The reason chocolate makes you so happy

This column is written by Stig Bengmark – professor emeritus, researcher, lecturer and author. Read more of Stig’s columns here.

Can we enjoy ourselves on the path to good health?

Most of us, maybe all of us, have a strong need to occasionally take a break, to reward ourselves and celebrate our small victories, often simply reaching the end of the school week or work week. And the fantastic news is that when it comes to your diet, it is possible to combine business with pleasure!

Now I suggest that you take a moment to closely study the image below. It lists the twenty or so most nutritious foods on earth – in the food world, they are the real pros in “extinguishing the internal fires” and keeping harmful inflammation at bay. After reading the list, you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that some of the foods included are those that bring the most enjoyment. And it is these foods, these sources of delight from the plant kingdom, that this column is about.

Cloves – at the top of the list

At the top of the list, almost in a realm of its own, is cloves (ORAC 314 446) – an Indonesian spice used for millennia in Asian medicine. It can rightly be called the world’s healthiest food. Cloves deserve to be used for so much more than just sticking in oranges as a Christmas ornaments/scent ornament. In more exotic countries, particularly in Asia, cloves are used much more extensively, usually every day for enhanced enjoyment of one’s food and better health. In our home, cloves always have a place on the dining table alongside several different pepper varieties. Cloves are wonderful in smoothies, soups, chutneys, hot drinks such as tea and coffee – the list could go on and on. In fact, cloves cannot be counted out in a fight with turmeric (ORAC 159 277) for the title of healthiest spice. Both have been used for millennia in Asian medicine, such as Indian Ayurvedic medicine. But cloves have barely been used in Western medicine – the closest it has come to finding its way into medical use is that it has been successfully used, especially in the US, as temporary root canal filling before the permanent filling is applied – precisely for its unique ability to keep inflammation and infection at bay and its purifying properties.

Cloves contain very high amounts of the element manganese, but they are also known to be a good source of vitamin K. Cloves are also rich in iron, magnesium and calcium. Cloves contain a host of essential oils, tannins, flavonoids, triterpene acids, but also unusual amounts of beta-carotenoids, vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), thiamine (vitamin B-1), vitamin C and riboflavin – something that likely contributes to cloves well-known beneficial properties, including: anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, anaesthetic (numbing, raising the pain threshold), rubefacient (warming and soothing), carminative (anti-gas, bloating) and anti-flatulent.

Turmeric and sorghum are also among the world’s elite foods

Another spice which is at the top of the list is turmeric, namely it is considered as one of the world’s healthiest foods. And then there is sorghum – in its own special way, the world’s most nutritious grain – it is REALLY a shame that it is used so infrequently in Europe.

It may not be the easiest grain to bake bread with, but it works, and it can be used in muesli, different prepared foods, in the production of non-dairy milk substitutes and in lots of other recipes. As you can see in the image below, sorghum contains significantly more antioxidants than other staples we happily put on our plates – yes, even more than blueberries, strawberries, plums, broccoli, carrots and onions (see image).

Sorghum - Stig Bengmark

In my own kitchen, I have banned the useless, over-processed wheat products – mostly empty calories and very rich and very rich in (added) unhealthy/toxic gluten.

Cinnamon – one of the healthiest things you can eat

Cinnamon has been one of the most classic staples on the European table for centuries – it has been found in our cupboards for decades and is used by the spoonful in foods like Bircher muesli, smoothies, fruit desserts and other desserts, chocolate, coffee, frozen in ice cubes for use in drinks, and  in ice cream. We use so many spices in our household that we have to go to wholesalers like Martin Olsson to buy them – it simply requires too much running around and is far too expensive to buy those ridiculously small jars of spices that the grocery store offers.

Much like turmeric, Cinnamon and quite a few other spices have been shown to be able to dramatically reduce the stress – postprandial inflammation – that I mentioned in my last column. In other words, cinnamon can reduce the sugar and fat shocks that occur during and mostly after meals, and it also significantly increases insulin sensitivity. (Skulas-Ray AC et al. J Nutr. 2011;141:1451-1457). An especially large effect was seen in the blood lipids (fats) – they actually decreased by about 33%. In another study of 22 individuals with metabolic syndrome and pre-diabetes, subjects took a daily dose of cinnamon for a few weeks. The results of the study showed, e.g. fasting blood sugar decreased by 8% and blood pressure by 4% (Ziegenfuss TN et al. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2006;3: 45-53).

