Eaten too much chocolate over Easter? Stop fretting; the good news is that it is actually beneficial for our health. Hurray!
Cocoa has been a dietary staple for more than 2,000 years in Central America, where cocoa based beverages are still consumed several times daily by indigenous populations. These chocoholics have been reported to suffer much lower rates of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Of course, there are other dietary and lifestyle factors which contribute to these statistics, but cocoa consumption has been cited as a significant one and recent scientific research has revealed why.
Our bodies produce reactive oxygen species (also known as free radicals) as part of the normal processes of metabolism and repair. These highly unstable charged particles cause corrosive damage to our tissues, so called “oxidative stress”. Oxidation is the process which causes metals to rust and the cut surface of sliced fruit to turn brown. Free radicals are responsible for the damage we associate with degenerative disease; getting old, in other words. The superheroes which help to “mop up” these bad boys and prevent them damaging and ageing us, are known as antioxidants. Our bodies can manufacture some antioxidants but many can only be derived from plant-based sources, vitamin C, E and selenium, for example.
Cocoa is one of the richest sources of antioxidants and in addition, contains the vital minerals, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese potassium, zinc, selenium, calcium, not to mention a healthy dose of soluble fibre. Impressive, no?
The beneficial effect on heart disease has been attributed to its relaxing and dilating effect on our arteries, increasing blood flow and lowering blood pressure. The increased blood flow to the brain, combined with the additional stimulant effects of its caffeine and theobromine mean that, having a cocoa-based food or beverage before an exam may actually enhance your performance. Yes, chocolate is brain food! Who knew?
The antioxidant compounds known as flavonoids in cocoa have a beneficial effect on platelets (blood cells which promote clotting) helping to reduce the risk of thrombosis. Studies have even suggested that regular cocoa consumption can reduce insulin resistance, a major factor in the development of Type 2 Diabetes.
Can cocoa reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's?
Possibly. We now understand that low-grade inflammation over many years, caused by those pesky free radicals, is an underlying mechanism for development and progression of these disorders and that flavonoid antioxidants combat this inflammation. Also, experiments on mice have demonstrated increased blood flow to the parts of the brain damaged in these devastating conditions in response to cocoa, although human clinical trial evidence is not yet available.
The concept of food as medicine is one that I find really exciting. It makes sense that everything we put in our mouths will have a biochemical effect on our bodies and research supporting this ideology is stacking up, thanks to increasingly numerous large, well constructed clinical studies. It’s empowering to think that every one of us can make simple choices every day which will impact our health and wellbeing in such a profound and positive way.
So back to the chocolate. Any downsides? Well, yes. Not all chocolate is made equal. White chocolate contains no cocoa solids (the good stuff), only cocoa butter, milk and refined sugar. Milk chocolate may contain as little as 25% cocoa solids (only 10% in the US and Canada) and in addition, the milk protein casein inactivates some of the beneficial antioxidant effects; fat and sugar contents are much higher in milk chocolate than the dark stuff.
So whilst milk and white chocolate is more popular because of its sweetness, it’s the actually the characteristically bitter taste of high cocoa content dark chocolate (70% and above) which is the hallmark of the healthy stuff. The higher the percentage of cocoa solids the lower the sugar and fat contents. This is why it is specifically dark chocolate which is recommended as a regular addition to our diets. Sorry!
Beware other various miscellaneous things that find their way into chocolate products and note that any food labelled as being “chocolate favoured” is likely to be ultra-processed and probably best avoided. So, if you want to have your chocolate and eat it - completely guilt free - aim for 20g daily of organic, fair trade, 70% dark chocolate. Then both you and the farmers who grow the magic beans which give the world so much pleasure, can reap the benefits.
So it’s official; chocolate is good for you. You’re welcome