World Chocolate Day: The health benefits of chocolate

World chocolate day celebrates this delicious, healthy and irreplaceable treat!

Chocolate is made from the fruit of cacao trees native to Central and South America. The fruit pods each contain around 40 cacao beans which are dried, roasted and grinded into its powdered form. Whilst thought to exist for 2000 years, chocolate was only brought to Europe in the 1600’s, served as a drink sweetened with honey, sugar or cinnamon to counter its bitter
taste. It was a delicacy of royalty and aristocracy, but it took another 300 years before the first solid chocolate bar was produced in the UK in 1847, by chocolatier J.S. Fry and Sons.

Health Benefits

Dark chocolate that contains at least 85% cocoa is considered beneficial for our health. It contains minerals, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds to fight inflammation and protect against cell damage caused by free radicals, created when the body and brain uses oxygen in our metabolic systems.

Dark chocolate is an excellent source of magnesium, iron and zinc, needed to make energy, support our immune system and support muscle and nerve function. Iron deficiency anemia is common in the UK amongst women and vegetarians, so chocolate can be a useful source of iron. And whilst exact mechanisms are not fully understood, magnesium has been linked to improved insulin sensitivity helping to manage blood sugar, and may lower risk of depression.

Theobromine is a plant chemical similar in structure to caffeine, with high levels in dark chocolate, and epicatechin is part of the plant chemical group called flavonoids. Research has shown beneficial effects of these compounds by lowering blood pressure and improved blood flow, supporting cardiovascular and brain function.

Theobromine may also widen the body’s airways and relax smooth muscle tissue in the lungs, increasing airflow to the lungs and act as a cough suppressant. Because of it’s stimulatory properties of theobromine, you may feel a physical and mental energy boost, though milder than a caffeine hit. These two benefits combined make it a good choice for athletes or before an intense workout.

Too much of a good thing?

However, we are surrounded by milk chocolate that has added milk powder and sugar. In the UK, the minimum cacao solid content in milk chocolate must be 25%, however in the US, this is only 10%. White chocolate is made just of (minimum 20%) cocoa butter, milk and sugar.

This can make commercial chocolate bars high in calories, saturated fat and sugar. Consuming excess calories is an ever growing problem with two thirds of the adult population overweight or obese, and the increasing issue of Type 2 diabetes which is preceded by high blood glucose and insulin. Your average 50g chocolate bar provides around 250 calories, 10-15g fat, half the calories from fat and half from sugar, so if you need to watch your weight, try reducing the quantity of chocolate, or switch to a higher percentage of cocoa, to reduce the sugar content. Your taste buds will gradually adjust over time to the reduced sugar load.

Tooth decay is also still a problem, affecting 23% of 5 year olds in the UK. Reducing sugar particularly as snacks between meals alongside regular teeth brushing are essential, and whilst healthier alternatives to chocolate such as fruit still contain a form of sugar, natural foods are often bound with additional fibre, vitamins and minerals that are much less likely in processed foods.

Chocolate is a well known trigger food for some migraine sufferers, thought to be due to natural compounds of tyramine, histamine, and phenylalanine within cocoa. Chocolate can also trigger acid reflux by relaxation of the oesophageal sphincter, which acts as a barrier to stomach acid entering the oesophagus. Whilst antacid medications may relieve acute symptoms of reflux or heartburn, over time these medications can impact the quality of digestion and are meant as short term relief.

So, as with many things in life, chocolate in moderation can be a healthy choice, but where possible choose the highest possible cocoa content you can enjoy. Cultivate a habit to check the food labels of your favourite products to compare the sugar and fat content, you might be surprised by the differences.

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