Monday, February 8, 2010

Wine and Chocolate: a not-so-silly Valentine

Silly me, I thought I could write up a simple blog post about the health effects of wine and chocolate, just in time for Valentine’s Day. So I go online to search the recent medical literature on the health effects on cocoa, and find that there are now more than 2000 articles on the subject. Needless to say, my comments here are based on a selected list. (You should know by now that wine and chocolate contain many of the same antioxidant molecules that have proven to be so beneficial, and that it has to be in the form of dark chocolate. There are a lot of studies now on how cocoa polyphenols lower blood pressure and help keep arteries clean, and the latest ones provide confirmation of the earlier reports.)


One article out just last month caught my eye. It turns out that simply smelling dark chocolate can provide a sense of satisfaction. The researchers proved this by comparing blood levels of insulin and the satiety hormone ghrelin in volunteers who either ate or just smelled dark chocolate, and both had a similar response. It reminds me of how enticing the “bouquet” of a great wine can be; sometimes I just want to enjoy that for a while before drinking it. Of course we already knew that wine and chocolate make for a sensory experience but it’s good to know that science is on the job here.

We also know that chocolate helps put one in the mood, so to speak, but now we have confirmation from a different study that cocoa not only makes us smarter but improves mood in scientifically verifiable ways. Using standardized assessments and cognitive performance testing, researchers documented significant improvements following ingestion of dark chocolate, along with measures of mood. Similar results have been found for red wine polyphenols, so it makes sense.

This last item is a bit more obscure, but I had to include it because I love the terminology used to describe the category of things like chocolate: “hedonic foods.” I’m not sure having a glass of wine or a piece of chocolate fully qualifies as hedonism, but they definitely give pleasure so we’ll accept the term. Researchers from the Department of Neurobiology at the University of Chicago observed that animals experiencing pain react often by eating rather than avoidance, a phenomenon called “ingestion analgesia.” Through a series of experiments on rats they were able to show that the behavior is controlled at the level of the brain stem, meaning that it is a primitive reflex not subject to motivation, and powerful enough to overcome strong incentives to not eat. Major implications for obesity and eating disorders here.

All I know is that wine and chocolate are health foods of the first order, regardless of whatever part of my brain is telling me so, and I am not about to try and get by with a sniff  instead of a sip.

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