Is chocolate really good for you?

Is chocolate really good for you?

What are the health benefits of chocolate – and is it truly good for you?

We all turn to some form of chocolate for comfort, joy, celebration: dark chocolate bars, chocolate chip cookies, freshly baked hot fudge brownies, oozing molten lava cakes, rich and velvety chocolate cake… (insert personal chocolatey weakness). Let’s just say if you think chocolate is heavenly, you’re not alone.

But chocolate has gained a bad rep for the longest time I can remember: we often describe it as sinful, decadent, indulgent; all of which point to negative health connotations. We also associate obesity with chocolate and sweet treats. Despite this, there have been many scientific studies that found that eating chocolate can bring you a good number of associated health benefits.

Healthy or not – in this article, we break down 6 health facts about chocolate for you.

1. Chocolate is made and processed from nutritious raw cacao.

Its scientific name, Theobroma cacao, literally translates to “food of the gods” in Greek. [1] Cacao has been used for thousands of years and also used as medicine by ancient Mayans, to treat a range of medical ailments including chest pains, stomach fevers, diarrhoea and kidney issues. [2] Raw cacao is one the most nutrition dense foods on the planet – packed with B-vitamins, magnesium, sulfur, iron and rich in antioxidants which is good for heart health. It can be harvested from pods which grow directly on the cacao tree in its most natural, raw form. [3]

Cocoa is produced when you apply high heat to melt down raw cacao. In other words, cocoa – the more processed version of cacao – is the basic ingredient you’ll find in most chocolates sold at your nearby supermarket.

2. Choose the dark side

A lot of store-bought chocolate are processed and loaded with sugar. That’s because flavanol-rich cocoa has a strong bitter taste, so candy brands go on to load it with lots of sugars, milk solids and fat to make it the delicious, commercially successful milk chocolate treat you know.

And if you didn’t know – white chocolate is technically not chocolate because it doesn’t contain cocoa solids. When you melt down cocoa, it can be separated into cocoa solids (chocolate bits) and cocoa butter (the fat). White chocolate is typically made of a blend of sugar, milk products, lecithin and cocoa butter.

Moral of story? Go for dark chocolate – rich in cocoa solids which contain flavanols and plenty of antioxidants. In fact, multiple studies have shown that cocoa contains 20x more antioxidants than blueberries. [4]

Go as dark as you can – pick chocolate with cocoa listed as the first ingredient, with 65% or higher cocoa content to enjoy the health benefits of chocolate. It’s also best to choose dark chocolate made of as few ingredients as possible and make sure to watch out for the added sugars!

3. Flavanols in chocolate are associated with heart health

Studies have found that flavanols in cocoa has anti-inflammatory properties which protects our bodies against pathological conditions, most specifically associated with lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases. [5] Flavanoids are are naturally occurring plant-derived antioxidants found abundantly in some fruits, vegetables, tea and red wine.

A large scale study involving more than 100,000 people conducted by University of Cambridge PhD holder Oscar Franco showed that eating chocolate can be associated with a 37% lower risk of heart disease and a 29% lower risk of stroke. His findings were also published at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in 2011. [6]

Flavanols have also been shown to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, prevent blood clots and fight cell damage. [7]

4. Chocolate can – ironically – reduce your risk of diabetes

Studies have found that flavanols in chocolate can also help reduce your risk of diabetes. Eating chocolate was associated with not only reduced blood pressures and improved endothelial functions, it also improved insulin sensitivity.  [8]

The sugar glucose level in our blood is controlled by a hormone called insulin. High insulin sensitivity allows the cells in our body to breakdown and use blood glucose more effectively, hence reducing our blood sugar levels – an important yardstick for diabetes mellitus. Studies also showed that the flavanols in chocolate can help slow the progression of Type 2 diabetes.

If you’re diabetic, talk to your doctor about flavanol intake – you may want to try incorporating a few ounces of dark chocolate in your diet – free of ANY added sugars of course!

Also Read: Singapore’s war on diabetes: How can I prevent it from happening to me?

5. Your chocoholic habits may play a role in cancer prevention.

Cancer is caused by free radicals in the body that accumulate over the years as a result of aging, UV exposure, chemical exposure, etc. There is a growing consensus that chocolate, being an antioxidant-rich food, is able to combat these free radicals, protecting the body against cancer. [9]

Studies have found in general that dark chocolate contains anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce inflammation in the body; but evidence is still insufficient to determine if chocolate can really help reduce your risk of cancer.

