Chocolate has a bad reputation. People say it is a junk food, high in sugar, fat and caffeine. It has been accused of causing many problems from acne, to heart disease, to obesity, to cancer. In fact, there is considerable evidence to show that chocolate has significant health benefits for both body and mind. A 2012 systematised review and meta-analysis (which assessed and summarized 42 randomized controlled trials – the gold standard of scientific research) found that cocoa and chocolate lowered blood pressure, decreased LDL (bad) cholesterol and improved insulin resistance (Hooper et al., 2012).
When I say chocolate, I am talking about dark chocolate, which contains a high percentage of cocoa solids, and relatively little sugar, eg raw cacao, cocoa powder or a good quality, dark, vegan chocolate. Cheap milk chocolate often contains poor quality added fats and sugar, ingredients which can certainly cause health problems.
Raw cacao is a wholefood, having undergone hardly any processing. Cocoa powder and dark chocolate are minimally processed, however the fact that they have been processed at all means that they are not strictly a wholefood, but can be compared to a wholegrain flour. Once chocolate is made with added fats and sugar, it can no longer be considered a wholefood.
Cocoa butter is the fat in most chocolate. It is a natural, saturated vegetable fat. Raw chocolate is commonly made with either raw cocoa butter or coconut oil, which is anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, boosts the immune system and stimulates the metabolism. Coconut oil may also boost weight loss rather than cause weight gain (in moderate quantities!) Milk chocolate and many cheaper brands of dark chocolate contain added butterfat, which can raise blood cholesterol levels.
Raw cacao and cocoa powder are sugar-free. Dark chocolate contains little added sugar, typically 10-30% depending on the percentage of cocoa solids. Raw chocolate commonly uses natural sweeteners such as agave nectar. Milk chocolate often contains up to 60% sugar. It is also possible to buy sugar-free brands of chocolate, but watch out for added sweeteners. Stevia is a good one. Some of the sugar alcohols (anything ending in –ol) can cause digestive upset if taken in large quantities. Xylitol can be considered safe and even has some health benefits. Avoid any of the artificial sweeteners eg aspartame, saccharin, sucralose.
Iron – more than any other vegetable (yes cocoa is a vegetable!)
Magnesium – balances brain chemistry, builds strong bones, relaxes muscles, calming. Low levels may be associated with premenstrual syndrome.
Potassium – regulates water balance and muscular system, maintains oxygen levels in the brain, assists with conversion of glucose to glycogen for storing energy in the liver. Low levels of potassium may be linked with chronic fatigue syndrome.
Chocolate also contains sulphur, zinc, copper and manganese.
Chocolate contains high levels of polyphenols, the type of antioxidant found in red wine and green tea. Atherosclerosis is a waxy build-up of cholesterol on artery walls, which increases the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Polyphenols help to inhibit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. Combined with almonds, this effect is even greater (Lee et al., 2017). Chocolate also helps to prevent the clumping of blood platelets – another cause of atherosclerosis. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease. Regular consumption of dark chocolate has been shown to reduce blood pressure if you already have mild to moderate hypertension. Chocolate acts in the same way that aspirin does, by thinning the blood and helps to reduce blood pressure.
Catechins are a class of flavonoids with powerful antioxidant effects. Catechins, in particular epicatechins, are associated with a range of health benefits such as reducing the effects of stroke, reducing the symptoms of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, offering some protection against cancers caused by radiation and tobacco, and reducing the effects of chemotherapy. Dark chocolate contains good levels of epicatechins, similar to green tea, and make a great alternative if you don’t like green tea, or want to reduce your caffeine intake.
Chocolate contains very low levels of caffeine (about 3mg per 20g serving, compared to around 100mg in a cup of coffee). However, it still has a stimulating effect, especially on sensitive individuals. Raw chocolate tends to have a lower stimulating effect. The main stimulating chemical is theobromine, which is molecularly similar to caffeine and is what gives chocolate its bitter taste. Theobromine is a mild heart stimulant, relaxes the muscles and is a vasodilator (this is what causes the blood-thinning referred to above). Theobromine is toxic to cats and dogs, so best not to share your passion with your pet!
Chocolate makes you happy!
Perhaps one of the most interesting benefits of chocolate, however, and what keeps us coming back for more, is the effect on our mind. Chocolate contains several mood-enhancing chemicals and can be said to be a ‘natural high’.
- Monoamine oxidase enzyme inhibitors (MAO inhibitors) which boost serotonin levels and help to curb appetite.
- Phenylethylamine (PEA) the chemical released when we are in love. PEA triggers the release of mood-lifting endorphins and enables the action of dopamine, responsible for feelings of satisfaction and elation.
- Anandamide, ‘bliss’ – this chemical attaches to cannabinoid receptors in brain, inducing state of heightened sensitivity and euphoria, acts like THC in marijuana.
Dark chocolate and cacao contain a wide range of phytochemicals and may help in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome. Chocolate contains high levels of iron, potassium and magnesium as well as other minerals. Chocolate contains polyphenols, which reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. Chocolate also contains several mood-enhancing chemicals.
Patients treated with 15 g dark chocolate three times daily experienced a reduction in fatigue, depression and anxiety (Sathyapalan 2010).
Synergists – vitamin C assists iron absorption; vitamins A, C, E, D, K, boron, chromium, phosphorus, selenium aids magnesium absorption; vitamin B6 aid potassium absorption (“Diet”, 2018).
Antagonists – dairy inhibits antioxidant absorption; calcium, polyphenols, phytates and oxalates hinder iron absorption; salt, caffeine, tannins or alcohol hinder potassium absorption (“Foods that block”, 2018; “How to Enhance”, 2018).
Interactions – taken with MAOIs (for depression) can cause sharp rise in blood pressure; reduces effectiveness of sleeping pills (so eat early in the day); may slow blood clotting so caution using with blood-thinning drugs; contains caffeine so should not be taken with medication for a cardiac stress test (Dipyridamole, Adenosine) and caution with other stimulant drugs (Ephedrine, Ritalin, Adderall, some asthma drugs); if diabetic, take sugar free or use raw cacao and appropriate sweetener (“Diet”, 2018).
Food sources – raw cacao, cocoa powder, raw chocolate, dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids (70% or more).
Therapeutic daily dose – 15 g – 50 g dark chocolate or cacao daily (Sathyapalan 2010).
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Lee, Y., Berryman, C. E., West, S. G., Chen, C.-Y. O., Blumberg, J. B., Lapsley, K. G., … Kris-Etherton, P. M. (2017). Effects of Dark Chocolate and Almonds on Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Overweight and Obese Individuals: A Randomized Controlled-Feeding Trial. Journal of the American Heart Association, 6(12). https://doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.116.005162
Sathyapalan, T., Beckett, S., Rigby, A. S., Mellor, D. D., & Atkin, S. L. (2010). High cocoa polyphenol rich chocolate may reduce the burden of the symptoms in chronic fatigue syndrome. Nutrition Journal, 9, 55. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-9-55