Chocolate can be good for you. Sound too good to be true? The answer is both yes and no. Some scientific studies suggest chocolate can have a beneficial effect on our health. The findings, however, come with some caveats, mainly that not all chocolate is equal. With Easter just around the corner Maresa Fagan looks at how dark chocolate may be good for your heart, head, and health.
We are going through a tough time at the moment. The Covid-19 lockdown is keeping us all at home and that can bring challenges. In such difficult times, psychologically, socially, and emotionally, some of us will turn to food for comfort. And with Easter on the horizon that will present an even greater challenge with all of the chocolate that’s around.
The good news is that chocolate may offer some potential health benefits. The not so good news is there are some terms and conditions around what type and how much we enjoy.
There is scope, however, to make better chocolate choices that will quickly banish any feelings of guilt this weekend.
We’ve got the expert lowdown on five reasons to enjoy chocolate this Easter:
1. Go dark: When it comes to chocolate and its potential health benefits, it’s all about the cocoa content.
Because the benefits are thought to come from the cocoa, that gives darker chocolates the edge over milk chocolate varieties. Essentially the higher the cocoa content, the better.
In a world full of chocolate choices how do we know what to choose?
Typically dark chocolate contains anything from around 50% cocoa all the way up to 100% and the consensus is to opt for dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids.
On the other hand milk chocolate contains between 10-50% cocoa solids and will subsequently have a lower amount of potentially health-boosting compounds, such as flavanols.
The news is not good for fans of white chocolate, however, as it doesn’t contain any cocoa solids. White chocolate may deliver on sugar and sweetness but is missing the key cocoa ingredient associated with a number of potential health benefits.
2. Nutritional value: While chocolate is more often associated with indulgence than nutrition, it does contain minerals and plant nutrients that may provide health benefits. Chocolate, which comes from the cacao plant, contains a number of minerals and other plant compounds that can play an important role in how our bodies function.
The cacao plant boasts high levels of minerals such as iron, copper, magnesium, and zinc, as well as antioxidants, such as flavanols and polyphenols, that can also have health benefits.
Iron, for example, is important for making red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body.
At the same time it’s also worth bearing in mind that both dark and milk chocolate also contain cocoa butter and sugar — this is where the high calories come in, though darker varieties tend to have less sugar and a slight bitter taste.
So while there are some beneficial ingredients, eating too much chocolate brings with it the potential for weight gain.
3. Heart health: There is also some evidence that regularly eating a small amount of dark chocolate may help reduce the likelihood of developing heart disease.
A scientific review in the journal, Heart, in 2015 looked at the link between chocolate consumption and cardiovascular disease and found that people who ate more chocolate per day had a lower risk of both heart disease and stroke.
Researchers believe it’s the flavanols in dark chocolate that may have a protective role in heart health.
It’s thought that these plant compounds support the production of nitric oxide in the inner cell lining of blood vessels, thereby helping to relax blood vessels and improve blood flow. This in turn has the potential to lower blood pressure.
It is also thought that flavanols may have a positive effect in helping to reduce high cholesterol levels.
4. Brain boost: Much of the chocolate research has focussed on flavanols, with some studies suggesting they can also help to improve brain function.
These naturally occurring compounds can be found in fruits, vegetables, tea, and red wine, and have been linked with having anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Some research has linked the flavanols in chocolate with an improvement in cognitive performance.
One Italian study last year suggested that eating chocolate everyday may improve cognitive function, in particular attention span, verbal fluency, memory, and processing speed.
Other research has shown that these compounds can reduce memory loss in older people.
As with all scientific research, care needs to be exercised when looking at findings. Even the chocolate company, Mars, is quick to point out that chocolate is not a reliable source of flavanols and may be destroyed during production.
5. Feel good factor: The role of chocolate as a mood enhancer is also widely heralded but, as of yet, is not entirely understood.
Dark chocolate contains a number of compounds that are associated with lifting our mood and even falling in love.
Compounds such as phenylethylamine, serotonin, and flavanols, are known to stimulate the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that create feelings of pleasure.
Other studies have suggested that dark chocolate may relieve depressive symptoms but there is a long way to go in research terms before the associated feel-good factor is fully understood.
Nutritionist and author Paula Mee sounds a cautionary note about the extent of the health benefits of chocolate but says we shouldn’t feel guilty about enjoying the dark or milk variety as an occasional treat.
In the midst of the current public health emergency, she advises against comfort or emotional eating but says the current restrictions provide an opportunity to become more conscious or mindful of what we eat.
“We need to get the right components from our diet to produce antibodies, which are part of our immune system and can fight infections like Covid-19. So it’s important we stick with a well-balanced and varied diet rather than focussing on any one particular food or type of food,” Paula says.
As to the apparent virtues of chocolate, she says dark chocolate does have a better profile and can be enjoyed in small amounts and within moderation.
“There are no guidelines or recommendations on chocolate intake. It’s not an essential food. It’s something to have as an occasional treat once or twice a week,” Paula says.
“The profile of dark chocolate may be better because there is more cocoa and more flavanols and polyphenols, which are antioxidants, but you’d have to eat an awful lot of it to get the physiological benefits from those nutrients,” she says.
Our focus, she says, should be on what we choose to eat and how much we consume rather than on any one particular food.
We can fully enjoy some chocolate and not feel any guilt but it’s all about consuming it in moderation and keeping it as an occasional treat.
“Be conscious about your food decisions. If you intend to eat something like chocolate you should fully enjoy it without any guilt but make it a conscious decision,” she says. “If you’re going to have some chocolate make sure you’re going to have all of the other foods required to maintain a balanced and healthy diet, such as the fruit and vegetables,” she says.
As the Covid-19 lockdown continues and will make this an Easter like no other, Paula says that many people are taking the opportunity to get creative in the kitchen or finding new ways to keep fit.
“People are cooking more and are using this time well to focus on food and exercise and that’s a positive thing,” Paula says.
“We can’t eat our way out of this but it is an opportunity to look at how we’re living, to look at what we’re eating, and to enjoy the treats occasionally but make sure we’re ticking all the nutritional boxes for our health,” she says.
In the event you have too much chocolate this Easter don’t worry, the good news is that it has a good shelf life and will keep for future treats in the weeks ahead.