Chocolate is the ultimate comfort food, but does it offer any genuine health benefits? Nutritionist Fiona Hunter investigates the growing body of evidence which suggests it might.
Made from the beans of the botanical Theobroma cacao tree, which translates as ‘food of the gods’, chocolate has enjoyed a reputation as a health food since it was first discovered by the Mayan Indians around 900BC. Although we now think of chocolate as a naughty-but-nice indulgence, research is starting to show that it may not be as naughty as was once thought.
Chocolate and heart health
Eating 100g of dark chocolate per day could reduce blood pressure i and the risk of a heart attack or stroke by 21%.
Dark chocolate contains a particularly high level of polyphenols - twice the amount found in green tea - which stimulate the body to produce the chemical nitric oxide which helps to relax blood vessels. Studies also show that cocoa may help to lower ‘bad’ cholesterol by up to 75% and increase levels of ‘good’ cholesterol.
Chocolate, a treat for the brain
Findings from two new studies show dark chocolate consumption reduces stress and inflammation, while improving memory, immunity and mood.
The studies - run by Lee S. Berk, a researcher in psychoneuroimmunology and food science from Loma Linda University - used dark chocolate with a high concentration of cacao (minimally 70% cacao, 30% organic cane sugar) ii.
Flavonoids are the ingredient in dark chocolate that provide the health benefits, but Lee S. Berk is the first researcher to test the effects on humans. Flavonoids found in cacao are beneficial to the brain because they are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents. Chocolate lovers rejoice! But remember to look for a chocolate containing at least 70% cocoa to reap its health rewards.
There’s more where that came from
What’s more, 1000 people over a 30-year period and found that, as they aged, those who ate chocolate at least once a week scored significantly better in tests designed to assess cognitive function, memory and ability to process new information, compared to those who rarely ate chocolate.
Studies have also shown regular chocolate eaters to have a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, this is because the same polyphenols responsible for lowering blood pressure also reduce inflammation, which contributes to the condition.
Eat chocolate before bed for a good night’s sleep
In addition to phytochemicals, chocolate contains several vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, which are thought to improve sleep iii.
In fact, magnesium has been found to play an unexpected role in helping our bodies adapt to rhythms of night and day by controlling how cells keep their own form of time.
Chocolate has a feel good factor
Chocolate contains tryptophan - a chemical converted to serotonin in the brain to lift mood and increase joy. It 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 is so addictive.
Quality matters when it comes to your choice of chocolate
Not all chocolate is equal: it’s cocoa beans that contain the nutrients responsible for most of chocolate’s health benefits, the greatest quantity of which are found in dark chocolate, which contains about six times more than milk chocolate, while white chocolate contains hardly any.
Dark chocolate also contains less sugar and fat than milk chocolate and, because the flavour is more intense, most people find a couple of squares are enough to satisfy a craving. You can also try pairing dark chocolate with fruits – berries, such as strawberries and gojis work particularly well – to reduce the amount you consume and boost your nutrient intake at the same time.
Did you know?
Cacao beans were first introduced into Europe in the 16th century and were used to make a tonic to treat digestive disorders and fatigue.
When selecting chocolate, choose one with a high percentage of cocoa solids to make sure you reap the health benefits – 70% is an ideal benchmark.
i The British Medical Journal
iii New research from the University of Edinburgh