Chocolate (made from the Theobroma cacao tree seeds) is thought to date back to the Olmec civilization in Mesoamerica over 3,000 years ago.
Ever since, demand for chocolate has boomed with billions indulging in its sweet rich taste.
It is often considered to be the ultimate comfort food, mood changer and romantic gesture, and has recently been touted as a health food.
But is any of this really healthy – especially since overindulging in chocolate and other sweet foods can cause weight gain and instill a sense of guilt in some people?
Here, Rob Hobson, a leading registered nutritionist and author of Cheats & Eats, takes a look at how much good chocolate will do for our health this Easter – and how to make it even healthier.
In moderation, cocoa can be wondrous for overall health, Rob Hobson explains
Health benefits of chocolate
It’s not all about self-indulgence, guilt and overweight as research suggests there may be many positive health benefits to eating chocolate, which includes your heart and brain.
The health benefits stem from cocoa and not chocolate as such, which is made by adding sugar and fat.
The rawest forms of cocoa are cocoa powder and raw cacao, which contain the greatest concentration of goodness without the added sugar.
Attributing any health benefits to chocolate means sticking with dark varieties that contain more than 70 percent cocoa.
Cocoa is a rich source of minerals including magnesium (helps to maintain healthy bones and promote muscle relaxation), iron (helps to maintain healthy red blood cell production) and zinc (helps to make new cells in the body).
You’ll also find more antioxidants in cocoa than almost any other food on the planet.
These antioxidants are called flavanols and are at the root of many of the findings from research linking cocoa to disease protection, some of which has shown to be promising.
Advances in innovation have seen a rise in functional chocolate products with added health benefits, adding ‘super fruit’ acai and even probiotics.
EXPLAINED: THE CHOCOLATE-HEALTH DEBATE
There’s a lot of evidence that cocoa may provide significant health benefits, most of which appear to be focused on cardiovascular disease but that doesn’t make chocolate a healthy food.
To make chocolate, cocoa is mixed with sugar and fat, which can easily outweigh the benefits if eaten in excess.
Including raw cacao or cocoa powder in your diet will offer the greatest benefit as they both contain the highest concentration of minerals and flavanol antioxidants without the added sugar.
However, when you’re looking for a sweet treat and only chocolate will do the trick then choosing dark with at least 70 percent cocoa is definitely a better choice.
How does it affect… mood?
Cocoa increases the levels of several chemicals in the brain that are linked to mood.
Phenylethylamine (PEA) is one such chemical that has been shown to boost mood as does tryptophan that is converted to the ‘feel good’ hormone serotonin.
Cocoa also contains theobromine, which is similar in effect to caffeine but without the jittery side-effects.
These three chemicals together may explain why chocolate is considered to be so addictive.
How does it affect… heart disease?
The flavanols in cocoa are thought to dilate the arteries, which improves elasticity and may reduce the risk of heart attack.
The effect of these antioxidants is also thought to be similar to aspirin in that they help to thin the blood and prevent unwanted clots with research showing that the effect after drinking a cup of cocoa lasting more than six hours.
Findings from a large analysis of seven studies carried out by researchers at Cambridge University found that both men and women with the highest intake of cacao/dark chocolate were 37 percent less likely to suffer with coronary heart disease and 29 percent less likely to experience a stroke compared to those with the lowest intakes.
How does it affect… blood pressure?
Research around blood pressure stems from islanders of Kuna that don’t appear to develop high blood pressure as they get older, which is in part attributed to the high amounts of cocoa they consume on a daily basis.
It was noticed that once thy left the island and consumed less cocoa they lost the protective effect on blood pressure.
The link between cocoa and blood pressure is that the flavanols it contains increase the availability of nitric oxide in the blood, which dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure.
Researchers from Adelaide University found that drinking cocoa (rich in flavanols) significantly lowers blood pressure when compared to a flavanol-free placebo drink.
How does it affect… brain health?
According to findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine, countries with the high consumption of chocolate produce more Nobel Prize winners per head of population than those eating less but this doesn’t mean chocolate makes you brainy!
Various studies have shown that drinking cocoa at least five days of the week boosts the flow of blood to the parts of the brain that help with cognition and can improve performance and alertness.
The antioxidants in cocoa also help to neutralize the low-grade inflammation associated with ‘foggy’ thoughts.
Studies of older people that are mentally impaired have found that those who regularly drank cocoa had greater improvements in memory and verbal reasoning than those who did not.
It’s for this reason that cocoa has been of interest to researchers investigating dementia.
Revealed: How you can squeeze cocoa into everyday foods to make them HEALTHIER
Adding cocoa powder or raw cacao to foods is a great way to boost your mineral and antioxidant intake.
Both these ingredients have the highest concentration of nutrients and are a sugar-free way to add an intense chocolate hit. Try these few ideas for inspiration:
- Add 1 tbsp to your protein shake.
- Add 1 tbsp to porridge.
- Make homemade energy balls by blending cocoa or raw cacao powder, dates and chopped hazelnuts to a food processor.
- Combine 1 tbsp with hot milk of choice for a warming evening drink rich in magnesium that helps to promote muscle relaxation and has been shown by research to induce sleep. Try adding cinnamon, ground cardamom or chili for extra flavor.
- Add cocoa or raw cacao powder to chili con carne for richness and intense flavor