If you’re like me, any new study on the health benefits of chocolate is like music to your ears (or a party in your mouth). But is a little bit of information dangerous?
Let’s look at the pros and cons of chocolate and sort out what type of chocolate is best for your health.
Most of the health benefits of chocolate come from the cocoa beans. They contain antioxidants called OPCs (oligomeric procyanidins) which have protective effects on your blood vessels, keep the blood from clotting in your arteries, lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation (the mechanism behind arteriosclerosis) and prevent oxidation of cholesterol and other mediators involved in the process of cancer. Cocoa solids from the beans also contain the minerals potassium, phosphorus, chromium, iron, magnesium and copper and B vitamins. So far so good.
Chocolate is a good source of phenylethylamine (PEA), a mood-elevating neurotransmitter that has amphetamine-like effects and appears to mimic female endorphins (hence the pre-menstrual and post-breakup choc fests.....). However, PEA can trigger migraine in susceptible people. Cocoa also contains the alkaloids theobromine and caffeine.
The cocoa butter component is predominantly stearic acid, the one saturated fat that won’t raise blood cholesterol. It’s all sounding rather positive isn’t it?
Now for the cautionary tale: chocolate is an energy-dense food with around 50% fat and 30% sugar once it’s in chocolate bar form of any variety. This is great for survival on hiking trips and military tours but not very appropriate for everyday consumption if you’re interested in keeping the weight off. Milk chocolate has milk fat added so although some calcium will be available, the fat component now contributes to high cholesterol. There are also less cocoa solids in milk chocolate, so less of all the goodies listed above. White chocolate has NO cocoa solids and therefore NO health benefits apart from the stearic acid component of the cocoa butter. It also tends to have a lot of sugar added.
So, to eat or not to eat chocolate? The best choice for your health is dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids and less than 30% sugar (look at the nutrition profile on the back of the pack – there needs to be less than 30g sugar per 100g chocolate). Cocoa mass should be the first ingredient listed (all ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration). Around 20g a day will not blow out an otherwise healthy diet but will give you all the benefits discussed above. At the end of the day, it’s not what you do 10% of the time that matters, it’s what you do with the remaining 90%.