6. Chocolate is food for your brain, improving cognitive functions

Other than being established as good for the heart, studies have also shown that chocolate is also good for the brain. [9]

For any nutrients to have effect on our brain, antioxidants will need to cross the blood-brain barrier and studies have suggested that flavonoids can cross this barrier and are likely to effect a positive action on the brain, including cognition. Studies have also shown increased brain signals after consumption of a flavanol-rich cocoa drink. All in all, flavanols in chocolate have been showed to effect a more efficient perfusion of blood to neural tissues. [10]

Consumption of dark chocolate has also been linked with helping to prevent neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. [11]

As you can see, chocolate can give you quite an array of health benefits provided you pick out high quality, cocoa-rich chocolate that is least processed as much as possible. Not all chocolate are made equal. As a rule of thumb, choose dark chocolate which contains little to no added sugars or compounds. When it comes to ingredient labels, the fewer there are listed the better.

4 things to look out for on your ingredient labels while shopping for chocolate:

  • High in cocoa: contains >65% cocoa
  • Little to no added sugar
  • No unnecessary ingredients: avoid chocolate that contains transfat, milk, artificial flavorings and other unnecessary ingredients.
  • Yes to organic ingredients: more likely to be high quality and pesticide-free

At the same time, bear in mind that chocolate is still a calorie-rich and high-fat food that can lead to weight gain and is also known to be heaty and associated with problems such as acne. [12]

Also Read: 5 signs that tell you that it’s time to see a dermatologist for your acne

It is also known to be associated with gastroesophageal acid reflux, as foods with high fat content and methylxanthine can cause the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) – a valve-like muscle – to relax, releasing stomach acid back into the esophagus. [13] If you are prone to this condition and find that chocolate is a trigger food for you, then you probably should stay away from it.

Otherwise, fully embrace your chocolatey dreams to boost your mood and your health – just be very picky about the kind you indulge in if you truly want to reap health benefits from chocolate. If not, recognise it as a sweet treat and dessert that it is and eat your favourite chocolate in moderation. Happy World Chocolate Day!

References:

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica. Cacao, from https://www.britannica.com/plant/cacao

[2] Thompson H. (2015). Healers Once Prescribed Chocolate Like Aspirin, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/healers-once-prescribed-chocolate-aspirin-180954189/#:~:text=But%20chocolate%20has%20been%20used,the%20University%20of%20California%2C%20Davis.

[3] Science News for Students. Increasingly, chocolate-makers turn to science, from https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/increasingly-chocolate-makers-turn-science

[4] Healthline. Best Dark Chocolate: The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/dark-chocolate-buyers-guide

[5] Galleano M., Oteiza P. I., Fraga C. G.(2010).  Cocoa, chocolate and cardiovascular disease. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol. 2009 Dec; 54(6): 483–490. doi: 10.1097/FJC.0b013e3181b76787

[6] Laino C. (2011) Chocolate Good for the Heart, from https://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/news/20110829/chocolate-good-for-the-heart#1

[7] Goodman, H. (2015). Cocoa: a sweet treat for the brain? Havard Health Publishing, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/cocoa-sweet-treat-brain-201502057676#:~:text=Flavanols%20in%20cocoa%20have%20been,clots%2C%20and%20fight%20cell%20damage.

[8] Katz D. L., Doughty K., Ali A. (2011). Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2011 Nov 15; 15(10): 2779–2811. doi: 10.1089/ars.2010.3697

[9] Medical News Today (2019). What are the health benefits of dark chocolate?, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324747#anti-inflammatory-effects

[10] Phaniendra A., Jestadi D. B., Periyasamy L. (2015). Free Radicals: Properties, Sources, Targets, and Their Implication in Various Diseases. Indian J Clin Biochem. 2015 Jan; 30(1): 11–26. Published online 2014 Jul 15. doi: 10.1007/s12291-014-0446-0

[11] Nehlig A. (2013). The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3575938/

[12] Vongraviopap S., Asawanonda. P. (2016). Dark Chocolate Exacerbates Acne. Int J Dermatol. 2016 May;55(5):587-91. doi: 10.1111/ijd.13188. Epub 2015 Dec 29.

[13] Medical News Today (2019). Chocolate and acid reflux: What’s the link?, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325318#summary

[14] Life Enriching Communities. How Much Dark Chocolate Can I Eat A Day?, from https://lec.org/blog/how-much-dark-chocolate-can-i-eat-every-day/#:~:text=The%20recommended%20%E2%80%9Cdose%E2%80%9D%20is%20approximately,Chocolate%20Bar%20has%20190%20calories.

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