The Aztecs believed chocolate was stolen from paradise by their god Quetzalcoatl, and cocoa was used as a medicine in both Aztec and Mayan cultures for hundreds of years.
Modern man, however, has considered chocolate a tasty indulgence and often regarded it as a "guilty pleasure." That view is changing as scientists discover the ancient cultures were right all along. They've found that chocolate is packed with flavonoids that have powerful antioxidant effects. Dark chocolate, according to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, contains eight times the polyphenol antioxidants found in strawberries.
Recent studies have shown that chocolate provides many health benefits — as long as you don't overindulge. Check out what chocolate can do for you:
• Reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. A recent study found that small doses of chocolate every day — about one square of a bar of chocolate — could decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke by 39 percent. Another study found that people who ate the equivalent of a small chocolate bar each week reduced their risk of dying following a stroke by 46 percent. Heart attack survivors who eat chocolate two or three times a week slashed their risk of dying from heart disease threefold. Studies suggest that chocolate has a low dose aspirin-like effect that could help prevent both heart attacks and strokes.
• Boost brain function. British researchers found that a specially formulated cocoa with high flavanols increases blood flow to the brain, perhaps boosting brain function and delaying age-related decline.
• Treat cirrhosis of the liver. Dark chocolate kept dangerous abdominal pressure, which can lead to the rupture of blood vessels, at bay in patients with liver cirrhosis. In the future, chocolate could actually be prescribed for people with liver cirrhosis, say Spanish researchers.
• Keep wrinkles at bay. Dark chocolate can help protect skin from wrinkle-causing UV damage, and may even lower the risk of skin cancer, according to researchers at European Dermatology London.
• Fight stress. A clinical trial published in American Chemical Society's Journal of Proteome Research found that eating an ounce and a half of dark chocolate daily for two weeks reduced the levels of stress hormones in people who felt highly stressed.
• Enhance mood. Chocolate contains a chemical called phenylethylamine (PEA) — the "happy" chemical that enhances mood. Chocolate also contains serotonin, a neurotransmitter that acts as an antidepressant.
• Extend life. A Harvard study found that people who ate chocolate at least three times a month lived more than a year longer than those who ate junk food.
• Fight cavities. New research shows that theobromine, a compound found in chocolate, may be as effective as fluoride at hardening tooth enamel.
• Suppress coughs. Researchers at Imperial College London, found that theobromine is almost one-third more effective at stopping coughs than codeine, which is currently considered the best medicine to suppress coughs.