THERE’S NO DENYING IT: FOR MANY OF US CHOCOLATE IS AN ALLURING FOOD
Sometimes there’s nothing better than that first bite of chocolate after a long day, letting it melt in your mouth while you sigh and sink back into the sofa. The heady blend of cocoa, sugar and creaminess is the perfect treat when you feel good, but also when you need to boost your mood.
But is chocolate a good for your body as well as your taste buds? Well the answer is – sometimes.
Good quality dark chocolate is full of antioxidants and a mix of minerals, as well as being linked to lower blood pressure. However, moderation and quality are key; unfortunately you won’t get the same benefits if you’re tucking into highly processed, sugary milk chocolate. Stick with the dark stuff and slow down so that you can listen to how your body responds to discover chocolate that tastes and feels good.
WHERE DOES CHOCOLATE COME FROM?
Let’s start at the beginning. Chocolate has a long and venerable history. There’s a bit of debate about exactly when people first started consuming it, but whatever the exact date, it was definitely in drink format.
The plant that the cocoa beans come from, Theobroma Cacao, is native to Central and South America. The name literally means ‘food of the gods’, so it’s clear that people thought it was something special even from ancient times. Cacao or cocoa beans (you’ll find the names often used interchangeably) start out life as seeds in the fruit of this tree.
The early civilisations best known for their chocolate consumption are the Mayans and Aztecs. The chocolate drink, ‘xocoatl’ , which literally means bitter water, was a common beverage. Roasted cocoa beans were ground before being mixed with spices and water to be consumed as a drink. It wasn’t until chocolate made its way to Spain in the 16th Century that sugar got involved.
In the very early days of chocolate’s popularity in the UK, you could even get a chocolate drink on prescription if you were lucky. Famous botanist and physician, Sir Hans Sloane, was known to prescribe chocolate medicinally on occasion. Alas that doesn’t happen these days, but you’ll be pleased to hear that some chocolate does indeed have health benefits.
WHAT’S IN A BAR OF CHOCOLATE?
Chocolate first made it into bar form in 1847. The UK confectionary company Fry’s discovered that adding some additional cocoa butter helped chocolate hold its shape. This first bar was a mixture of cocoa powder, sugar and a little melted cocoa butter.
To make chocolate these days, the seeds of the cocoa pod are extracted, fermented, dried and roasted. The outer shell is cracked and the inside part, which is now the cocoa bean, is what we want for chocolate. The beans, which are about 50% fat, are ground to make a smooth paste before adding any further ingredients. They can also be pressed to be separated into cocoa powder and cocoa butter (this is the part that’s the fat).
The key ingredients of good quality dark chocolate are:
- ground cocoa beans (sometimes called cocoa mass or liquor),
- a bit of extra cocoa butter,
- sugar; and (normally)
- vanilla and soya or sunflower lecithin.
Small artisan chocolate companies sometimes leave out vanilla and lecithin. Milk chocolate also includes dehydrated milk powder (or milk crumb).
According to the UK’s Academy of Chocolate, for something to be classified as ‘fine’ chocolate (i.e. good quality) it should be at least 60% cocoa content for dark chocolate and 30% for milk. It should also contain no other vegetable fat than cocoa butter, and the quality and source of the cocoa beans are also important.
HOW IS RAW CHOCOLATE RAW?
You may have come across or tried raw chocolate. To be classified as raw, the cocoa beans can’t be roasted. They are normally sundried and the temperature is checked in the grinding stage to make sure it stays under 42° C (though there’s debate about the exact temperature at the fermentation stage). There are some health claims about increased levels of nutrients and antioxidants in raw chocolate, but further research is needed to back up these claims. Raw chocolate also tends to be less ‘snappy’ than regular chocolate.
CACAO POWDER OR COCOA POWDER?
What about cacao powder versus cocoa powder? The one letter does indicate a difference. Cacao is essentially a less processed version of cocoa. In contrast to cacao powder, cocoa powder is normally treated with an alkalizing agent, such as a potassium solution. I also find that cacao does taste a little stronger and more of the actual cocoa bean. I tend to need less of it in baking to get a really chocolaty flavour, but if you can’t get hold of cacao, you can substitute cocoa when baking.
But the question still is – is chocolate any good for you?
THE GOOD NEWS
I’ll start with the really good news. As well as being very tasty in a cup of warm (almond) milk, cocoa is a good source of iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous and zinc. Cocoa also has one of the highest levels of antioxidants per 100g of any food. So yes, cocoa is a big hitter in the health stakes.
Twin studies have even shown that those with high blood-flavonoid levels that come from consuming chocolate, berries and wine have: lower weight, lower blood pressure and a lower risk of diabetes. Yippee!
There is also evidence that cocoa reduces risk factors for the heart. There’s an island off the coast of Panama whose residents drink five cups of cocoa a day and have much lower rates of age-related hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure).
These particular residents drink a cocoa which is particularly high in flavonoids. Flavonoids are part of the antioxidant group called polyphenols. These are also what you find in nuts and olives. Flavonoids have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which mean they protect the body from free radicals. However even normal cocoa can has benefits, as a similar trend was seen amongst a group of older cocoa-drinking Dutch men in the 1990s.
You might have noticed that I’ve said cocoa, not chocolate. To get the full hit of benefits you really need to be consuming to good quality cocoa, cacao nibs (the broken up bits of cocoa beans) and very dark chocolate.
