Ok, so one of the principles that I have regarding this blog is that all my research and information must be objective and non-biased but I must admit that when it came to chocolate I found myself secretly hoping that the facts will demonstrate that chocolate is not as bad as some people make it out to be. After all, life without chocolate just isn’t worth living, right? Let’s see what I have discovered.
We all know that chocolate is pretty high in fat and sugar. But are there any compounds in chocolate that are beneficial to your health?
Yes, cocoa beans contain antioxidants – the chemicals that help fight cell damage. In fact, cocoa contains more phenolic antioxidants that most foods! The ones in chocolate are called flavonoids and they are to blame for the bitter taste of cocoa. This is a hint – the more bitter (or dark) the chocolate is, the more antioxidants it contains.
What is the difference between milk, dark and white chocolate? When cocoa beans are processed they end up divided into cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Dark chocolate has lots of cocoa solids and cocoa butter and some sugar, but little or no milk. As you may know, dark chocolate comes in various percentage depending on the amount of cocoa in it. Milk chocolate contains a lot of milk and sugar as well as smaller quantities of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. White chocolate is basically milk chocolate without any cocoa solids, which is the part that includes all the antioxidants so it doesn’t provide any benefits associated with them.
Dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure but what is behind this data? Looking at the studies in this area was quite frustrating as there seems to be a lot of contradicting information and many studies are done on very small samples. Can you really draw any valid conclusions if you have only tested the effects on 28 people and half of them were in control group? That can be very misleading that’s usually how you get the “sensational headlines” in the papers. I glanced at these articles but focused on the more serious studies for the purposes of this post.
100g of dark chocolate per day can reduce blood pressure by 5.1/1.8mmHg, which apparently is equivalent of reducing the risk of heart attack or stroke by 21%. Sounds great but in the study the participants were taking the chocolate for 2 weeks only and their blood pressure returned to pre-study level 2 days after they stopped. The problem is if you have a 100g of chocolate every day regularly the amount of sugar and fat you consume will counteract any positive effect of the cocoa. There are a few studies that show correlation between chocolate consumption and decreased risk level of cardiac disease but it’s associated with much smaller portions of dark chocolate and, subsequently, the effects are smaller. There is some evidence that increasing the amount of chocolate consumed reversed the positive effect.
Chocolate has been known to lift your mood. It increases brain levels of several chemicals which cause a mild buzz and also contains tryptophan which is converted into serotonin in the brain – the “feel good” hormone. Looking through scientific research though, it appears that this only works when you are in a bad mood (so no increase if you are already feeling ok or happy) and the effect is very short-lived, as little as 3 minutes (!). The question is, is it worth it?
Chocolate contains a few micronutrients, such as calcium (naturally milk chocolate has more), magnesium, iron, copper, selenium and vitamin E in decent amounts.
So what about the harm?
Sugar and fat.
Milk chocolate tends to have over 50% sugar which is really high. The recommended daily amount (RDA) of total sugar varies from 30g to “no more than 90g” (check out my sugar post to understand what makes it unhealthy) so if you have half a standard 100g milk chocolate bar you have pretty much met the lower RDA. And that’s without having any pudding, fruit, juice, fizzy drinks, store bought sauces (including ketchup that is really high in sugar), ready-made meals and “low-fat” products that tend to be higher in sugar as well. Dark chocolate is healthier in that respect but it generally becomes less palatable the higher the percentage of cocoa goes.
Now let’s talk about fat. Fat gets a really bad name due to a lot of unhealthy foods containing high amounts of it. But we shouldn’t forget that fat is essential for us and it must be a part of a healthy diet (check out my post about fat to learn what type of fat is good for you). Chocolate contains about 30% fat, but what kind of fat is it? A large part of it is steraic acid. Steraic acid is not atherogenic, i.e. it doesn’t increase the risk of coronary heart disease. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee specifically acknowledged its unusual nature and has recommended that it be considered separately from cholesterol-raising fats. A little victory for us chocolate lovers here!
Nonetheless, high amounts of sugar and fat make chocolate a very calorie dense food. A square of chocolate contains about 25 calories which is similar to half an apple. Obviously this varies a lot as there are so many different types of chocolate but it’s rarely less.
You can reap all the health benefits of cocoa beans without the downsides by using cocoa or cacao powders. That only applies for the ones without added sugar or “Dutch processing” that removes a large part of the antioxidants. You can add these powders to baking or smoothies to create the chocolatey flavour. The only problem is that these powders are not very palatable (they are bitter!) but I suppose if you add it to something naturally sweet, like a fruit smoothie, it’s a good compromise of health benefits and flavour.
It looks like cocoa solids is the part of chocolate that has some health benefits such as antioxidant qualities and reducing blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease but when you consume it in the form of milk chocolate the benefits are small and are outweighed by the negative effects of sugar. The best way to experience the gorgeous chocolate flavour is either by taking small amount of higher percentage dark chocolate or by adding cocoa/cacao powder to other foods. Any other chocolate you enjoy should be viewed as a treat and consumed in small amounts taking into consideration the sugar quantities and caloric density.