Jeanne Calment is the French woman who lived the longest authenticated human life: 122 years and 164 days.
While it seems that so much of longevity is tied to the genetic hand we are dealt at birth, we certainly can adopt and pursue lifestyles that improve our chances for living longer, or, for that matter, not spending as much time on earth as we could have had we taken a healthier route.
Much is made of Ms. Calment’s lifestyle and diet. Incredibly, she smoked until she was about 110 (science suggests Ms. Calment had a rare, innate biological protection from the deleterious effects of the bad habit). Yet, she was also riding a bike until she was 100 -- and she continued to walk until a few months short of her 115th birthday, when she broke her femur.
Ms. Calment, who died in 1997, said she did not get stressed about too much. Her regular diet included olive oil, port wine … and … get ready … up to 2 pounds of chocolate a week, only giving up the sweet when she had reached the age of 119.
Could chocolate have had something to do with that amazing life span?
Perhaps, yes, maybe a little bit. And chocolate is a sweeter – excuse the pun – alternative to other life extending therapies.
We are finding out more almost every day about the health benefits of chocolate and cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate.
What is it in chocolate that is good for us?
Chocolate -- especially dark chocolate -- is rich in antioxidants called flavonoids. Clinical research has shown that flavonoids can reduce and prevent cardiovascular damage and lower blood pressure.
Science also supports that dark chocolate flavonoids have a positive effect on blood cholesterol -- pushing the bad form down, and raising the good form.
Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a chemical compound which affects the central nervous system in a manner that induces positive feelings. Most of the phenylethylamine ingested when eating chocolate is metabolized before it reaches the brain; still, some of the compound does make it to our gray matter.
Theobromine, a chemical compound closely related to caffeine, is found in nature in its most concentrated form in the cocoa bean. This compound boosts low blood sugar and has both a stimulatory effect -- yet a far milder one than caffeine -- and a slight diuretic effect, meaning it causes more frequent urination.
The health qualities of chocolate, however, do not mean you should eat every candy bar in sight. Again, it is the dark chocolate that is good for you. Milk chocolate, as delicious as it is, has little health benefit. You want dark chocolate that is at least 70 percent cacao (percentage of cocoa solids), and which is not high in sugar or hydrogenated oil.
Page 2 of 3 - Chocolate with a lower cacao percentage generally means there is more room for sugar and other non-cocoa ingredients, which, of course, is not a good thing. But even with high-quality chocolate, one must be mindful that too much of anything -- even the best dark chocolate -- can be bad for you. Eating too much good chocolate will add unhealthy pounds, which are a danger.
And this brings us to the caffeine, which is found in cocoa and chocolate, but also of course in coffee.
Taken from the USDA National Nutrient Database, the caffeine content per 100 grams of dry and unsweetened cocoa is 230 milligrams; dark chocolate (constituted of 70 to 85 percent cacao solids) is 80 milligrams; brewed coffee is 40 milligrams; and milk chocolate is 20 milligrams.
Of course, different foods we will regularly consume in different quantities and concentrations. For perspective, a cup of homemade cocoa has five milligrams of caffeine; a cup of brewed coffee has 95 milligrams of caffeine; a 3.56 ounce bar of dark chocolate (with the same cacao percentage as above) has 81 milligrams of caffeine; and there are nine milligrams of caffeine in a 1.5 ounce bar of milk chocolate.
Caffeine affects each person differently; some people can drink a small amount of caffeinated coffee and stay jittery for hours. Others can drink coffee all day and be asleep almost as soon as their head hits the pillow.
In the right amounts – about 200 to 300 milligrams a day for most people – caffeine is good for the body, as it stimulates and assists the liver in detoxifying and cleansing itself. Small doses of caffeine also stimulate the adrenal glands which regulate hormones and support the kidneys in filtering toxins.
Theobromine and caffeine, working alone or together, help the body purify.
Caffeine and dark chocolate can give the body a healthy boost.
At Johnson Compounding & Wellness Center, we carry three brands of high quality chocolate: Green & Blacks Organic, Divine Chocolate, and Chocolove.
Tea, in its many different forms, has caffeine, and in lower levels than found in coffee.
Tea is truly a health food, with its small amounts of caffeine and a trove of other healthy substances, such as antioxidants, tannins, and polyphenols. Scientific research has identified tea as cancer fighting, immune boosting, artery cleansing, weight reducing, and age defying.
It is good to keep in mind that moderating the length of time you steep the tea moderates the level of caffeine in the beverage: longer time steeping, more caffeine; shorter time steeping, less caffeine.
“Drinking a daily cup of tea will surely starve the apothecary,” says a Chinese proverb.
Consumed in appropriate amounts and in the right form, chocolate and caffeine are good for body and mind. And that is surely the type of health news with which not too many would be inclined to argue.
Page 3 of 3 - Steve Bernardi is a compounding pharmacist and Dr. Gary Kracoff is a registered pharmacist and a naturopathic doctor at Johnson Compounding and Wellness Center in Waltham, Mass. (www.naturalcompounder.com). Readers with questions about natural or homeopathic medicine, compounded medications, or health in general can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 781-893-3870.