Everyone knows that chocolate’s a cheat food, right? Well, maybe one of your favourite treats is actually doing you a whole heap of good. Pure cacao, from which chocolate is derived, is packed with large amounts of antioxidants called flavanols. The flavanols in cacao have been linked with a variety of potential health benefits.
Research has so far shown that regular consumption of cacao may favourably improve:
- Blood pressure (Taubert et al., 2003; Grassi et al., 2005; Fraga et al., 2005)
- Platelet function (Innes et al., 2003; Murphy et al., 2003)
- HDL (‘good’) (Wan et al., 2001; Mursu et al., 2004) and LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels (Kondo et al., 1996; Wan et al., 2001; Mathur et al., 2002; Fraga et al., 2005)
- Endothelial (the types of cells inside blood vessels) function (Engler et al., 2004)
- Oxidative status (Wan et al., 2001; Serafini et al., 2003; Gu et al., 2006) and levels of oxidative stress (Spadafranca et al., 2010; Allgrove et al., 2011)
- Insulin sensitivity (Grassi et al., 2005)
- Mortality rates in individuals post heart attack (Janszky et al., 2009)
The majority of these findings point towards chocolate having particular benefit for heart health.
Although also surprising to many, chocolate can be a rich source of a variety of minerals. Cacao contains copper – important for iron absorption and collagen production, magnesium – perhaps the most important mineral in the body, potassium – which may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke, and iron – important for immune health and oxygen transport amongst many other things.
I think most people would agree that chocolate makes you feel good, but do we understand why? Chocolate is thought to contain hundreds of different chemicals and there’s a particular handful of these that work to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins in the brain. These hormones are what give us that pleasurable feeling. The added bonus is that more happy and relaxed we are, the more we limit the production of stress hormones such as cortisol. High cortisol levels are linked to a wide range of health problems and linked to high levels of body fat.
The Right Type of Chocolate
It’s the cacao that has the good stuff, not the sugar, milk, oil, preservatives, colours, or whatever else Cadbury and co. like to add. We’re talking a minimum cocoa content of 70% but the more the better. 70% and 85% bars are widely available in supermarkets and now it’s even possible to get 100% pure cocoa chocolate designed to be used for cooking.
*Pedantic Alert* Note that whilst the terms cacao and cocoa are often used interchangeably, they are slightly different. Cacao refers directly to the pods and beans that grow from the tree (Theobroma Cacao) whilst cocoa refers to the bi-products of the bean; cocoa powder and cocoa butter.
A Good Snack Choice?
Despite the sugary sweet reputation, chocolate can indeed be good snack choice. Dark chocolate, due to its high fat and low sugar content, has a low glycaemic index so this means it won’t give you that quick up and down in blood sugar. Yo-yoing blood sugar isn’t good for energy levels, mood or for feeling full; it often leads to eating extra calories to compensate. Chocolate also has the added potential for improving insulin sensitivity. How sensitive you are to insulin effectively determines how well the cells in your body can uptake nutrients.
At present there’s not RDI for chocolate, a fact that I’m sure will disappoint many amongst you. My personal take would be for consuming a single serving (around 30g) of dark chocolate (ideally 85%, but at least 70% cocoa content) on 3-5 days a week. It is worth noting that the Swiss, who have the highest average of chocolate consumption in Europe, are associated with some of the lowest rates of obesity and heart disease.
Don’t get carried away with the away with the health benefits of chocolate, it’s not a mercurial one-stop health-fix; you can’t think that a few bars here and there will undo a poor lifestyle and crappy diet. Chocolate is far from a dietary essential, there are many better sources of antioxidants, but can be a pleasurable inclusion in a healthy diet.