Chocolate is the world’s most popular sweet treat (Szalay, 2018). Although most chocolate products contain high levels of sugar and saturated fat, some claims have been made that chocolate can be good for you. To all those chocolate lovers out there getting excited while reading this…I’m sorry to disappoint! The truth is chocolate as a whole food is NOT a healthy food. Yes, like most foods in moderation it’s fine, but don’t go swapping your fruit and veg for a bar of chocolate! The main ingredient in chocolate is the cocoa bean, and it is the cocoa bean which has health benefits.
Chocolate and the cocoa bean don’t just have a rich taste, they also have a rich history. The cocoa bean was first discovered by the Mayans as far back as 900AD (Jalil and Ismail, 2008). Mayan chocolate was very different from today’s chocolate, it was a liquid consisting of crushed cocoa beans, chilli beans and water, and it didn’t contain sugar as there was no sugar in Central America at that time. Chocolate comes from the Mayen word “xocolatl” which means “bitter water” (Fiegl, 2008). Mayans believed chocolate to be “The food of the Gods” (Jalil and Ismail, 2008). After the Mayans, the Aztecs also held chocolate very highly. However, as they did not grow cocoa beans and had to trade for them, only the wealthy could afford them. The Aztec king, king Montezuma would drink 50 cups of cocoa a day, and one extra if he was meeting a woman due to its Aphrodisiac effects (Editors, 2018). Aztec women were forbidden to drink chocolate.
It is believed that In 1502 Christopher Columbus discovered many exotic new foods when he landed in America, the cocoa bean being one of them (Editors, 2018). He returned to Spain with cocoa beans and Spain kept the beans secret from the rest of Europe until 1579 when some English pirates attacked a Spanish merchant ship carrying cocoa beans. However, the pirates thought the beans were dried sheep’s droppings and set fire to the ship. Cocoa became popular very quickly. The Spanish drank it for health and energy. They also drank it during mass and were even allowed to drink it during Lent as it was considered “essential”.
Cocoa was introduced to the court of Louis XIII of France in 1615, and in 1659 Davis Chaillous opened the first Chocolateries in Paris (Rankin, 2018). Chocolate came to Britain in 1657 and in the 1700’s
In 1847 Joseph Fry introduced the first chocolate bar (Fiegl, 2008). The first solid milk chocolate was invented by Daniel Peter (close friend of Henri Nestle), in 1876 (Fiegl, 2008). The production of smoother, better tasting chocolate came in 1880 with a swiss Chocolatier Rudolph Lindt (Keijbers, Chen and Vieira, 2010).
Now to the important bit, the supposed health benefits of chocolate. In the year 1653 cocoa was used in Europe as a medicine more than it was as a food (Jalil and Ismail, 2008). It was believed that cocoa helped stimulate a healthy spleen and improved other digestive functions. In the 17th and 18th century chocolate was prescribed regularly as a medicine or mixed with medications as treatment for many common ailments such as a cold, as well as to improve fertility, digestion, reinforce mental performance and to treat depression (Jalil and Ismail, 2008).
We’ll start with the heart. In 2012 the health claim that “Cocoa flavonoids help maintain endothelium-dependant vasodilation, which contributes to normal blood”, was approved by the EU. This means that scientific studies have proven that Polyphenolic compounds called ‘flavonoids’ that are in cocoa make your blood vessels more elastic, which in turn improves blood circulation. This can be associated with improved heart health. For a product to use this health claim it must contain 200mg of flavonoids, and very few chocolate products that can be bought in high street shops contain that much. Only speciality products which are very expensive contain that number of flavonoids, so your average dairy milk or mars bar just wouldn’t cut it! Chocolate is one of the most polyphenol rich foods along with tea and wine (Arts et al., 1999). Dark chocolate is richest in flavonoids, especially a flavonoid compound called Catechin, there is approximately 610mg of Catechin per kg of fresh cocoa (Arts et al., 2000). There have been a lot of studies carried out on the health benefits of cocoa flavonoids and most showed a relationship between flavonoids in cocoa and chocolate and cardio protective effects (Jalil and Ismail, 2008). However, most of these were short term studies that only lasted 4 days to 6 weeks, so the long-term health benefits aren’t really known. Some studies showed that dark chocolate (70% cocoa or above), increased HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) after 3 weeks in healthy humans compared to the group who didn’t take dark chocolate (Mursu et al., 2004). Another study showed the same with HDL cholesterol levels increasing by 4% compared to the control group (Wan et al., 2001). One thing these studies have in common is that the participants are all healthy with generally healthy diets to begin with. Meaning. Eating chocolate to lower high cholesterol levels, whether it’s dark chocolate or not, is probably not the best idea. There is an artery called the Brachial artery which is situated in the arm, and measuring the flow of blood through that artery is the best way to measure arterial function and acts as a predictor of cardiovascular mortality (Monahan, 2012). A study showed that a little bit of cocoa had no effect on increasing arterial function, but a lot (a lot being 1 tsp of natural cocoa or a tbsp of Dutch cocoa) increased arterial function with a few hours of ingestion (Monahan, 2012) One thing I found a bit fishy about this study was that the author works for Hersey (yes, Hersey as in the chocolate company). What’s also worrying is that a lot of these studies are funded by the chocolate industry, but all is not lost! When all the studies affiliated with the chocolate industry are removed the studies left still showed an increased arterial function associated with cocoa (Hooper et al., 2012). Another piece of evidence that chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, has a beneficial effect on arterial function is that when people are subjected to the cold water plunge test (basically your hands are plunged into cold water) the usual result would be that the arteries constrict. Within 2 hours of consuming dark chocolate when people are subjected to the test their arteries dilated (opened up) (Flammer Andreas J. et al., 2007). There is also a study that suggests that dark chocolate may improve blood flow to the kidneys (Pruijm et al., 2013). All-in-all there is an abundance of evidence suggesting that dark chocolate and cocoa has beneficial effects on heart health.