Cinnamon is also showing promise for its potential ability to slow the progression of degenerative nerve diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and to contribute to better cardiovascular health. In fact, PubMed contains over 1,500 studies that highlight the various health benefits of cinnamon (read an overview of this from Ranasinghe P et al. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2013;13:275).

Chocolate – contains mood-enhancing substances

It is no coincidence that the cacao bean and chocolate are mentioned in three forms at the very top of the ORAC list – chocolate actually belongs at the top of the list of the healthiest foods you can eat, and you could eat as much as you want if it were not for the calories. Pure cocoa is actually relatively low in calories (230 cal/100g), especially considering the amount of nutrients that come with it. Unfortunately, a chocolate cake usually contains twice the number of calories, or more, because we mix in a lot of unhealthy things like sugar, dairy, etc. A “pure” chocolate bar can have up to 86% pure cocoa – over that and it is too difficult to make a bar, according to experts. So you can either be satisfied with your chocolate that is “only” 86% pure or you mix your cacao with sweet, but relatively low-sugar berries – this, of course, includes limes and lemons (0% sugar), cranberries, fresh apricot, cantaloupe (but not other melons), clementines and grapefruit (but not citrus fruits other than those mentioned) pineapples, raspberries, strawberries and currants, all of which contain only a little fruit sugar and can be used frozen.

There is good reason that chocolate is so widely loved. Cacao contains two substances (anandamide and phenylethylamine/PEA) which are known for their tremendous ability to elevate the mood and pick us up when we are feeling gloomy. However, it is possible to overdose on chocolate, and for this reason, it is recommended that adults limit their daily chocolate intake to a maximum of 40 grams of pure cacao (about 6 heaped teaspoons). In addition to its copious amounts of flavonoids, cacao is also known for its high levels of magnesium and sulphur, both of which the body needs to repair, heal and grow. Sulphur has been observed to contribute to stronger nails and shinier hair and remember, whatever is happening on the outside reflects what is happening on the inside. Cacao also strongly counteracts certain diseases, e.g. diseases associated with metabolic syndrome. The best known effect of cacao is its ability to make the inside of blood vessels “smoother” and counteract arteriosclerosis, heart attack and stroke (ref: Buitrago-Lopez ABMJ. 2011;343:d4488).

Tea – an important staple for anyone who wants to stay slim and healthy

tea - stig bengmark

The amount of research done on tea is at least as extensive as it is for wine. But while the amount of knowledge about wine is increasing all the time, it is dropping dramatically among the general public. There are thousands of tea varieties, all with different health benefits, to suit your every need: hunger suppression (if you are to skip breakfast, for example), activity and wakefulness increase when you feel the need to reach for a cup of tea, and not least, teas can be calming/soothing for, e.g. when the day is coming to a close and it is time to stop eating for the day. Tea is actually worthy of its very own column, and that may happen someday. But it must be emphasised – the tea you drink should ABSOLUTELY not be in teabag form. Teabags, which contains plastic, actually leak plastic and plastic debris into the tea. Treat yourself to high-quality loose tea and buy it in a tea shop instead. Teabags are “always” treated with epichlorohydrin, a product that is mostly used for the production of epoxy resin (Dow Chemical Co patent). And why not treat yourself to a nice gold-plated filter? I must reemphasise what I wrote last week about how plastic residues in the body (in the fat tissue) contribute to obesity and disease. The quality of the tea is also so much better when you buy loose tea – empty out the contents of a teabag and compare that with loose tea. The contents of a teabag are kind of like the “dregs” you find at the bottom or, if I may be so blunt: “something you swept off the floor”. Make the change; you will be really surprised.

