Health benefits associated with chocolate are among the most published scientific findings in the news, probably due to the fact that we all want to hear that out favourite indulgence may in fact be good for us. Most of us would like to have a legitimate reason to add a little more chocolate to our diets, so hearing that chocolate is good for the heart and contains healthy antioxidants is just what we want to hear, (funnily enough the benefits of red wine also get a lot of press coverage!).
The good news is, there is a large amount of scientific evidence to support the beneficial effect of chocolate on the cardiovascular system. However, not all chocolate is created equal and it is important to choose the right type, the darker the better, to get the cardio protective effects. It is also essential to remember that despite its apparent health benefits, chocolate is a high calorie and fat food, and therefore is likely to contribute to weight gain if eaten in excess. Weight gain is linked to a higher risk of heart disease and other lifestyle diseases, so being overweight is likely to undo any benefits that are received from a healthy dose of chocolate.
Why is dark chocolate good for us?
Dark chocolate, particularly varieties that are less processed, are high in compounds called flavanoids. These are found in fruit and vegetables and have a role in protecting plants against environmental toxins. The main type of flavanoid found in cocoa bean and therefore chocolate are flavanols. These are also found in high levels in foods such as cranberries, apples, peanuts, onions, tea and red wine.
What are the effects of Flavanols?
Flavanols act as antioxidants and are thought to protect the body against damaging effects caused by free radicals. Free radicals are generated by the body by normal processes, but are also present in environmental contaminants. If free radical levels are too high in the body, and there are not enough antioxidants present to offset the oxidation caused by these compounds, damage can occur to the body. This can cause changes such as cholesterol forming on the walls of blood vessels or even cancer.
Various studies have found that flavanols not only function as antioxidants and have a role in protecting the heart, but may also have other beneficial effects such as lowering blood pressure, lowering risk of blood clots and improving blood flow to vital organs.
Dark chocolate that is high in flavanols is thought to be beneficial in:
- Lowering blood pressure
- Decreasing risk of cardiovascular disease- the same decrease as was found with doing 30minutes of exercise daily over five years.
- Lowering blood sugar levels
- Lowering ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol
- Increasing ‘good’ HDL cholesterol
- Increasing blood flow to the skin, and therefore improving skin integrity
- Possibly decreasing the sensitivity of skin to UV light.
Why is dark chocolate better than other varieties?
Flavanols are present in large amounts in cocoa beans and give cocoa its very strong, almost bitter taste. During the processing of commercial chocolate, several steps take place to reduce this flavour as it is deemed unpalatable, and in fact bears little resemblance to the sweet taste of chocolate that most people are used to. By the time the beans have been fermented, alkalized and roasted, most of the flavanols have been lost.
It is widely believe that dark chocolate contains the highest level of these flavanols, due to the higher cocoa content. However, recently it has been suggested that in fact some dark chocolates may be lower in flavanols than some milk varieties if they are overly processed. However, from the supermarket shelves it is impossible to tell which chocolates are processed more than others, hence from a consumer perspective, the best choice is still likely to be dark chocolate with the highest percentage of cocoa possible, particularly when compared to milk chocolates that has a high percentage of fat and sugar. When choosing cocoa powders, the less processed the better is once again the rule, as the alkalizing Dutch processing used in many commercial cocoa powders has also been shown to decrease flavanols.
White chocolate and milk chocolate generally exhibit lower amounts of flavanols due to their lower cocoa content. It has also been suggested that milk may interfere with the absorption of antioxidants from chocolate, so chocolates such as milk and white, which contain high levels of milk solids are likely to have less beneficial effects.
Does fat in chocolate undo protective effects from antioxidants?
Chocolate is high in fat, but it has been suggested that this fat is not as harmful to the body as once thought. In good quality chocolate, the fat comes from cocoa butter and contains heart healthy oleic acids, as well as unhealthy saturated fats, stearic and palmitic acids. Saturated fats are known to increase unhealthy LDL cholesterol; however, research is now suggesting that stearic acid appears to have no effect on cholesterol. Palmitic acid however, does raise cholesterol levels, but as this is only one third of the fat in chocolate, the effects may not be as bad as was originally proposed.
How much is too much?
Since chocolate is high in fat, some of which can contribute to increased LDL cholesterol levels, as well as high in calories, it is not wise to start bingeing on large amounts of chocolate, even if it does have some benefits. A high intake of chocolate is likely to contribute to weight gain, which is a strong risk factor for heart disease, so some caution must be taken.
Unfortunately, there is no established healthy serving size for chocolate that gives enough flavanols to offer health benefits but minimizes weight gain and negative effects of saturated fats. The normal recommendation is a moderate intake of chocolate of around one ounce a few times per week. It is also essential that this is dark chocolate, not a highly processed milk chocolate bar filled with caramel and nuts. These types of chocolate are much higher in fat and calories and are less likely to give any health benefits due to lower cocoa content. Try to swap another sweet treat for a small amount of dark chocolate, so as to minimize the additional calories.
Remember to include other high flavanoid foods, such as apples, tea and red wine in your diet in addition to chocolate for maximum benefits. Fruit, vegetables and tea provide more flavanoids than chocolate and are also packed full of vitamins and minerals, low in calories and virtually fat free. See also: Healthy alternatives to chocolate less than 100 calories
References used in this article.