Decadent. Heavenly. Delicious. It is the pick-me-up of choice for millions, but beyond its mood-enhancing properties, chocolate – particularly dark chocolate – is choc-full of nutrients such as flavanols, antioxidants and essential minerals. In fact, chocolate consumption has been associated with everything from increased brain function and improved circulation to reduced cholesterol and lowered risk of strokes and heart disease. It is little wonder that it gets its own special day, July 7, when we can all indulge, largely guilt-free, in this tasty and healthy treat.
Scientists have been touting the health benefits of chocolate for years, but some would argue that it has taken a few millennia for the scientific consensus to come full circle to what the ancient Mesoamericans knew about cacao's invigorating qualities. Of course, at the time, a cup of cocoa was a frothing, heady concoction of chillies, corn meal and dried, ground cacao beans – a far cry from your average corner café hot chocolate. But new research has all but confirmed what even the Aztecs and Mayans suspected about chocolate's medicinal properties and benefits to heart health.
Conducted for the Danish Diet, Cancer and Health Study at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre (BIDMC), in collaboration with researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and the Aalborg University and Institute of Cancer Epidemiology in Denmark, the new research, published in the journal Heart, found that consuming moderate amounts of chocolate led to significantly lower risks of atrial fibrillation, a common and potentially life threatening type of irregular heartbeat.
The study involved more than 55,000 men and women, and showed that flavanols present in dark chocolate promoted healthy blood vessel function. Its author, Murray Mittleman, a preventive cardiologist at BIDMC and professor of epidemiology at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, explains: “This study adds to the growing body of evidence that, compared with other snacks or treats, eating small amounts of dark chocolate on a regular basis as part of an overall balanced, heart-healthy diet is a good option that may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Nadia Bornman, a dietitian at Beyond Nutrition, based in Dubai, agrees. “Having more cocoa in your diet can have a beneficial effect on arterial function. The flavanols help increase vasodilation and lower blood pressure. Dark chocolate has also been shown to decrease LDL – or bad cholesterol.”
But before you scoff down a chocolate bar to improve your heart health, it is important to note that not all chocolate is created equal. “The higher the cocoa content, the better it is for you,” says Bornman. “Also, when the cocoa content is higher, the sugar content tends to be much lower.”
In other words, dark chocolate, particularly if it contains 60 per cent or more cocoa, is the kind you should reach for at the supermarket. Milk chocolate and chocolates with added sugars, like those filled with caramel, honeycomb or other yummy extras, will not offer any health benefits.
“Fat and sugar content tends to be very high in these chocolates, negating the benefits of the cocoa in them,” Bornman explains. “Some research also shows that milk inhibits antioxidants in cocoa from being used properly by the body. I recommend looking out for chocolate that has at least 60 per cent cocoa, or higher, to take advantage of chocolate’s health benefits.”
Eating the right amount is also important, Bornman says. “Chocolate is high in fat and calories, and it is important to keep your calorie intake in line with your daily requirements. Depending on your diet and daily food and beverage intake, it is not recommended that you eat more than 10 per cent from added sugars.”
If you do want to include chocolate as part of your daily diet, she recommends no more than three squares – amounting to around 30 grams – of dark chocolate per day.
It is also worth looking out for added sugars and fats that lurk in many a chocolate treat. “It is very important to check the label when purchasing chocolate – especially if the cocoa content is low and when flavours have been added,” says Bornman.
Cocoa butter, extracted from the beans of cocoa pods, is healthier than added fats such as coconut or palm oils, which are often added to chocolates. It is worth noting here that cacao and cacao butter are the unprocessed, unroasted versions of cocoa or cocoa butter.
Try to look for chocolates that do not contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, as these can negatively affect cholesterol. Additionally, chocolates contain caffeine, albeit in much smaller quantities than coffee, so if you are sensitive or allergic to caffeine, you should limit your intake. And always check the total sugar content of your chosen chocolate bar.
“Sugar intake depends on your daily nutritional requirements, but I would recommend looking for chocolates that have less than 30g of sugar per 100g. This is usually found in plain dark chocolates that have 70 per cent cocoa solids,” says Bornman.
A US-based company is working on a unique way to minimise the sugar content of the chocolate we consume.Kuka Xoco is using a sweetener found in herbs native to Peru and Bolivia to replace the sugar usually used in chocolate bars. “Using micrograms of this plant extract, we can de-bitter unsweetened cacao. This eliminates the need for sugar, sweeteners and much of the fat used in making chocolate, unleashing the medical benefits of cacao,” says Gregory Aharonian from Kuka Xoco.
The researchers working on the product hope to one day develop a chocolate that contains as little as 10 per cent fat and sugar. Until then, Bornman has a few suggestions to help you limit your chocolate intake and make the most of chocolate’s health benefits. “When you are craving chocolate, try consuming some fruit beforehand to curb the sweet craving and limit your chocolate intake.
“Also, try to use 100 per cent cocoa powder, which is fat-free and high in flavanols. Just add it to your breakfast porridge or use in hot cocoa instead of the sugary alternatives.”
Focus on chocolate: