Easter is approaching and that means Chocolate Easter eggs – but you may not be worried because, around this time, the newspapers will probably start telling you that Chocolate is good for you. Most of the rest of the year, of course, it’s bad for you. Funny that! I’ve just looked at one story, printed in a British national newspaper (so it must be true!) that chocolate should be seen as a so-called ‘superfood’.
[Stop Press: Another story emerged today reporting a ‘new study’ which found that people who eat chocolate several times a week tend to be slimmer than those who eat it only occasionally! What did I tell you? Why should that be reported two days before Easter, I wonder!]
Is chocolate healthy? What’s the truth?
THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF CHOCOLATE
The main health claims for chocolate are based on the following facts:
- chocolate contains a type of flavonoid, called catechins, which are thought to be beneficial in a number of ways, including the production of anti-oxidants which reduce ageing caused by free radicals
- chocolate contains Vitamins, including B1, B2, D & E and is high in the minerals potassium and magnesium
- mood benefits due to the presence of serotonin, which is thought to aid against Depression and Anxiety, and the stimulation of endorphins which give a feeling of pleasure
- it tastes good
Furthermore, some of the bad things aren’t quite as bad as you might expect:
- 2/3 of the fat in premium grade dark chocolate is not unhealthy. Only 1 of the 3 fats (Palmitic Acid) in chocolate is thought to raise cholesterol. Of the other 2, one (Oleic Acid) is a healthy mono-unsaturate and the other (Stearic Acid), though a saturated fat, does not seem to raise cholesterol levels. (In any case, there is evidence to suggest that the evil-isation (made up word) of saturated fat is somewhat exaggerated, but that’s for another post).
- Doesn’t cause acne
- Despite the sugar content, chocolate is less likely to cause tooth decay than most other sugary treats, due to the presence of minerals which help to protect them.
What are flavonoids, when they’re at home?
They may sound like something you should use a cream for, but they are substances which are contained in most plants and serve a number of purposes. They are classified as pigments and are responsible for colour of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Other dietary sources of flavonoids are fruits, soybean, tea (green and black) and red wine.
What do flavonoids do?
In the body, it is thought that just some of the properties flavonoids have include the following:
- powerful anti-oxidant
- reduce blood pressure
- help fight cancer
- lower heart disease
It is often cited as an explanation of the so-called ‘French paradox’; the fact that French people have a lower incidence of heart disease than other Europeans in spite of a diet higher in cholesterol, is put down to the flavonoid-containing red wine which often accompanies a French meal.
The flavonoids in chocolate are mainly catechins, part of the flavanol sub-group of flavonoids. Research indicates that patients who ate fruits and vegetables containing certain flavonoids, including catechins, may have reduced chances of getting lung cancer.
Another main benefit of the flavonoids in chocolate seems to be as for their anti-oxidant properties. Anti-oxidants can reduce damage by free-radicals, unstable atoms which are partly responsible for many illness and contribute to the effects of ageing.
There’s got to be a catch!
There is, however, another side to the story…
THE HEALTH CONCERNS ABOUT CHOCOLATE
- Firstly, what benefits there are come from the raw cacao (or cocoa). The higher the percentage of cacao in the chocolate, the better
- Furthermore, it has been found that the presence of milk negates the benefits of the anti-oxidant properties of catechins.
- So the milk that is added to make milk chocolate, pretty much wipes out any benefits you’re looking for. White chocolate is even worse.
- Chocolates other than of the premium dark variety also tend to contain more unhealthy fats from sources other than cocoa butter and do carry an increased risk of cardiovascular problems. If you go further down the cocoa scale to chocolates with a very low cocoa content, very high sugar content, added corn syrup and the dreaded hydrogenated oils, all ideas about chocolate as a healthy food are well and truly out of the window.
- Many health professionals would argue that the detrimental effects of the sugar in almost all commercial chocolates will do more harm than the positive effects of any flavonoids.
The only commercial chocolate which can claim any health benefits therefore is premium quality dark chocolate.
- Another problem is that chocolate is high in Copper.
High levels of copper in the body, called Copper Overload, can lead to a number of health problems including vascular degeneration and many cancers. Ironically, the downside of the more ‘healthy’ chocolate is that:
more cacao = more copper so the ‘healthy’ chocolate is the worst offender.
So Is Chocolate good for you? Conclusions
The truth is that anyone who stuffs themselves with large quantities of chocolate and tries to convince themselves it’s ok, ‘cause it’s a healthy ‘superfood’ is kidding themselves. This also goes for the ‘new study’ I mentioned at the start.
[Why are you ignoring this study? I hear you ask. Because, at the moment, even assuming the link is genuine, it’s just a link – a starting place for proper research. There is no more reason to conclude that eating more chocolate makes people thinner than there is to conclude that being thinner makes people eat more chocolate!]
The lower grade chocolate cannot make any health claims whatsoever, while the healthiest form of chocolate is raw cacao, as long as you don’t have copper overload. There may indeed be some truth in the benefits of raw cacao, but it is still better in moderation and, on its own, tastes rather bitter. However, Cocoa powder can be used to make cocoa drinks or added an an ingredient to other foods (while avoiding adding milk products).
You could try making your own chocolates, using only raw chocolate and cocoa butter and possibly replacing sugar with something more healthy, such as stevia.
Otherwise, eating a small amount of premium dark chocolate every so often may do you some good but, in truth, it is probably better to enjoy it for what it is, a pleasurable indulgence. Just don’t overdo it.
Are you disappointed? What do you think? Please let me know by leaving a comment below.