Chocolate has long been associated with Valentine’s Day. But its origins are much more prosaic than romantic.
Chocolate comes from the beans of the cacao tree native to Central and South America. Although chocolate is now available in just about any form imaginable, originally it was a beverage. And it wasn’t sweet.
In fact, the Mayans of Central America, and perhaps earlier cultures, drank thick, frothy, bitter, natural chocolate drinks with many of their meals, at celebrations, or to finalize commercial transactions. The Aztecs of Central Mexico also consumed chocolate as a beverage, although they reserved it for the upper classes. They even used cacao beans as a currency, and considered it more valuable than gold.
The legendary Aztec ruler Montezuma was said to drink gallons of chocolate every day, believing it gave him energy. And modern science shows he wasn’t wrong.
Many studies show that compounds in cacao called flavanols have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (as I discuss on page 8). In fact, research shows flavanol-rich foods like chocolate benefit vascular function, flexibility, and blood circulation.
And as Montezuma discovered, all of those benefits help boost your overall energy—as well as your heart health.
There’s also research showing that chocolate’s ability to increase blood flow can offer a significant temporary boost in eyesight (as I discussed in last February’s Insiders’ Cures [“Four simple lifestyle changes that will naturally sharpen your vision and boost your hearing for years to come”]).
We often find that what’s beneficial for the eyes is also good for the brain since both tissues develop from the same embryological cells. So, it’s not surprising that there’s evidence that chocolate supports brain health, too…
Chocolate oxygenates your brain and improves cognition
I often write about the importance of maintaining good circulation and healthy blood supply to the brain for energy, nutrients, and oxygen. A new study demonstrates that the flavanols in chocolate boost brain oxygenation and cognition in healthy adults.1
Researchers recruited 18 men who had no documented brain, circulatory, heart, or respiratory disease. Each participant underwent a brain scan and cognitive testing, and then drank a cup of cocoa rich in flavanols. The men also underwent the same scan and testing before drinking cocoa that was lower in flavanols.
Two hours after consumption of each type of cocoa, the participants breathed in air with 5 percent carbon dioxide (CO2)—which is about 100 times the normal concentration of CO2 in the air at sea level. This is the standard method for challenging blood circulation. The heart typically reacts by increasing blood flow to the brain in order to bring in more oxygen and eliminate more CO2.
The researchers then measured oxygenation in the participants’ brains and asked each man to perform complicated cognitive tasks.
Results showed that 14 of the 18 participants had triple the brain oxygenation after drinking the high-flavanol cacao, compared with those who drank the low-flavanol cocoa. The oxygenation response time was also one minute better in the high-flavanol group versus the low-flavanol group.
In addition, the high-flavanol participants performed better on cognitive-function tests, correctly solving problems 11 percent more rapidly than the low-flavanol group.
The researchers noted that the four participants who didn’t respond to the cocoa flavanols already had the best oxygenation responses at the beginning of the study, so they already had little room for improvement.
But for the rest of the participants (and potentially many other people), this study shows that high-flavanol chocolate can significantly improve brain oxygenation—which, in turn, improves cognitive performance.
Don’t go cuckoo for this type of cocoa
If you’re wondering what high-flavanol cocoa is, you’re not alone. Some people think any type of chocolate is good for you. But before you down an entire heart-shaped tray of truffles, there are some key concepts you need to know about chocolate and its flavanols.
Most studies have found that dark chocolate is beneficial for your health. This type of chocolate contains at least 50 percent cacao—if not more.
Meanwhile, milk chocolate contains as little as 10 percent cacao—plus plenty of added sugar. And so-called “white chocolate” is basically milk, sugar, and cocoa butter—in other words, a nutritional nightmare.
So before you reach for just any type of chocolate this Valentine’s Day, be sure to look at the cocoa content. Again, you’ll want at least 50 percent cocoa—but I recommend 70 to 90 percent.
And remember, when it comes to chocolate, a little goes a long way. Just one or two squares (or ounces) of dark chocolate per day can have significant health benefits. Any more, however, and you’re unnecessarily boosting your calorie intake when partaking for the holiday (especially when reaching for anything less than the recommended 70 to 90 percent cocoa).
SIDEBAR: Valentine’s Day through the ages
The exact origins of Valentine’s Day haven’t been pinpointed, but it’s thought to date back to ancient Rome.
As early as the 6th century BC, Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia from Feb. 13th to 15th.2 The men sacrificed goats, then ran through the streets whipping naked women with the hides—believing this would make the women more fertile.
These ancient Roman “Romeos” were drunk and naked too, so, not surprisingly, the Lupercalia fete included a matchmaking lottery in which the men drew the names of women from a jar. The couples would then be matched up for the duration of the festival—or potentially longer.
Fast forward to the 3rd century AD, the Roman Emperor Claudius reportedly executed two men named Valentine on Feb. 14th, in different years. The Catholic Church honored their martyrdom by decreeing that Feb. 14th be called “St. Valentine’s Day.”3
In the 5th century AD, as part of the church’s effort to eradicate pagan rituals, Pope Gelasius combined Lupercalia and St. Valentine’s Day. In the Middle Ages, the first Valentine’s Day cards were exchanged. And as the years went on, the holiday grew much sweeter—figuratively and literally.
1“Dietary flavanols improve cerebral cortical oxygenation and cognition in healthy adults.” Sci Rep 10, 19409 (2020).