Many people LOVE chocolate. And I’ve got this theory that even people who theoretically don’t really like it (like me!) are slave to some sort of chocolate related treat.
Personally, I LOVE hot cocoa, especially with Baileys and chilli flakes. I also love soft baked oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.
In addition to that, who can turn down chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream? Hot chewy brownies with lots of walnuts inside? Prailine truffles with cherries on top!?
Certainly not suppousedly ‘not-that-into-chocolate’ me.
The good news is that, even though chocolate has always been viewed as a total treat food, there is increasing information coming out that chocolate is actually quite good for us.
Therefore, because I love finding out the story behind nutritional stories ….AND because I sort of love relaxing in the bath with a book, a glass of red wine and some dark chocolate (even though, of course, I’m not really a chocolate person).. I thought it would be interesting to do some research!
Intro to Chocolate:
Chocolate is produced from the beans of the cacao tree, of which there are several varieties. The beans are extracted from the pods, fermented and then dried and sold on to different suppliers. Each supplier then follows individual procedures for their selection of bean varieties, length of roasting time and temperature. Some of these are closely guarded secrets!
After they have been roasted the centres (or ‘nibs’) of the cacao beans are hulled. These nibs are then either subjected to high heat and blending to make pure cacao liquid (‘chocolate liquor’), or they are heated and separated for use as cocoa butter and cocoa.
Un-sweetened baking chocolate is made from a simple combination of ‘chocolate liquor’ and extra cocoa butter. However, most types of chocolate we eat also have varying amounts of sugar and, in the case of milk chocolate, powdered milk solids or sweetened condensed milk. White chocolate is made from cocoa butter and sugar, without the cocoa. All types, including unsweetened bakers chocolate, are subjected to an extended series of high heat and high pressure processes, used to blend the ingredients and get that smooth taste chocolate is famous for! This high heat also helps to minimise the inherently bitter taste of cacao.
Flavonoids: Flavonoids are powerful antioxidants found in plants, particularly deep coloured ones; tea, berries and red wine are all famous sources of flavonoids. In addition to being strong anti-oxidants, the flavonoids in cacao may also lower blood pressure, and reduce the likelihood of blood clots. Since blood clots are part of what can make having LDL cholesterol dangerous this is great news! Dark chocolate has three times as many flavonoids as tea, and an equivalent amount to red wine.
Minerals! Cacao is also rich in minerals namely magnesium, which acts as a relaxant in the body. This is often used to explain women’s craving for chocolate at certain times of the month! Magnesium is also excellent for heart function, making cacao look like an all round heart healthy food. Some nutritionists also argue that cacao is also a rich source of chromium, which is essential for stabilising blood sugar and can be good for weight loss (!!!)
Healthy Fats: All chocolate is rich in cocoa butter and cocoa butter is largely accepted to be a very healthy fat, even by those who are wary of saturated fats in general. For those who like to watch their LDL cholesterol (I’m on the fence about this), cocoa butter has been shown to have no negative effect. Cocoa butter is also rich in mono-unsaturated fats, which have been shown to raise HDL, the ‘good’ cholesterol (which is important).
Mood Elevators; If you always knew you felt high after eating chocolate, turns out you were right! It’s not just the sugar that makes you feel good… cacao actually contains numerous other ‘feel good’ compounds which trigger the release of certain neurotransmitters to be released, normally only released during times of ‘genuine euphoria’. Cacao also contains anandamide which has a similar effect on the body to the THC found in marijuana, and can lead to an increased sense of calm.
Addictive; Cacao contains theobromine, which has a stimulatory effect on the central nervous system. In this way it functions like a drug. Stimulants can be exhausting to the nervous system, especially for people who don’t have good mineral reserves or are low in B vitamins (ahem, drinkers). Most stimulants are at least somewhat addictive (in case you weren’t aware).
