Does our favourite vice really have potent health benefits? Or are the sensational stories about chocolate more spin than substance? Anna Blewett investigates
We’ve all seen the articles on chocolate; ‘10 convincing health reasons you should eat more’ in The Telegraph and ‘Eating chocolate makes you look younger’ in the Daily Mirror, to name a few. Think they sound too good to be true? Well, if your idea of chocolate is a delicious bar of Dairy Milk or Galaxy you’re not far wrong.
“It’d be amazing if chocolate had some really strong health benefits,” says dietitian Carolyn Pallister, “but I don’t think the evidence is quite there yet. Studies looking at the health benefits of chocolate have tended to focus on cocoa extract, rather than chocolate bars.”
Terminology matters – while the terms ‘cocoa’ and ‘cacao’ are often interchangeable regarding the Theobroma Cacao plant and its seed pods, but once the focus moves onto ingredients, the two terms have distinct meanings. ‘Cacao’ refers to the raw bean, which can be cracked into ‘nibs’ or cold-pressed into raw cacao powder.’ Cocoa mass’ produced by high-temperature roasting and then grinding of the beans – which destroys some of the nutrients – is further separated into cocoa butter and cocoa powder.
“There have been a range of health benefits linked to cocoa products – particularly in the case of cardiovascular disease there seems to be a link there and the research shows some promise,” admits Carolyn, “but that’s the point. It shows promise. So I think more research is going to be needed. We have to remind ourselves that whilst cocoa is in chocolate, it also has fat and sugar added to it to make it more palatable. That helps us enjoy it but at the same time eating foods high in fat and sugar is clearly linked to weight gain and ultimately a heath risk. Like lots of foods with these additives, if you eat too much it’s not going to be good for you.”
Nutritionist Cassandra Burns is also sceptical about the benefits of everyone’s favourite indulgence. “It’s the cacao – the main raw ingredient in chocolate – that’s the true superfood, providing nutrients and antioxidants that are thought to have multiple benefits for our health. The more other ingredients are added to your chocolate bar – especially sugar! – the less ‘super’ it becomes.” Cassandra can see little nutritional value in the milk chocolate we find in the confectionery aisle. “It tends to be highly processed and has a lot of milk, sugar and fat added,” she points out. “The sugar causes a blood sugar imbalance and stimulates the reward part of the brain making it addictive. It also compromises immunity and puts the body in a state of stress. The downside of milk chocolate really does outweigh the positives.”
“It’s the flavonols [natural substances also found in red wine] in raw cacao that are thought to be particularly heart-friendly,” says nutritionist Shona Wilkinson. “They’ve been linked with lowering blood pressure, as well as increasing vasodilation (dilating blood vessels to improve blood flow), reducing the ’stickiness’ of the blood, reducing
inflammation and preventing free radical damage. Studies have found that a higher intake of flavonol-rich foods, such as cacao, is associated with lower risk of ‘cardiovascular events’ including heart attack and stroke.”
There are other more tangible benefits, as any chocolate lover will know. “Most people know they feel better when they eat chocolate!” says Shona. “In a standard sugary chocolate bar, this is likely to be at least partly down to the sugar content. But raw cacao in its pure form also contains specific substances that may boost mood. One of these compounds is phenylethylamine, or PEA for short. PEA is a natural substance that’s made in the brain. It’s associated with pleasure and good mood and is said to be made in higher amounts in the brain when we’re in love! Another substance that may affect mood is theobromine, which is a mild stimulant in the same family as caffeine, but with a gentler effect.” Add feel good minerals and the endorphins of any pleasurable eating experience to the mix and you can see why the ancient Aztecs held it in such high regard.
“Dark chocolate is higher in cocoa than milk chocolate so if you’re going to chose something that’s going to be a better choice,” says Cassandra. It’s a more convenient option than ever, with bars boasting 70 per cent and even 85 per cent cocoa solids increasingly available. “Dark chocolate also tends to be a bit lower in sugar, and the flavour is more intense so you may feel satisfied from smaller amounts. We still have to eat it in moderation but I think it’s important we don’t deprive ourselves entirely!
If you do enjoy chocolate let yourself have a bit of what you fancy every now and again because if we’re too restrictive then we eat more in the long run.”
“Alternatively, go for a raw chocolate bar (one made with raw cacao), for the extra health-boosting flavonols,” suggests Cassandra. “Raw chocolate can also be a better choice because makers end to use unrefined sugars such as coconut sugar. Coconut sugar has a lower glycaemic index than white sugar, so provides more slow-releasing energy. Even better, try raw cacao powder or cacao nibs, which are little nuggets of crunchy cacao. You can add them to homemade smoothies and brownies. The nibs are also fantastic in home-made muesli (with whole oats, nuts, seeds and dried fruit), or stirred into natural yoghurt.”