Is chocolate really healthy?
As Easter is now just around the corner, an occasion often associated with chocolate, it seems only appropriate to look at the health benefit claims of chocolate and whether or not we can really eat it guilt-free. This article explores the history and health claims of chocolate and how processing can affect the natural health-promoting properties of chocolate.
What is chocolate?
Chocolate can be traced back to ancient civilisations of the Americas who enjoyed chocolate as a spicy drink called “chocolatl”, also known as the “Food of Gods”. The Spanish then discovered it when they colonised the Americas and bought it back to Europe, but it wasn’t until the Victorian age when chocolate was consumed as a solid product, manufactured first by the British company Fry & Sons then quickly followed by Cadbury, Mars and Hershey.
Chocolate’s basic ingredients is the same whoever makes it, but quality, quantity of individual ingredients and additional extras differ according to who makes it and what market they are selling it in. The basics include cocoa solids, cocoa butter (the fat from cocoa beans), milk (for milk chocolate) and sugar. Various flavourings may then be added as well as additives like soy lecithin to give a really smooth texture. Cocoa butter is expensive and is almost always removed first and then added back according to the quality of the chocolate they are making; the remainder is sold on to make other products such as cosmetics.
Chocolate: dark vs. milk
The main difference between dark chocolate and milk chocolate is simply the ratio of cocoa solids to other ingredients like sugar and cocoa butter, and the addition of milk. The more cocoa solids, the darker the colour of the chocolate and the more bitter the flavour (cocoa is naturally very bitter in taste); high cocoa solid chocolate contains less sugar. White chocolate, on the other hand, is not chocolate at all as it has no cocoa solids, only cocoa butter.
The health claims of chocolate
Cocoa beans are seeds from the Theobroma cacao tree, and are really high in polyphenols called flavonoids and flavanols, which are powerful antioxidants that fight free radicals that form in our bodies. The more cocoa solids a chocolate bar has, the greater the percentage of these polyphenols it has. For many people, chocolate is consumed as a product that coats something else, like caramel-based products, biscuits, fondants and wafers, and these have more sugar and fat and little, if any, polyphenols. However, you can’t help but notice the rising trend in artisan (posh) chocolate that may contain organic cocoa solids of higher ratio, less sugar and fewer additives, suggesting that the British palate is rapidly warming toward higher quality chocolate.
The health claims of chocolate consumption include: reduction of blood pressure and cholesterol, protection against cancer, heart disease and reducing the risk of strokes. It has also been suggested that chocolate can improve cognition and memory as well as work as an appetite suppressant if eaten before meals, indicating that you could eat less calories overall.
Vitamins and minerals in chocolate
Other than flavonoids, cocoa is a good source of the minerals iron, magnesium, and zinc. Iron is required to make healthy red cells that help transport oxygen to your cells; magnesium is important for many processes in the body, particularly energy production, promoting the body’s ability to release energy from food to help build healthy cells and tissue, but is also implicated in muscle relaxation, including those of the vascular system which can keep keep blood pressure low; zinc is essential for the immune system, helping the body to recover from injury quicker as well as fight infections.
There have been many studies recently on the main component of chocolate, cocoa. Many studies have been observational, which do not show cause and effect. Interventional studies, where chocolate has been given to different groups of people and then observed physical changes such as blood pressure and cholesterol are often small trials performed over short periods; some financed by chocolate manufacturers themselves, which some believe introduces the risk of bias. Therefore, the quality of evidence on the health benefits of chocolate is not particularly good. However, we do know that polyphenols can confer health benefits, and it is possible that the main ingredient of chocolate, cocoa, does have many health benefits. However, after processing, mixing with saturated fat and sugar and further processing to create a chocolate bar, it is likely that much of the health benefits of chocolate have long since disappeared and counteracted by the bad effects of sugar and fat. A process called “dutching” (processing cocoa powder to remove the butter using an alkalising agent) apparently destroys up to 60% of the flavonoids in chocolate – most chocolate is processed this way to make it easier to blend, darkens its colour and to reduce its bitterness. Some of the artisan chocolate producers buy their cacao directly and do not use this method of processing, but they may not label their products as such in the UK markets.
Chocolate can be enjoyed as part of a healthy, balanced diet. That is, a little now and then, however if you wish to explore the potential benefits of chocolate then the evidence points toward the consumption of dark, high cocoa solid chocolate, usually around 70% or higher. Many people find this type of chocolate rich, bitter and difficult to eat. There is no evidence that the sweet, creamy chocolate that most of us prefer confers any health benefits at all. In these cases, the conclusion is the opposite, since any surviving flavonoid content is counteracted by the sugar and saturated fat effects.
When you buy your chocolate, check that sugar is not the first ingredient, and if you wish to avoid GMO (genetically modified) soy, then also check that it is either made without soy lecithin or that it confirms it is made with GM-free soy lecithin. If you want to specifically buy non-alkalised (natural) chocolate, then you may have to directly approach the manufacturer and ask them! At the time of writing, I could not find any product that labelled their chocolate as non-alkalised – a marketing trick that appears to be overlooked!
22 February 2016
A new longitudinal study looking at health variables of 1000 people over 30 years has just announced that habitual consumption ( that is, eating any form of chocolate at least once a week) may have benefits on cognitive function. Published as part of the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study, researchers noted that on testing, chocolate eaters performed better on many different cognitive tasks including memory, concentration, reasoning and information processing.
What is interesting about this study is that they found this to be the case no matter what the chocolate was: milk, white or dark. White chocolate has no cocoa solids and thus doesn’t contain the flavonoids that dark chocolate has, so it is uncertain what the component of chocolate is that has this effect.
They do warn that chocolate should be consumed as part of a healthy eating lifestyle, as it is high in sugar and fat and contributes to obesity.
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.