Sin or super food? It’s hard to think of another food that’s been both vilified and hyped up as much as chocolate.
Dieters used to be told to steer clear of it — especially white or milk chocolate — because of its high fat and sugar content.
But increasingly studies show the dark variety has a myriad of health benefits.
A study this week found cocoa can lower your blood pressure and keep your heart healthy, by making veins and arteries stretchier, thanks to antioxidants known as flavanols.
The researchers, from the University of Surrey, urged more people to eat dark chocolate because it is high in cocoa, whereas most popular chocolate bars contain very little.
You may be surprised to know that chocolate is an aphrodisiac, as it is packed with the ‘love drug’ phenylethylamine which boost sexual desire by increasing levels of ‘happy hormones’ endorphins.
And it may also make men’s erections firmer due to its blood flow-boosting effects.
Scientists have also shown that regularly eating dark chocolate can improve alertness — with a 100g-sized bar having nearly as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. It has also been linked with making people happier and reducing the risk of depression.
However, the benefits of eating chocolate are only gained from snacking on options with a high cocoa content, which has a more bitter taste. And relying on the sweet treat for health benefits could lead to weight gain, which can offset health gains.
So, is chocolate a sin or a super food? And what do the studies show?
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count
• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain
• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options
• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts
• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide
IT PROTECTS THE HEART
The latest piece of evidence hailing dark chocolate’s health benefits is the University of Surrey study which showed that it can lower blood pressure and make blood vessels stretchier within hours.
This is down to flavanols — antioxidants found in cocoa — that keep blood vessel walls elastic, allowing blood to flow through the body more easily.
The researchers recruited 11 adults, who consumed a cocoa capsule or placebo on alternating days for two weeks. Results showed their blood pressure was lower and their arteries looser on the days they took the flavanols.
However, those in the study were given super-strength supplements that would be equivalent to half a kilogram of dark chocolate — normally sold in 100g bars.
The researchers are still convinced upping the amount of dark chocolate you eat will be beneficial, however, even if you don’t eat copious amounts.
The findings build on those from a separate team of scientists in Portugal, who found eating dark chocolate every day lowers blood pressure in just one month due to the health benefits of flavanols.
Their finding was based on 30 young adults who ate 20g of either milk or dark chocolate every day for a month.
Those eating the high-cocoa chocolate saw their systolic blood pressure drop 3.5 mmHg, compared to 2.4 mmHg in the lower-cocoa group. And diastolic blood pressure was reduced by 2.3 mmHg and 1.7 mmHg, respectively.
On top of boosting blood pressure and blood vessel health, scientists have also found that it can lower cholesterol.
A team of US researchers asked 31 people to eat 50g of dark or white chocolate for 15 days. The scientists found those who ate dark chocolate had lower blood glucose and ‘bad’ blood lipids, which could have the knock-on effect of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
BRAIN HEALTH MAY BE IMPROVED
Dozens of studies have shown flavanols can also improve brain function, as the antioxidants boost blood flow.
A 2011 study by a team at University of Reading showed that memory and reaction time was boosted just two hours after eating dark chocolate, while no benefit was found among those snacking on white chocolate.
Other studies have pointed to longer-term benefits.
Researchers at Columbia University found in 2014 that adults in their fifties and sixties who took a cocoa supplement for three months performed better on memory tests on those given a low-flavanol pill. The study authors said their brain functioned as well as a 30-year-old’s by the end of the study.
A 2017 meta-analysis of existing studies on chocolate and brain health, published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, found evidence that it improved brain blood flow, oxygen levels and nerve function.
The Italian researchers who did that study say that as well as flavanols, magnesium in chocolate may play a role in increasing the supply of oxygen to the brain and reduce the chances of brain damage through a stroke.
A separate study by researchers at Glasgow University in 2013 concluded that chocolate boosted carbon dioxide levels, improved blood flow and brain cell health. That team’s finding was based on measuring the speed of blood flowing through the biggest artery in the brain, while volunteers ate chocolate.