Earlier I mentioned that cocoa was used a s a medicine in the 17th and 18th century to reinforce mental performance and act as an antidepressant…well they might have just been on to something there! There have been studies that claim dark chocolate may improve cognition, prevent memory loss and improve mood (Brooks, 2019). Chocolate contains compounds that make the body release neurochemicals called ‘endorphins’. Endorphins are associated with feelings of pleasure and happiness. That amazing feeling you get after exercise that can be described as a ‘high’ is caused by endorphins. Dark chocolate has been shown to stimulate parts of the brain that are associated with pleasure caused by the release of endorphins (Brooks, 2019). Another study showed that consumption of chocolate, especially dark chocolate with a high cocoa content of 70% or above, was associated with reduced symptoms of depression (Jackson et al., 2019). It’s believed that eating 48g of organic dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% or more increases neuroplasticity in the brain which could improve mood, memory and cognition due to the high flavonoid content (Brooks, 2019).
Healthy amounts of dark chocolate per day could improve how the body metabolizes glucose and reduce the risk of insulin sensitivity, which eventually leads to Type 2 Diabetes (Freeman and Pennings, 2020). In 2017 a meta-analysis (that’s an analysis of multiple studies looking at the same thing) on the effects of chocolate on Coronary Heart Disease (CHD), Diabetes and stroke risk showed that moderate intakes of chocolate had beneficial effects on lowering the risk of developing these diseases (Jalil and Ismail, 2008). The benefits for protection against stroke and CHD were lost if more than 3 servings per week was exceeded. The benefits for protecting against type 2 Diabetes was lost when more than 2 servings per week were exceeded. The protection against Type 2 diabetes is thought to be due to the flavonoids in Dark chocolate which have been shown to reduce oxidative stress, the main culprit for insulin resistance (Shah et al., 2017).
Chocolate may also be good for gut health (another thing they seemed to have gotten right in the 17th/18th century!) (Hayek, 2013). Our guts contain billions of bacteria, and these bacteria are needed for good gut health. Sometimes bad gut bacteria take over and we get gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting, bloating etc. These bacterial overgrowths usually happen after a course of antibiotics as they kill of all the good bacteria as well as the bad. Good gut bacteria are referred to as ‘probiotics’ and you can get probiotic supplements to boost your good gut bacteria. It’s a good idea to think about taking probiotic supplements after a course of antibiotics, or even taking them daily is good. Good gut bacteria feeds of fibre which is why fibre is referred to as a ‘prebiotic’ and is associated with good gut health. Chocolate acts as a prebiotics feeding the good gut bacteria, and thus, improving digestive health (Hayek, 2013).
Chocolate contains antioxidants, especially dark chocolate. Antioxidants are essential to fight of free radicals that can cause a plethora of diseases such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s and certain cancers due to too much inflammation in the body (Phaniendra et al., 2015). Chocolate contains more antioxidants than green tea or red wine (Brooks, 2019).
Finally, chocolate is nutritious, it contains antioxidants, fibre, potassium, calcium, copper, magnesium, iron, zinc and phosphorus. Below is a table showing the nutritive values of dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate.
Table 1: Nutritional composition of dark, milk and white chocolate (CalorieKing – Compare Food Nutrition Facts, 2019)
|Nutritional Comparison of Chocolate|
|Dark Chocolate (75-80% cocoa) – 1oz piece||Milk Chocolate – 1oz piece||White Chocolate – 1oz piece|
|Total Fat (g)||12.1 (19%)||13 (20%)||27.3 (42%)|
|Saturated fats (g)||7 (35%)||8 (40%)||10|
|Carbohydrate (g)||13||26||50.4 (17%)|
|Of which are sugars (g)||6.8||24||50.2|
|Fibre (g)||3.1 (12%)||1||0|
|Sodium (g)||6mg (<1%)||35mg||77mg (3%)|
As seen above, white chocolate has the highest calorie content of the three chocolates. It is also the highest in fat, sugar and sodium. White chocolate is a mixture of cocoa butter, sugar and milk and contains no actual cocoa that gives any of the health benefits mentioned above. Dark chocolate has the lowest calories, as well as having the lowest fat, sugar and salt content. Dark chocolate also contains more fibre and potassium than milk chocolate and white chocolate. Milk is added to chocolate to make it more palatable. Cocoa is quite bitter on its own. The thing is, even though that milk makes the chocolate taste nicer, and increases calcium content 4 fold compared to milk chocolate, it actually dampens the health benefits provided by antioxidants found in the chocolate (Flammer Andreas J. et al., 2007). Even if the bar of milk chocolate provided the same amount of antioxidants as the bar of dark chocolate the milk in the milk chocolate would reduce the effectiveness of the antioxidants in the blood. Usually there is 3 times as much antioxidant in dark chocolate than in milk chocolate, and the higher the cocoa percentage the more antioxidants there will be (Vertuani et al., 2014). Sugar also works against the health benefits of cocoa by decreasing arterial function (Vertuani et al., 2014).
In conclusion, there are health benefits to eating dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% or more. Even a little bit of milk chocolate every now and then would be ok. What you need to remember with both dark chocolate and milk chocolate is that they are both still high in calories and saturated fat, so make sure you only eat small amounts (no more than 20-30g 2-3 times per week, a Cadbury Dairy milk bar is 45g). Choose dark chocolate to get the most out of the health benefits. Dark chocolate is also more filling, so you physically won’t be able to eat as much!
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