Yummy Chocolate

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Before getting to the more tasty aspects of chocolate I want to review the all-important triad concerning athletic performance advancement. The cornerstones of achievement in sports are, hard work, rest, and nutrition. All of these must be carried out in a balanced fashion. With respect to nutrition, authorities on the subject agree that “real food” – not super-processed, "special" diets, or supplements – is the best nutritional source. Some athletes mistakenly believe that one must make huge, and unrealistic, dietary sacrifices to obtain their goals. Unfortunately, this mindset can actually lead to unhealthy behavior. One "food" that gets a bad rap at times is chocolate. Certainly, looking at the junk food chocolates that are available this is a legitimate concern. My focus however is on the more robust, minimal ingredient "pure" chocolate sources that are available.

Chocolate, to review, is derived from a natural product, the beans of the cacao tree (Latin, Theobroma cacao, “food of the gods”). After the beans are fermented, dried, and roasted the resulting powder is pressed to extract the fat (cocoa butter). The result is cocoa powder. New research on chocolate has yielded some interesting results. For example, a recent study showed a drop in blood pressure in people with hypertension who ate dark chocolate versus white chocolate. The difference is that dark chocolate is rich in a class of compounds called polyphenols, which includes a subset of water-soluble plant pigments known as flavenoids. Other studies on flavenoid-rich foods have shown similar beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system. A reduction is excess blood clotting, which causes a number of adverse events (e.g., pulmonary embolism, heart attacks), has been seen with other flavenoid-rich foods like red wine, tea (green and black), and dark grape juice. Green and black tea contain the richest amount of beneficial flavenoids; next (in decreasing order) are dark chocolate, black grapes, milk chocolate, red wine, apples, strawberries and raisins. With respect to chocolate it appears that it is both the cocoa content and how the cocoa is processed that is important. Mass processed chocolate using quick drying and other super-processing industrial techniques yield inferior chocolate. Some examples of “healthy” chocolate include Dove bars and M&M baking bits.

While this research is promising the experts advise against taking flavenoid supplements (pills). This is because there are some flavenoids that are not beneficial – even potentially harmful – and the exact flavenoids responsible for the positive health effects have not been fully characterized. This story is remarkably similar to that concerning anti-oxidant vitamins. Many well-designed studies have documented enhanced immune function, reduced cancer risk, and beneficial cardiovascular effects in those who consume 5 or more servings of fresh fruit and/or vegetables per day. From this one might be tempted to think that supplementation with anti-oxidant vitamins might yield the same results. However, with the possible exception of vitamin E, the vitamin supplements don’t make the grade. Obviously the story is much more complex than "tincture of this" or "extract of that".

This brings us back full circle and emphasizes the benefits of “real foods”. The package that nature makes contains a wide array of micro- and macronutrients that we have not been able to replicate in the lab -- however, many have tried and even more have marketed (never forget that there are huge profits for the manufacturers of dietary supplements). Although an oversimplification, the less processing that a food goes through the better. So while the advancement of nutritional biochemistry continues the best advice for performance and health remains, hard work, rest, and real food.

Note: DO NOT give chocolate to dogs. Chocolate contains a compound called theobromine, which is poisonous to dogs and other small animals. Humans, however, can easily handle theobromine.

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