Edible Biochemistry: The Health Benefits of Chocolate

Hello, everyone! It’s the second Saturday of the month, time for a short science post. Since Valentine’s Day is coming up on Tuesday, and chocolate is a popular gift (and who doesn’t like getting it?), I thought I’d talk a bit about some biochemistry of chocolate’s health benefits. There’s a bit of organic chemistry involved here, so bear with me.

Chocolate, even dark chocolate, which is 35-85% cocoa, is a very complex substance. Like any plant-based substance, it is “choc” full of different complex organic compounds. These include polyphenols, which are just compounds with multiple benzene rings.

Image result for benzene
This is benzene. Each corner is a carbon with two hydrogens attached. It’s not as scary as it looks. 🙂
Image result for catechin
This is catechin, found in chocolate. Again, each corner is a carbon. Don’t worry about the details of the structure, but do note the two benzene rings–this is what makes it a polyphenol.

 

Yay for chemistry class! Now back to chocolate. Some polyphenols found in chocolate, similar to the catechin molecule shown above, have antioxidant properties. You’ve probably heard this already; a lot of healthy foods, including blueberries as well as dark chocolate, are advertised as having antioxidants.

But what is an antioxidant? What do they do, and how is that beneficial to human health? Well, antioxidants are simply molecules that scavenge free radicals. This begs another question: what is a free radical? Free radicals, like the methyl radical below, are just chemical species that have an unpaired electron. They are highly reactive and go around stealing hydrogen atoms from other molecules, including (one of my favorites) DNA. So the punch line is that free radicals can be damaging to important biomolecules like DNA, and have thus been implicated in cancer, aging, and other human health issues.

Image result for methyl radical
The methyl radical.

You can see how antioxidants, like those found in chocolate, can be beneficial to human health by removing free radicals from the body’s cells and reducing radical-induced DNA damage. So, yes, chocolate really is good for you. (Of course, it can still contain copious amounts of sugar, so the key, as with everything, is in moderation.) What a great gift for Valentine’s Day or any time!

What do you think? Do you like chocolate? Have you heard about antioxidants but wondered what they do? Tell me in the comments!

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6 thoughts on “Edible Biochemistry: The Health Benefits of Chocolate

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