A little of what you fancy does you good - especially if it’s chocolate. Instead of feeling guilty for indulging, you can now feel virtuous, as chocolate is officially beneficial for health. And that’s just as well, as we Brits consume over 80 million chocolate eggs each Easter which works out at a staggering 9kg per person.
Chocolate dates back to the time of the Aztecs when cocoa beans were so prized that they were used as currency during the reign of Montezuma. The Aztecs consumed chocolate in the form of a sweetened drink, which was believed to increase wisdom, boost energy levels and have a powerful aphrodisiac action. Modern forms of chocolate combine cocoa paste with cocoa butter, sugar and cream or milk, with a variety of additional flavourings such as vanilla, nuts and liqueurs that may improve the flavour, but may reduce its health value. We take a look at some of the pros and cons of eating chocolate this Easter.
The reason chocolate gets the ‘thumbs up’ from researchers is because it contains large quantities of antioxidants - chemicals that help to neutralise some of the harmful chemical reactions occurring as part of our metabolism and during exposure to pollutants. In essence, antioxidants stop us going rusty inside. Scientists have found that just 40g of chocolate contains more than 300mg of polyphenols - the same type of antioxidants that give red wine its heart-protecting reputation. And if you like your chocolate dark, you will obtain twice as many polyphenols, similar amounts, in fact, as are found in a cup of green tea. What’s more, the polyphenols present in chocolate are of the super-protective variety known as procyanidin flavonoids. While some of these flavonoids contain just one unit and are classed as monomers, the most protective are those containing two, three or more units, known as oligomers. Yes, you’ve guessed it, chocolate is especially rich in the larger oligomers that can prevent harmful LDL-cholesterol from becoming oxidised and taken up into artery walls.
Research recently published in the British Medical Journal suggested that a daily meal of seven ingredients, which included 100g dark chocolate (along with fish, fruit, vegetables, almonds, garlic and 150ml wine) could cut the risk of coronary heart disease by a massive 76%. The scientists predicted this could increase average life expectancy by six and a half years for men and five years for women. Surprisingly, olive oil was not included, as the researchers felt there was not enough solid evidence to support it as a single ingredient rather than as part of the Mediterranean diet. In contrast, they found clear evidence that eating 100g dark chocolate per day could reduce blood pressure by an average of 5.1/1.8mmHg, which is enough to reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke by 21%.
The feel-good factor
Eating chocolate makes you feel good. It increases brain levels of several chemicals, including mood-altering PEA (phenylethylamine, related to amphetamine), which produces a mild, confidence-instilling buzz. Chocolate also contains tryptophan - a chemical converted to serotonin in the brain to lift mood and increase euphoria - and theobromine, a stimulant that peps you up. Chocolate is also virtually unique in that it melts in the mouth at body temperature, producing a silky, luscious sensation that adds to its appeal and, according to psychologists, is one of the main reasons why chocolate proves so addictive.
Contains small amounts of caffeine
The amount of caffeine contained in chocolate is around 10 times less than that in the average serving of coffee, tea or cola drinks. In fact, low intakes of caffeine can be beneficial, as they improve fat metabolism, exercise endurance, increase alertness and decrease the perception of effort and fatigue.
Eating chocolate every day will undoubtedly increase your shopping bill. The BMJ researchers estimated it would cost £3 per week, but that spending more for a premium brand of dark chocolate might be rewarded by improved quality of life.
Sadly, chocolate packs a lot of calories. Just 100g contains: Milk chocolate 520 kcals, dark chocolate 510 kcals and white chocolate 529 kcals. It does provide useful amounts of micronutrients, however. For example, 100g dark chocolate contains: 33mg calcium (compared with 220mg for milk chocolate), 89mg magnesium, 2.3mg iron, 0.7mg copper, 4mcg selenium and 1.4mg vitamin E.
Sweetened chocolate contains lots of sugar, producing glucose swings which, as well as encouraging you to eat more, are increasingly linked with the development of obesity and type 2 diabetes. This is another reason why dark chocolate, which contains the least sugar, is better for you than milk and white chocolate. Low carbohydrate chocolate containing sweeteners such as maltitol, which do not affect blood glucose levels, are also becoming more widely available.
Chocolate that contains a lot of sugar can also cause swings in levels of endorphins - brain chemicals that affect mood. This can, in turn, produce mood swings as well as carbohydrate cravings, one reason why women with pre-menstrual syndrome often crave chocolate before a period, when their endorphin levels are low. Unfortunately, as with addictive drugs, brain receptors eventually become desensitised to the mood-lifting effect of chocolate, so you tend to need more and more to get the same endorphin-raising effects.
The myth that chocolate can cause acne is not supported by the evidence, which suggests the culprit is hormonal fluctuations rather than dietary components.
The fermentable sugar present in chocolate has the potential to trigger tooth decay. However, the antioxidants in chocolate may help to offset the acid-producing potential to a certain extent, while the calcium, phosphate and other minerals present especially in milk chocolate may also reduce the harmful effects on teeth.
Including chocolate in your diet
All in all, it seems that, as part of a balanced diet, we might all benefit from eating 100g chocolate per day - but make sure it is dark and expensive!
- Eat it after a meal when you are full and less likely to over-indulge.
- Eating chocolate after a meal means you can clean teeth and floss soon afterwards - perhaps with a chocolate flavoured toothpaste to prolong the pleasure!
- Buy small-sized bars, not family-sized slabs.
- Eat with fresh fruit - the renewed craze for chocolate fondues makes this simplicity itself.
- Let chocolate rest in your mouth for long enough to melt and coat your taste buds and the roof of your mouth to experience the full range of flavours and textures.
- Learn to savour the lingering memory of each bite before immediately devouring the next.