In fact, the darker (and the less sugar) the better as far as the health side of things goes. You can actually get 100% cocoa chocolate, though I recommend shopping around as some are delicious and others can taste a bit like cocoa dirt. If you live in the UK / Europe, I recommend trying Åkesson’s 100% Criollo Dark Chocolate, Seaforth Dominican Republic 100% or Zotter’s Labooko 100% Peru.
Fortunately even if you’re naturally a sweet toothed person, you can train your taste buds to appreciate and even enjoy dark chocolate if you’re willing to give it a go. Just start with a little at a time and go on a bit of a journey of discovery to find one that suits your palate.
THE NOT SO GOOD NEWS
Before you start rushing off to scoff down chocolate bars, there is a bit of a caveat. I mentioned above that the dark chocolate is really the one with the benefits. The bog standard Cadbury’s Dairy Milk has only 26% cocoa in it and contains a lot of refined sugar along with non-cocoa butter vegetable fats.
Fortunately you can buy higher percentage cocoa milk chocolate; if jumping straight into dark chocolate is a bit too much, choosing a milk chocolate with significantly more cocoa could be a good way to start. If you’re looking for somewhere to start:
– Hotel Chocolat has a 65% cocoa percent Supermilk range
– Friis Holm offer a good range of dark milk chocolate; and
– Jordi’s have created a bar of milk chocolate with a whopping 74% cocoa.
Some studies have suggested that dairy may inhibit the absorption of antioxidants from cacao, so if you are planning to make lovely hot cocoa you might want to try it with non-dairy milk and not heat it up too much.
The other thing to be aware of is that some chocolate bars, milk and dark, contain not-so-good-for-you ingredients. If you spot vegetable oil or palm oil, it’s a sign that it’s not the best quality chocolate. The same thing goes for any E numbers or funny alternative names for sugar, for example maltodextrin. To be honest, I’ve found that once you start eating much better chocolate you can lose the taste for some of the cheaper stuff that you used to love.
As to whether chocolate is good for you personally, it’s also important to pay attention when you taste food and to listen to your body. Some people find that chocolate can trigger migraines. Also, if you have digestive issues and are following a low FODMAP diet, fatty foods can aggravate digestion so you may prefer to avoid chocolate.
One other slight warning: if you’re sensitive to caffeine you might want to stay away from dark chocolate late at night. Dark chocolate contains low levels of caffeine, plus 2 other stimulants: theobromine and phenethylamine. A couple of squares can help you stay awake if you’re flagging in the middle of an afternoon, but may not be so great when you’re trying to get to sleep.
SOME OTHER FUN CHOCOLATY FACS…
- There is some truth that certain people react more strongly to chocolate than others. A 2007 study showed that the brains of chocolate lovers reacted very differently to those classified as ‘non-cravers’. There’s also some evidence that obese people may have even greater sensitivity to the smell of chocolate than skinny ones.
- Chocolate is an incredibly complex food with hundreds of flavour compounds. It’s even more complex than wine! This means you can have lots of fun matching it with other foods that have complimentary flavour notes. I dare you to try a bit of dark chocolate and black olive.
- EU Regulations stipulate that ‘chocolate’ must contain at least 25% cocoa and contain real milk. Will this maybe change chocolate in post-Brexit UK? Maybe the UK will have its own br-ocolate.
- Countries with a greater consumption of chocolate have produced more Nobel laureates. Unfortunately we don’t actually know if the prize winners themselves ate chocolate – or too much more about other lifestyle factors – so I’m not sure we can count chocolate as brain food just yet.
SO, FINALLY, IS CHOCOLATE GOOD FOR YOU?
Overall there are many health benefits connected to eating chocolate – if you’re eating sensible amounts of the good quality dark type, and possibly milk chocolate, with a higher cocoa content.
Some tips for cheerful chocolate consumption:
- As with all foods, chocolate should be part of a balanced diet. Moderation is the key word and most recommendations suggest sticking with 25g-40g a day. Unfortunately you can’t really count chocolate as one of your 5 a day, even if it does start life as a fruit. However if you’re also eating plenty of fresh vegetables and whole foods, a few squares of dark chocolate are a good addition.
- Aim for chocolate with higher percentages of cocoa and get to know the brands that care about where their beans come from.
- Read labels carefully and look for chocolate without all the additives. The only fat contained in chocolate should be cocoa butter and avoid anything with E numbers or ‘flavourings’.
- Most importantly, listen to your body and see how it feels after eating chocolate. Completely ‘banning’ foods that you love can be a disaster, but rather than chomping down on an entire large bar of Galaxy, slow down, take the time to taste, and, over time, try to introduce a little more dark chocolate into your life.
NHS Choices http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/superfoods/Pages/is-chocolate-a-superfood.aspx
Tim Spector The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat 2015 (p 206)
Deanna Pucciarelli Cocoa and Heart Health: A Historical Review of the Science http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3820048/
Mauro Serafini et al Plasma antioxidants from chocolate 2003 http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v424/n6952/abs/4241013a.html
ET Rolls, C McCabe Enhanced affective brain representations of chocolate in cravers vs. non-cravers 2007 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17714197
Tim Spector The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat 2015 (p 206)
Franz Messerli Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates 2012