Chocolate: the science of sweet

image1Rich, sweet and creamy with a sensuous ‘melt in the mouth’ texture. Chocolate is a guilty pleasure many of us share and, with Easter just around the corner, indulgence seems mandatory. But, what effect is our sweet tooth really having on our bodies and is there any scientific merit to claims that chocolate is actually good for us?

The medicinal use of chocolate has a long and rich history, with travel accounts and medical texts (dating from the 16th century) documenting a myriad of uses in the treatment of human disorders. These treatments range from the downright bizarre, to the infinitely plausible. For example:

Francisco Hernández (1577) wrote that pure cacao paste prepared as a beverage treated fever and liver disease. He also mentioned that toasted, ground cacao beans mixed with resin were effective against dysentery and that chocolate beverages were commonly prescribed to thin patients in order for them to gain “flesh.” William Hughes (1672) reported that coughs could be treated by drinking chocolate blended with cinnamon or nutmeg. While De Quélus (1718) wrote that drinking chocolate was nourishing and essential to good health. He said that drinking chocolate “repaired exhausted spirits,” preserved health, and prolonged the lives of old men. – For a more detailed overview of chocolate’s rich history, see here.

But do any of these claims hold water in the face of scientific scrutiny?

Chocolate: a way to the heart.

Dark chocolate and other cocoa products have, on a number of occasions, made the headlines as a dietary supplement and means to decrease blood pressure and modify other cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors (see here and here).

image2This line of research stemmed from observations among the Kuna Indian population in the san Blas Islands of Panama. Members of this population were seen to have particularly low rates of hypertension and CVD, coupled with an absence of age-related increases in blood pressure. Scientists theorised that theses unique medical traits were linked to high levels of cocoa intake amongst this group – On average Kuna Indians consume four 8-ounce cups of unprocessed cocoa drink per day!

One explanation for these findings is cocoa’s high flavanol content – which is thought to confer cardiovascular benefits through its effects on the circulatory system. Indeed, flavanol-rich cocoa may improve functionality of the bodies blood and lymph vessels and reduce various factors which may otherwise increase an individuals risk of CVD.

Alongside flavanols cocoa also contains an organic alkaloid compound called theobromine. The effects theobromine has on the body are pretty similar to those of caffeine, only slower to take effect – so perhaps a hot chocolate before bed time may not be a great idea. Alongside its caffeine-like properties, theobromine also acts as a cough suppressant, many ease the symptoms of asthma and, like flavinols, could improve cardiovascular health.

But, chocoholics beware, these findings do not prove that gorging on the brown stuff is actually good for our health. Firstly, the flavanol content of chocolate varies hugely depending on how the chocolate is processed. In fact, since flavanols are naturally bitter, these are usually thought of as unpalatable in the west and are generally reduced during the processing of our favourite chocolate treats. The cocoa powder consumed by the Kuna indians contains about 3.6% flavanols, while western chocolates range in their flavanol content – the highest being found in dark chocolate at 0.5%, while milk and white chocolate can sometimes be completely flavanol free. This means that, in commercially available chocolate products, the health benefits of flavanol are largely removed by the manufacturing process.

It’s also important to remember that most commercially available chocolate has a high caloric content and contains a significant amount of saturated fat and sugar. We know that excessive caloric intake can lead to some pretty adverse metabolic side effects (weight gain, diabetes perhaps even alzheimer’s disease) which probably negate any health benefits. This means that doctors would generally err against recommending chocolate as part of a healthy diet, with the possible exception of high quality dark chocolate.

So when it comes to a healthy body, the science of chocolate is not exactly black and white (or dark and milk) but, what about the effect it can have on the mind?

Chocolate on the brain:

in 1718 De Quélus wrote that chocolate can “repair exhausted spirits” and many people claim that indulging in the brown stuff can indeed be the perfect cure for low mood. But, how does chocolate effect the brain and, is the hedonistic pleasure of a good binge physical or psychological?

