Rich, 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).
This 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.
Interestingly, 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