Tea is rich in antioxidants, maybe not in the same quantity as the foods mentioned above, but this is compensated by the fact that you drink so much more tea. My favourite, and something I drink every day, is Yerba Mate, a South American herbal tea from a rainforest holly tree (available in all tea shops, health food stores and online). It was brought to Europe by the Jesuits who were on the boats with Christopher Columbus and drank it every day, especially when they were fasting – to help keep the feeling of hunger at bay. After olive leaf (not sure if it is available in Sweden, so it is not included in the comparison below), Yerba Mate is the most antioxidant-rich tea we currently know of. If you need some help getting used to the flavour, you can mix it with, e.g. fruit tea in the beginning.

polyphenols - stig bengmark

Another study compared the antioxidant content of Yerba Mate as well as its ability to “thwart” inflammation with that of green tea and the well-known red wines – a competition that Yerba Mate tea actually won by a wide margin.

About 275 articles, research reports and reviews of the health benefits of Yerba Mate are available on the PubMed research registry. They report on the unique ability of Yerba Mate to curb hunger, thin the blood, increase capillary permeability in vital organs, improve blood sugar and blood lipid levels, prevent vascular catastrophes and lower body weight (Gambero ARibeiro MLNutrients. 2015;7:730-750) with regular consumption.

Red wine – one glass contains as much antioxidants as three glasses of juice from the same kind of grape

There is certainly inaccurate information and outright fraud floating around in all industries – we know this well from our experience with the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries and now the food industry as well. But the question is whether the wine industry may be the biggest culprit when it comes to disseminating bad information. Shadow interest groups protect this industry, and it is held in high regard by the EU and other entities. For example, there are currently no regulations requiring wine makers to list the contents and additives in their wines. There is likely no other industry that is more dependent on proper oversight and legal regulation than the wine industry. Today’s wine engineers are so skilled that they can make a fully synthetic yet very flavourful wine, something they would also like to exploit. I have heard that in some countries, regulations require as little as a single grape in a bottle of wine for it to be called wine. This is not the case in countries with wine-making traditions that have been passed down through millennia – the industry’s own “code of conduct” in these countries requires that the wine be sold as it is. The antioxidant content of a wine reveals how it has been treated, but unfortunately, producers can cheat here as well by adding antioxidants to their “synthetic wine”.

Red wine has properties that other wines do not. The potent antioxidant content in the skin of a red wine grape is extracted in a very special process, and it is actually lactobacilli, not much different from the species in the synbiotics that I research every day, that separates the super-antioxidants from the fibre in the skin and pulls out the health-promoting compounds – actually quite similar to the way our gut works.

Pinot Noir, Syrah and Merlot are best – and preferably from growers within 1,000 km from Monaco

Professor Leroy Creasy at Cornell University in New York has devoted his life to researching wines and antioxidants and is currently one of the world’s foremost experts in the field. He reports that Pinot Noir consistently has the highest levels of the super antioxidant resveratrol, which is also found in large amounts in fresh unroasted peanuts (ORAC 3166). Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot contain the most of a somewhat different group of antioxidants, which have also been shown to reduce inflammation in the body and promote healthy blood flow, thereby reducing the risk of blood clots and generally contributing to improved cardiovascular health. Generally speaking, the darker, more rustic and drier the wine – the more antioxidants it holds. Creasy’s main advice is to buy your wine from small producers and, if possible, from wineries located close to where you live.

An British research group decided to investigate the ability of red wine to “extinguish inflammation” and to determine the super antioxidant content in various red wines – bear in mind, however, that the ORAC values for wine are only about one-fifth of what they are for cloves, turmeric and cinnamon. The results clearly showed that there are unacceptably large variations between wine-growing countries and regions – perhaps as a result of what I describe above.

So, please do feel free to raise your glass, but remember that wine contains alcohol, which in turn is as dangerous as sugar. Drink no more than one bottle of wine per week and, as I said, only red wine (I drink significantly less and only on weekends and at parties). When I pick a wine myself, I drink wines from northern Italy, the south of France and Corsica – you can find the reason for this in the image above. In France, you raise your glass to the phrase “a votre santé” – to your health – and that is certainly true of the red wines from the region, packed with beneficial antioxidants and pure enjoyment!


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