The good news is that chocolate is not only a delicious treat, but can also confer health benefits, if you eat the right type in the right quantities. We talk to nutritionist Professor Andrew Prentice, of the Medical Research Council’s International Nutrition Group about his views on the health giving properties of chocolate and also Dr Ian Wilson who has written on nutrition and stress.
Go for dark
When it comes to health-boosting properties, Professor Prentice says that cocoa content is key. Therefore, the darker you eat the better. Bittersweet chocolate contains up to 75 per cent of cocoa solids. However, some people may find this too bitter to eat on its own. Dark chocolate which contains around 70 per cent cocoa solids, is tasty and healthy too.
Dr Ian Wilson advises “Chocolate makes you feel good as it releases the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine”. The Aztecs believed that it was an aphrodisiac. One king, Montezuma drank up to 50 cups of chocolate a day to satisfy his harem. Modern scientists have revealed the secret of Montezuma’s success: chocolate contains the stimulant theobromine and also phenylethylamine which stimulates the same hormones as lovemaking. There are also small amounts of a substance called anandamide which acts a bit like cannabis, giving rise to the sensation of well being.
Chocolate triggers the brain to release endorphins, hormones which cause your pulse to speed up and give you a pleasant high feeling, rather like being in love. No wonder that the famous lover in fiction, Casanova, referred to cocoa as the ‘elixir’.
Theobromine and also phenylethylamine in cocoa are also thought to affect levels of mood boosting serotonin, which can ease depression.
Rich in antioxidants
Professor Prentice advises that cocoa beans are rich in flavonoids, antioxidants and polyphenols, the organic compounds found in fruits. They help balance any harmful effects of fat. Antioxidants reduce the formation of free radicals which damage cells. Flavonoids help prevent heart disease and cancer. Cocoa is a good source of the minerals, magnesium, sulphur, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium and some B vitamins which are all needed by the body.
Prof. David Katz of Yale University has also reported that chocolate is rich in antioxidants. He advocates dark , rather than white, as “the predominant saturated fat in dark chocolate does not raise cholesterol or harm blood vessels”.
Small Amounts can protect your Heart
A study of 1,000 Swedish heart attack patients carried out by Swedish researchers from the Karolinska Institute and Uppsala University last year, reported that eating good quality dark chocolate seemed to significantly lower the risk of dying from heart disease. Heart patients who snacked on dark chocolate several times a week cut their risk of dying from heart disease by a factor of three.
Researchers from Yale University found that eating small daily amounts of dark chocolate lowered high blood pressure in their patients and seemed to also have a beneficial effect on their insulin levels.
An Italian study of 5,000 people reported that including dark chocolate in the diet significantly slowed hardening of the arteries, a major cause of heart attacks.