And a team at Cornell University in New York in 2014 identified an antioxidant in the sweet treat called epicatechin that may protect against the amyloid plaques which cause Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.
MAY MAKE YOU MORE ALERT
As well as boosting long-term heart and brain health, chocolate can also offer short-term benefits by tackling energy levels during the afternoon slump. The snack contains caffeine and theobromine, another stimulant.
US researchers recruited more than 100 young adults who ate just one gram of dark chocolate or a placebo for every kilogram they weighed. For example, someone weighing 60kg (nine-and-a-half stone) would be given 60g — a bit more than a Mars bar.
A 100g bar of chocolate has around 80mg of caffeine, just slightly less than a cup of coffee (95mg), and 1,000mg of theobromine — around a third less than a cup of black tea (1,600mg).
They then underwent brain scans while taking part in thinking and memory tasks.
Results showed that dark chocolate eaters were more alert and attentive than those who at other snacks. However, the Northern Arizona University team noted that the sweet snack could also raise blood pressure.
Scientists have found flavanols — antioxidants found in dark chocolate — can keep your heart healthy by lowering your blood pressure
COULD MAKE YOU HAPPIER
Eating just a few squares of chocolate per day makes people happier, scientists say.
A team of Korean scientists last year conducted what they called the first ever study that proved eating chocolate every day had positive effects on mood.
They recruited around 50 people who ate 30g of 85 per cent or 70 per cent dark chocolate — around a third of a large bar — or none at all daily for three weeks. Results from psychological tests showed that those who ate the darkest option were the happiest.
Analysis of volunteers’ fecal samples suggested chocolate increased microbial diversity in the gut, specifically gut bacteria Blautia, which may be the mechanism behind the boost in mood. Gut bacteria produce hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate mental processes such as mood, memory and learning.
Separate research by a team at University College London suggests that those who regularly eat dark chocolate are less likely to be depressed.
They quizzed 13,000 people in 2019 about their chocolate consumption and symptoms of depression. Those who self-reported eating dark chocolate were less likely to suffer from low mood. However, there was no link between mood and eating white or milk chocolate.
While the team said the finding didn’t prove chocolate combats depression, they noted that it contains a number of psychoactive ingredients — including two forms of anandamine, which produce a feeling of euphoria similar to that of cannabis.
Dark chocolate also has more antioxidants, which reduce inflammation in the body – a reaction that some experts believe is linked to depression.
MAY INCREASES LIBIDO
Chocolate is said to function as an aphrodisiac — a substance that increases sexual desire — as it is packed with anandamide, a neurotransmitter that targets the same parts of the brain as cannabis, and phenylethylamine, which is known as the ‘love drug’ as it mimics the brain chemistry of a person in love. These two ingredients that cause the body to release the happy hormones, known as endorphins.
However, studies have produced conflicting results on the link between chocolate consumption and sexual habits.
A study by University of California last year concluded that those who ate chocolate more often were less interested in sex. The researchers quizzed 1,000 people on their weekly chocolate intake and attitude to sex.
But an earlier study of 163 women, conducted in 2006 by team at University Vita-Salute San Raffaelle in Italy, found that those who ate more chocolate reported higher levels of sexual desire and pleasure.
However, cocoa also contains methylxantines, which can make people more lethargic and lower the libido.
And flavonoids — the same blood flow-boosting antioxidants that mean chocolate supports heart health — may also result in better erections.
Results published by Harvard University researchers in 2016, based on questionnaires sent to 25,000 men, show that men who consume three or four portions of flavonoid-rich foods per week were around a tenth less likely to suffer erectile dysfunction.
…BUT THE DOWN SIDES?
Experts warn that many of the studies citing the benefits of dark chocolate don’t apply in the real world, as they use cocoa supplements rather than chocolate that people can buy in shops.
This means people would have to eat so much dark chocolate, that the gain of some health benefits would be offset by the extra calories.
And relying on dark chocolate for flavanols, which are also found in berries, apples, nuts and tea, could see snackers put on weight.
Being overweight or obese increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and some cancers — cancelling out any small gains in heart and brain health.