We all know that too much of the delicious dark stuff can make us pile on the pounds but that doesn’t stop most of us craving a chunk of it. Britain is the seventh biggest chocolate market in the world with the average Brit eating around 11kg of chocolate each year – that’s about three bars a week.
For chocolate lovers, the good news is that small amounts don’t just taste good but also have health benefits – so there’s no need to feel guilty about small indulgences.
The taste, smell and texture of chocolate can stimulate feel-good areas of the brain. Chocolate contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid that stimulates production of serotonin, the brain’s natural anti-depressant.
Great for heart health
Eating chocolate can lower blood pressure, thin the blood (reducing stroke risk) and have an anti-inflammatory effect due to chocolate’s high content of chemicals called flavonoids explains nutritionist Sarah Schenker. Flavonoids also seem to stimulate the body to make more nitric oxide, which helps to widen and relax blood vessels, which may help lower blood pressure.
Stop your arteries furring up
Flavonoids in chocolate also help to stop LDL (bad) cholesterol from oxidising, helping to prevent the furring up of arteries. Flavonoids contain more than 50% of an unusual type of saturated fat called stearic acid, present in cocoa butter that does not raise bad cholesterol and may even increase levels of the protective good cholesterol.
A chemical called theobromine is also contained in chocolate, which has been shown to suppress coughing by acting on the vagus nerve, which carries messages from the central nervous system to the brain.
Epicatechin – a chemical found in cocoa and green tea – may also help protect the brain against the formation of sticky proteins or amyloid plaques which develop in Alzheimer’s disease.
What sort of chocolate is best?
In general, the darker the chocolate the higher the flavonoid content – but it’s not quite as simple as that. Dr Sarah Schenker explains “It’s not a certainty that chocolate stating a higher percentage of cocoa solids contains more flavonoids because a lot depends on the type of cocoa beans used and how they have been processed.”
The higher the temperature at which the beans are roasted and the longer they are fermented, the fewer flavonoids survive. This information is not provided on the pack, although some manufacturers claim to use processing techniques that preserve flavonoids. “However, it is most likely that you get more flavonoids in a dark chocolate that lists cocoa beans, cacao, chocolate liquor or cocoa mass on its ingredients list, so check the label. Milk chocolate tends to have very few flavonoids and white chocolate none.”
How much is healthy?
The big drawback in thinking of chocolate as a ‘health’ food is that most of the research that has been done on the benefits of chocolate has involved people eating more than 100g (500 calories worth) of chocolate a day.
To compensate for eating just 100g of chocolate, you would need to go for a five-mile run or cut calories, so go easy and take more exercise or get your flavonoids from lower calorie sources like tea, coffee and black grapes.
Does chocolate make a good snack?
Yes suprisingly, chocolate is classified as ‘low GI’ food which means a small bar makes a suitable snack between meals as it does not cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels after being eaten. This is because the fat that it contains slows down the absorption of the sugar. The caffeine content of chocolate has also been shown to help boost concentration and energy temporarily.
Chocolate is also much less likely to cause tooth decay than other sweets because it only leads to a small increase in acid production in the mouth, and cocoa also contains chemicals that inhibit mouth bacteria. This means a small packet of chocolate buttons is a better choice of snack for children’s teeth than a box of raisins.
Superfood or not?
Whilst a recent study found the flavonoid content of chocolate was higher than blueberries and cranberries, you have to bear in mind it also contains sugar and, in the case of milk chocolate, fat as well, so the answer has to be ‘no’. You could always try combining small amounts of dark chocolate with vitamin-packed fruits like strawberries and blueberries to get the benefits – but be aware of the high calorie content of chocolate.
Sarah Schenker says: “Rather than thinking of chocolate as a superfood, regard it as a treat. If you eat it in small amounts (a few squares or a small bar), it shouldn’t contribute to weight gain and it will certainly not do you any harm.