much like wine; it can vary in taste by where it is grown and the growing conditions.
– Dr. P