Is chocolate really healthy for you?
The answer is a resounding yes—but not if it's loaded with sugar and milk products.
A conversation around chocolate started in a group that I knew well. Each member told me how big a fan of chocolate they were, how happy it made them. I get it, I replied—me too. And we left it at that.
Until the following week, when I arrive with a plastic bag filled with raw cacao beans. Cruel trick, sure, but I was genuinely curious: Did they love chocolate or sugar? By the looks on their faces, the answer was clear. It reminded me of the Beastie Boys line: “I like my sugar with coffee and cream.”
This arrangement has worked out for me and my wife, however. We always have a few bars at home, one at least 90 percent cacao, something more flavorful for her. Bitterness is an acquired taste, but I stopped eating lower percentage bars for the same reason I quit putting honey in my tea: I want to taste the food, not the sweetener. (To be fair, my wife has a much broader range of culinary loves than myself; she'll leave my 100 percent bars alone, though.)
Anything under 70 percent cacao is candy, writes Derek Beres. This is 75% dark chocolate. Photo: Lee McCoy/Flickr
The healthiness of chocolate has long been debated. If a bar has 50 grams of sugar you have to weigh any benefits against the detrimental qualities of the sweetener. Chocolate does indeed have positive health qualities, but you have to go dark if you want to attain them.
Last year researchers in Italy discovered that cocoa flavanols exhibit neuroprotective effects. Volunteers experienced enhancements in their working memory as well as improved visual information processing, which the researchers argue could help stave off dementia and other diseases of cognitive decline as we age. Interestingly, for younger participants, the cognitive tests had to be highly demanding to witness benefits, though that tailed off at the upper end of the age range.
The researchers, who said they eat dark chocolate every day, did warn against chemical compounds in the cacao plant, such as caffeine and theobromine, as well as sugar and milk additives. The increased caloric content of bars with additives is also a concern.
Another Italian, Dr Rossella Di Stefano, a cardiologist the University of Pisa, also gives a thumbs up to chocolate. Only this time it stems from a study conducted by the European Society of Cardiology that found dark chocolate enhanced with olive oil “is associated with an improved cardiovascular risk profile.”
Volunteers, all of whom had at least three cardiovascular risk factors (such as smoking and hypertension), were given 40 grams of dark chocolate daily for 28 days. The chocolate contained either 10 percent olive oil or 2.5 percent Panaia red apple. The olive oil group experienced significantly higher endothelial progenitor cell levels, which is critical for vascular repair and endothelial function, as well as decreased levels of carnitine and hippurate. Their HDL cholesterol levels were also higher and blood pressure was lower.
This isn’t the first study to link heart health and chocolate. In 2014, research from the Netherlands found that dark chocolate restores flexibility to arteries and prevents white blood cells from sticking to the walls of blood vessels, both factors that play a significant role in atherosclerosis.
In 2015, researchers found that high-cacao bars improve attention, which is why one of the researchers eats dark chocolate every afternoon—to help with his midday slump. As psychological sciences professor Larry Stevens puts it:
“Chocolate is indeed a stimulant and it activates the brain in a really special way. It can increase brain characteristics of attention, and it also significantly affects blood pressure levels.”
With all of the talk around the microbiome today, in 2014 researchers at the American Chemical Society realized stomach microbes ferment bacteria in chocolate to produce anti-inflammatory, heart-healthy compounds. The team also found that these compounds help prevent strokes.
Research published in the Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry states that beyond improved cognition, lower blood pressure, and appetite suppression, ingredients in chocolate might help prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes. Oligomeric procyanidins helped curb weight in mice and improved glucose tolerance, which could play a role in treating diabetics.
A dark chocolate pair of lips is made for Valentine's Day at Jacques Torres Chocolate in New York. (Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
Not that all of the news is good. Our growing love of “superfoods” in trendy stores and cafes has resulted in cacao being aggressively promoted by “wellness” companies, resulting in unprecedented levels of deforestation, according to research published last year by Lehigh University. Evidence of child slave labor and human trafficking has also been uncovered thanks to the cacao trade.
As it goes, developed nations enjoy the benefits of chocolate while it’s being produced by underdeveloped countries—roughly 3 percent of the cost of the bar goes to farmers in many of these regions. Last year the World Cocoa Foundation launched an initiative to help end deforestation caused by the West’s increased demand for cacao beans.
It’s good to remain wary of the big players. There are many smaller chocolate companies that engage in fair trade practice that source their beans from farmers they know and pay competitive prices. You might have to search beyond major grocery chains to find them, but from both an environmental and flavor perspective you won’t be disappointed.
What percentage of cacao is best? There is no definitive answer, but it’s pretty easy: the higher the content, the less sugar and milk products, the healthier it is. Anything under 70 percent is candy. Start with 70 and work your way up to 85. By the time you hit 90, you’ll never look back, and you can be sure you’re getting the bulk of the benefits.
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion and creator of Clarity: Anxiety Reduction for Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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