Chocolate consumption has been linked with a number of neurotransmitter systems, which play an active role in appetite, reward and mood regulation (including dopamine, serotonin and endorphins). However, there is currently insufficient evidence that these effects are specific to chocolate, or that they have an overall positive effect on mood.

340234_10100270433865775_1275067435_oInterestingly, although chocolate and junk food are regularly cited as the ‘go-to’ home remedy for malaise, extensive studies fail to find any real or lasting benefits to these binges. In fact, the opposite may be true, as often the guilt associated with a binge can leave sufferers feeling much worse!

So sadly, although a nice chunk of chocolate may provide brief pleasure and comfort, in the long term it’s more likely to prolong rather than abort a low mood.

So, chocolate is a mixed blessing. There’s almost certainly no harm in the occasional indulgence and, when it comes to high cocoa content dark chocolate it could even be beneficial. But, when it comes to our health, chocolate should definitely be considered a treat and not a lifestyle. That said, it won’t stop me enjoying my easter eggs this year!

Post by: Sarah fox

11 thoughts on “Chocolate: the science of sweet

  1. All chocolate candy bars — even the darkest chocolate, organic ones — have been significantly processed. A better way to get the health benefits of chocolate is eating cacao nibs. From “beans to bars” chocolate requires more than a dozen processing steps while nibs require only 4.

  2. As a true chocolate lover i found this piece of work very interesting. For years I was told that chocolate increased endorphin production which, chemically, made a human being happier. How interesting that you say there is not enough substantial evidence to prove that. It is a widely known folk tale that eating chocolate regularly lengthens your lifespan. Havard university did research on this topic a while ago and found that men really did live longer, but could not find any scientific proof for it. It seems that the common chocolate bar does cause some chemical reactions but scientists have yet to identify and understand exactly what happens. You mentioned the flavanoid content of western Chocolate products, but are there chocolate products somewhere in the world with a high enough flavanoid content to be rendered as beneficial to health?

  3. Chocolate has been used for centuries to make people feel better. Is there a possibility that there is a psychological affect on a person’s mind when chocolate was used to motivate or to get the person to co-operate when they were much younger? This could then cause an adult to subliminally link the chocolate to a good emotion.

  4. I think the hedonistic pleasure is psychological because we believe it can help reduce stress,brings comfort and leads to feelings of euphoria.
    You mentioned that “Although a nice chunk of chocolate may provide brief pleasure and comfort, in the long term it’s more likely to prolong rather than abort a low mood”,
    i think this is because the effects of chocolates are like those of stimulants/uppers which tend to give a person a temporary high and leave people feeling much worse when they leave the body.

    Can chocolate be an addictive substance?

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  5. Most of us will all agree to the guilty pleasure that is chocolate. What is most interesting and also linking with this post is why has it become known as a “guilty” “pleasure”? Because of the copious amounts of calories loaded into what we know today as a chocolate bar, the word guilty must refer to our knowledge of an increasing waistline with every bite. Although we are well aware of this, the simple satisfaction of this sweet “pleasure” is often too hard to resist. Chocolate has not been widely accepted as a nourishing source of food thanks to so many industrialists. As a result chocolate has almost completely lost all of its nutritional value and most of these benefits have been lost through the many processing procedures.

  6. I had the privilege to attend a chocolate workshop at a Lindt factory in South Africa. There they told us that not all chocolate are made with real cocoa butter( with a melting point of 36 degrees – body temperature ),but with with other cheaper plant oils that have a higher melting point than your body’s temperature, thus is why cheaper chocolate leave a kind of fluffy feeling in you mouth.

  7. By eating chocolate, serotonin ( the feel-good hormone) is released in the brain. This is why it is such a pleasure. This feeling also causes people to feel as though they are addicted and crave chocolate.

  8. People are more health conscious these days, so I think this is a great blog to remind us to make better choices.
    If people were to consume pure cocoa, they might be able to see positive effects on blood pressure and glucose metabolism, however majority chocolate available is processed and filled with sugar, milk and oils which are not good for your health or waist line.
    I try to stick with chocolate with 70% cocoa in small quantities when craving something sweet.

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