It is Chocolate Week here in London, and if we need an excuse to indulge in one of the most loved and popular sweet treats in the world, this is definitely a good one. I know for sure I will be heading to Olympia at the weekend for the Chocolate Show. I hear you asking: ‘Why on earth would a nutritional therapist go to a chocolate show?’ Well, first of all because it is a fun way to spend an hour or two. Last time I went they had amazing chocolate creations on display, the whole place smelt divine and I also got to taste some weird and wonderful combinations -lavender and lime flavoured chocolate truffles anyone?- The real reason is that I actually love chocolate!
A question I often get asked is: can chocolate be good for you? I have great news for you! Yes, chocolate can be good for you, but before you go and stuff yourself with a couple of Kit Kats, wait a minute and read on.
Perhaps I am going to spoil the good news, and your day, now but I am not about to tell you that moderation is key here. You know how some people say ‘yes, well a bit of what you fancy won’t hurt’ and so on. Actually, what does ‘in moderation’ mean anyway? I am sure some people are very self discipline and can open a box of chocolate, eat one, put the box away and forget it in the cupboard for weeks. The reality is that most of us (me included) would happily munch their way through the whole box while watching the news.
So, yes the amount of chocolate you eat is very important but hold this thought for a moment. The most important point is actually the quality of the chocolate you choose to eat.
Chocolate comes from the cacao plant and most specifically from its seeds. Cacao is extremely rich in flavanols which are a type of flavanoids (antioxidants). The studies we hear about which boast of chocolate’s amazing health benefits, are actually referring to the properties of raw cacao rather than the average store-bought sugar and trans fats filled chocolate bar.
So, it is dark chocolate (with a high cocoa content) that is actually quite nutritious and can improve your health. Chocolate with a 75-85% cocoa contains good levels of iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, zinc and selenium. If you swap your milky bar with a few squares of high quality dark chocolate you could benefit from the following:
- Improved blood flow and lower blood pressure: the flavanoids mentioned earlier seem to stimulate the production on Nitric Oxide in the lining of the arteries. This lowers the resistance to blood flow and therefore blood pressure1.
- Better heart health: the antioxidants in cocoa can improve various risk factors for heart disease like lowering LDL cholesterol (the ‘bad’ type) in the blood and reducing insulin resistance2,3.
- Reduced stress: chocolate increases the levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the feel-good chemical which plays a role in positive moods, emotional health and balanced appetite. Low levels of this neurotransmitter are linked to depression, so if you are feeling a bit blue because it’s getting colder and darker out there, add a couple of squares of dark chocolate to your diet and watch your moods improve.
In a nutshell, the higher the cacao content and the lower the sugar, the better. Choose organic if you can, and bear in mind that chocolate also contains caffeine and theomobrine which are stimulants and should not be over consumed.
And the quantities? In case you go around telling everybody I said scoffing chocolate is great for you, I will say it again, it’s just a couple of small squares from time to time not a whole bar in one sitting!
See you at the Chocolate Show!
- Schewe T, Steffen Y, Sies H. ‘How do dietary flavonols improve vascular function? A position paper.’ Archives Biochem Biophys. 2008 Aug 15;476(2):102-6.
- Wan Y et al. ‘Effects of cocoa powder and dark chocolate on LDL oxidative susceptibility and prostaglandin concentrations in humans’. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2001 Nov;74(5):596-602.
- Grassi et al. ‘Blood pressure is reduced and insulin sensitivity increased in glucose-intolerant, hypertensive subjects after 15 days of consuming high-polyphenols dark chocolate’. Journal of Nutrition 138, 1671-1676.