Who can resist a bar of chocolate? Or a chocolate gateaux, or devil’s food cake, or a steaming mug of hot chocolate? Chocolate is one of the world’s most favorite foods. It used to be an exotic luxury, and is now a commonplace treat. But what are its health benefits?
Chocolate is a natural mood booster. It contains naturally occurring chemicals, called endorphins, that stimulates the part of the brain that relays pleasure. So, this is why many people instinctively reach for a bar of chocolate when they’re feeling low.
Chocolate also contains serotonin, which is a natural antidepressant, and several other chemicals that make us feel good.
The previous two properties may help to explain why so many women crave chocolate in the days before their period. There are few studies that show a link between the consumption of chocolate and the reduction of premenstrual symptoms. In fact, many sources recommend that women eat food that is high in protein and fairly lean – none of which apply to most chocolate bars! However, there’s no doubt that millions of women swear than their PMT is helped by sitting on the sofa, reading a gossip magazine, and having a big bar of chocolate.
Since chocolate was first discovered, it has been said to be an aphrodisiac. This is up for debate. Most studies have shown few links between chocolate and sexual prowess, although some have argued that its ability to make the brain feel pleasure can help couples to get in the mood.
Whether or not the science agrees that chocolate is a chemical aphrodisiac, it has had a key role in courtship ceremonies for centuries. The Mayans used it as part of their marriage ceremonies, the Catholic church was suspicious of it on the grounds that it could encourage sin, and it has a tried and tested role in today’s anniversary and Valentine’s celebrations. Given all that history, it seems unlikely that chocolate has no aphrodisiac effect – even if only psychologically, because it has always been associated with romance.
There is some debate as to whether chocolate can decrease the damage done to athletes’ muscles during training. One study from James Madison University argued that it could, if the chocolate was consumed within a couple of hours after the training session ended. However, this study had a relatively small sample base, and more extensive trials would be needed to confirm or disprove its findings.
Flavonoids are a powerful antioxidant found in chocolate, and in plants, they help by shielding them from environmental toxins and repairing damage. In the human body, antioxidants help to protect us from free radicals that are formed by normal bodily processes (breathing above all) and from carcinogenic substances like cigarette smoke. When the body lacks adequate levels of antioxidants, damage from free radicals occurs and can promote cancer-related mutations in our cells and changes in our cardiovascular system: an increase in LDL (bad cholesterol) and plaque formation on the walls of the arteries (atherosclerosis).
Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate. In addition to having antioxidant qualities, research indicates that flavanols have other positive influences on vascular health, such as lowering blood pressure and improving blood flow to the brain and heart, making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot, and lowering cholesterol.
Chocolate is also good for maintaining and boosting your arterial health. Flavonoids found in chocolate helps prevent platelets from clustering together into a clot, and can also prevent free radicals from damaging blood cells. This is good news for your cardiovascular system.
Chocolate, particularly standard milk chocolate is very high in calories and fat. This can be one of the major drawbacks of consuming chocolate. However, in some contexts it can be beneficial. If you have a job that requires a lot of energetic work, or if you enjoy mountaineering, trekking or any other outdoors sport, then chocolate can be a very useful and easily portable source of energy.
Often linked to the idea that chocolate causes weight gain is the belief that it causes acne. Despite this being trotted out by thousands of parents across the generations to stop their offspring gorging on Easter eggs or candy bars, it is a myth. Acne is linked to the consumption of more simple sugars with a high glycemic index. Chocolate actually has a low glycemic index – at least, good quality chocolate with a low sugar content does.
You’ll get most out of chocolate that has a very high cocoa content. So dark chocolate that is marked around seventy or eight per cent cocoa is the best kind you can get – milk chocolate is less beneficial. It’s also worth remembering that bitter chocolate has a much lower sugar and fat content than regular milk chocolate, so is much better for you. White chocolate still has some of the benefits, but nowhere near as many as even milk chocolate.
Over the last few years, there’s been a great interest in chocolate that is either fair trade, or organic, or both. Organically produced chocolate is exposed to fewer chemicals as the cocoa beans grow, so if you’re worried about consuming unnecessary additives, then it is worthwhile buying organic. Fair trade chocolate does not have any additional health benefit – this label applies only to the conditions of the workers who grew the cocoa and produced the bar. However, it is healthier to eat a little organic and fair trade chocolate than spend the same money on a larger quantity of cheaper chocolate. Remember, you only need to eat a few squares every day to benefit from chocolate.
You can also consume chocolate as a beverage – indeed, this is how the Aztecs first prepared chocolate. Aztec hot chocolate was bitter, though, and the Spaniards were the ones who added sugar, cinnamon and other spices into the drink. Hot chocolate can be made from hard chocolate. If you are using a powder, then cocoa powder is far healthier than ready-made hot chocolate branded drinks, which tend to have a lot of other ingredients and also tend to be made from inferior chocolate powder.
You can buy chocolate everywhere. However, high-quality chocolate is most often found in large supermarkets, delicatessens, specialist shops and by mail order.