Depression; Cacao might be rich in mood elevators but, like all mood elevators, this can also lead to downs once the chocolate is finished. How sensitive you are to these lows depends on your physical and mental health, but for people feeling less well, even small artifical swings in mood can feel poignant. These effects are compounded by the added sweeteners and natural stimulants. Some people will find chocolate makes them anxious and unhappy, rather than relaxed.
Low nutrient value; Like most anti-oxidants flavonoids can be sensitive to heat and light, and chocolate goes through a lot of processing. Lab results regarding the exact flavonoid content of different chocolate have been extremely varied. Interestingly, flavonoids are tied in with the natural bitter taste of pure chocolate, so the more bitter it tastes the more likely it is to have stayed rich in flavonoids. Some scientists argue that most chocolate is so processed the chromium is lost, and that high levels of oxalic acid found in cacao bind with the magnesium, and flush it from the body.
Added Sugars; Any chocolate that is not pure unsweetened bakers chocolate has added sugar… and sugar is being increasingly linked to tumour growth and cancer, as well as diabetes. It is definitely not worth eating products rich in sugar, just to get the flavonoids! Additionally, in order to manage blood sugar highs and lows, your body eats up reserves of magnesium and chromium. Although its great that some of the depletion might be replenished, with any sugar rich food you’d better off skipping it altogether.
The Final Picture
I was actually pretty surprised to find that real dark chocolate does seem to have some pretty important health benefits. I thought it was ‘urban myth’, although that goes to show the sort of things I think make urban mythology status. Sadly, most of my favourite ways to eat chocolate are also very sugar rich, meaning they are definitely more ‘occasional treats’ than daily indulgences. The exception is hot cocoa which, if made with hot whole milk and very dark chocolate, could definitely be a healthy treat… although maybe leaving the Baileys as a weekend treat. Here’s some final notes!
View milk chocolate as a treat! Milk chocolate is full of sugar. Commercial milk chocolate is also subject to a lot of processing, which in most cases destroys flavonoid content. Although some milk chocolate has been shown to be rich in flavonoids, the high sugar content more than nulls any benefits. If you want to eat chocolate regularly, in servings bigger than a small square or two, I would definitely try to stick with dark chocolate.
Choose dark chocolate! Real dark chocolate is low in sugar and high in cocoa butter, meaning it doesn’t have a dramatic impact on blood sugar levels. This also means any mineral content that is retained will directly benefit your health… and won’t get used up trying to offset blood sugar dips. Being low in sugar it won’t have a dramatic impact on mood or outlook, nor will it be implicated in associations with cancer.
The flavonoid content of dark chocolate is likely to be higher – and there is even some evidence showing that people who consume chocolate regularly tend to live longer (although it’s pretty inconclusive and refers mainly to people living in rural Europe). The oldest lady ever ate chocolate every day and one of the other record breakers ate a kilo a week!
Gauge your own reactions and sensitivity! Although dark chocolate is healthy in many ways, it’s still a stimulant and you’ll need to work out exactly how much you feel healthy eating. Personally, I do not feel good when I eat more than a square or two of chocolate, whereas I know a bunch of people who can eat a small bar of dark chocolate and feel fine. Be honest with yourself… if you are hooked on having a chocolate bar at 4pm and tend to feel a little weepy on your commute home, it could be time to re-assess the programme. Also, like many drugs, caffeine and chocolate are particularly damaging when eaten in combination. It may equal double the pleasure, but it also equals double the damage. Swapping your regular tea for a herbal option could be a good idea!
Make sure it is really dark chocolate you are eating! Plain chocolate is not the same as dark chocolate and can be really high in sugar! Check the labels and look for under 25g sugar per 100g. If it’s milk chocolate you really love by all means carry on… but view it as an indulgence and try to keep to the weekends or in really small amounts. You should also ideally try to seek out a good quality brand, so that you are more likely to get some benefits. Additionally, you could try weaning yourself onto dark chocolate, on a gradual basis.
How do you feel about chocolate? Do you love it, hate it…. eat it on a regular basis!? And have you always known dark chocolate really is good for you….?