For years we've assumed chocolate is bad for us - but could there be more than meets the eye to this tasty treat?
Like every other special occasion, celebrating has become synonymous with celebrating one of the world’s favourite indulgences: chocolate.
It just seems so harmless. Wrapped up in cute Santa shapes, decorated with irresistible festive touches and dangling from the Christmas tree amidst sparkling fairy lights - we eagerly gobble it up by the stocking load!
But this isn’t the only time we give into temptation. Although we love a good excuse to tuck into the sweet stuff - most of us actually indulge quite regularly.
In fact, a data monitor report suggests that the average Brit consumes over 10kg of chocolate a year. That makes us the biggest chocolate consumers in Europe, with the Irish coming in a close second at around 8.2kg. What’s that equivalent to in the average body weight? A leg? An arm? Now, that’s a lot of chocolate.
So, being one of life’s guilty pleasures, we were curious to find out - how much do we actually have to feel guilty about? Does chocolate have any legitimate health benefits? And does it genuinely have addictive properties so powerful that we are helpless but to act on them…
With insight from Jane Freeman, a Registered Dietician and Nutritionist, we examine the deepest, darkest depths of our relationship with chocolate to understand what it does for us, and how we can enjoy it better this festive season.
Chocolate and your body
The good news is - chocolate does have health benefits! This is thanks to the high content of flavanoids; a plant compound with potent antioxidant properties. So far, scientists have identified more than 4,000 kinds of flavanoids. Those found specifically in cocoa beans are called flavonols, but flavanoids can also be found in red wine, tea, cranberries, peanuts, strawberries, apples and many other fruits and vegetables.
Dark chocolate usually has the highest flavonoids content; whereas milk and white chocolate, cocoa powder and chocolate syrup lose more during the manufacturing process. But what exactly does it do? Flavonols in cocoa prevents fat-like substances in the bloodstream from oxidizing and clogging the arteries, making blood platelets less likely to stick together and cause clots.
Studies suggest that eating dark chocolate, as part of a balanced diet, may support your health. In a 15-person study, a group of Italian researchers found 100g of dark chocolate per day for 15 days lowered blood pressure and improved the body’s ability to metabolise sugar.
Other studies have found another substance in cocoa that helps the body process nitric oxide (NO), which is a compound critical for healthy blood flow and blood pressure. While this is good news for chocoholics, the research conducted is small scale and comes with the caution that chocolate is still high in saturated fat and calories, which may negate the positive effects of antioxidants.
Chocolate and calories
Unfortunately, the price you pay for off-the-scale eating pleasure is off-the-scale calories. Chocolate is very high in fat (blame it on the cocoa butter -that’s what gives it that glorious ‘melt in your mouth’ texture) and sugar. So the calorie hit for a 100g chocolate bar is enormous at around 540 cal, with 31g fat and 58g sugar. The difference between white, dark and milk varieties is minimal – you’ll pile on the pounds if you eat too much of any kind.
Chocolate and cravings
Do you feel powerless against the power of chocolate? Well, let’s look at the science. Chocolate does contain numerous ‘feel-good’ chemicals associated with addictive behaviours, namely phenylethylamine (PEA) and theobromine, which are associated with feelings of being in love, plus caffeine. However, you would need to eat about 1kg per day to absorb the chemical levels needed to feel any effects. Furthermore, controlled studies show that chocolate doesn’t effect the brain the way other addictive substances do, and that any euphoric feeling from eating chocolate may be better explained by the pleasurable taste, feel, and melt in your mouth sensation.
How to make the most out of your chocolate cravings:
- Chocolate cravings usually strike when you haven’t eaten enough during the day and you hit a sugar low. That’s why it’s important to fill up on grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein foods to maintain healthy blood sugar levels so you feel fuller for longer.
- There are plenty of ways to satisfy your taste for chocolate without actually tucking into a bar. Other alternatives include: good quality dark drinking chocolate mixed with skim milk or soya, low calorie chocolate dairy desserts, or even a drizzle of chocolate sauce over fresh fruit.
- If nothing else but chocolate will satisfy, don’t deprive yourself – just limit your intake and savour each bite. It’s a good idea to opt for premium quality chocolate, which often come in smaller portion sizes as this can help you appreciate the indulgence even more.
- Don’t keep chocolate in the house where it is readily available to snack on. It’s far too easy to delve in for a handful throughout the day without realising how much you’re actually eating!
- If you find yourself incapable of stopping after a few mouthfuls of chocolate goodness, go and brush your teeth to get the taste out of your mouth, or distract yourself by doing something that doesn’t involve eating!