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It’s coming up to Easter and glorious Easter treats, not least of which is delicious chocolate.  It is everywhere you look and shops are pushing hard to encourage you to buy.  So, is there a way you can enjoy chocolate without the guilt and can it even be good for you?

What is chocolate?

Chocolate is made up of:

  • Chocolate liquor/mass: Cocoa beans with their shells removed that have been fermented, roasted and ground until they liquefy.  The liquid is made up of cocoa butter and cocoa solids; both are naturally present in the bean.
  • Cocoa butter: Natural fat from the cocoa bean; extra cocoa butter enhances chocolate’s flavor and mouthfeel.
  • Sugar

It also may include:

  • Milk: For milk chocolate.
  • Lecithin: An emulsifier, often made from soy, that makes the ingredients blend together.
  • Vanilla or vanillin and other flavors.
  • Fruits, nuts and other add-ins: for specialty chocolates.

Types of chocolate

Dark chocolate contains cocoa solids, cocoa butter and sugar.  Typically it contains 65-99% cocoa solids; the higher the percentage of cocoa solids the darker, and more bitter tasting, the chocolate is (higher cocoa = lower percentage sugar).  It’s also not as sweet as milk chocolate because it doesn’t contain any milk powder (milk contains natural sugars).

Milk chocolate contains cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids.  It is the most consumed type of chocolate.  The percentage of cocoa solids in milk chocolate can vary considerably. Good quality milk chocolate normally contains 30-55% cocoa solids but it can be as low as 25% and still qualify as milk chocolate (according to the EU rules).  It contains 20-25% sugar.

You can now also buy ‘dark milk’ chocolate which is a hybrid between dark milk chocolate – higher cocoa solids (50-70%) but with milk powder.  Sugar may or may not be added; sometimes the milk solids have sufficient natural sugar to sweeten the chocolate.

White chocolate is a confectionery typically made of sugar, milk, and cocoa butter.  It is essentially milk chocolate without the cocoa solids.   In the EU a bar of white chocolate must contain a minimum of 20% cocoa butter and no more than 55% sugar or sweeteners.  White chocolate is smooth and creamy because of the high cocoa butter content.

Diabetic/sugar free/low sugar chocolate is chocolate where the sugar has been replaced with sweeteners, often artificial sweeteners, and/or the chocolate formulation has been changed to reduce the sugar which often is replaced with more fat.  These can be good options if you struggle with blood sugar control, however sweeteners can have a laxative effect and low sugar doesn’t necessarily mean low calorie.  So, read the packet and make an informed decision about whether it’s a good option for you.

Does chocolate have nutritional value?

Let’s start with free radicals.  These can be generated in our bodies through various processes including normal metabolic reactions in the body, exposure to environmental toxins e.g. pollutants, and lifestyle factors such as smoking or drinking alcohol.  While some free radicals are produced naturally in the body for important biological functions, excessive accumulation of free radicals can lead to oxidative stress and damage to cells, proteins, and DNA, which is associated with various diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative disorders.

The good news is that antioxidants can neutralize free radicals, maintaining the balance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body and protecting against cell oxidative damage.  Lots of plants contain antioxidants and it’s one of the important reasons to include a generous amount of vegetables and fruit in your diet – particularly the brightly coloured ones!

Cocoa contains a number of antioxidant polyphenolic compounds and is particularly rich in flavonoids—specifically, flavanols, also called flavan-3-ols.  Dark chocolate contains more antioxidants because of the higher cocoa content.  These compounds may have the following health benefits:

1. Antioxidant Properties: Cocoa beans contain flavonoids, which are antioxidants that help neutralize free radicals in the body, thereby reducing oxidative stress and inflammation. Dark chocolate, in particular, has a high concentration of these flavonoids.

2. Heart Health: Consuming moderate amounts of dark chocolate has been linked to improved heart health. Flavonoids in dark chocolate may help lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the heart and brain, and reduce the risk of blood clot formation.

3. Improved Cholesterol Levels: Some studies suggest that dark chocolate may help increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels and decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, potentially reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

4. Brain Function: Flavanols found in chocolate have been shown to improve cognitive function and increase blood flow to the brain, which may benefit memory, attention, and overall brain health.

5. Mood Enhancement: Chocolate contains various compounds, including phenylethylamine (PEA) and serotonin precursors, which can stimulate the release of endorphins in the brain, leading to feelings of pleasure and mood improvement.

6. Skin Health: The flavonoids and antioxidants in dark chocolate may protect the skin from sun damage, improve blood flow to the skin, and increase skin hydration, potentially promoting healthier-looking skin.

7. Improved insulin sensitivity: Some research suggests that regular consumption of dark chocolate may improve insulin sensitivity, which could help lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Cocoa beans also contain theobromine which belongs to the same class of compounds as caffeine.  It has a mild stimulating effect on the central nervous system, acting as a vasodilator (widens your blood vessels which may reduce blood pressure) and diuretic (increases urine production).  It is less potent than caffeine but it’s stimulating effect can increase heart rate and provide a mild energy boost.  If you are sensitive to caffeine you may find that you are also sensitive to high cocoa containing chocolate and experience jitteriness, insomnia, rapid heartbeat, or anxiety, especially with higher intake or consumption close to bedtime.

Other potential negative effects of consuming chocolate include: 

1. Weight gain as chocolate is calorie dense from the fat and sugar content, particularly with milk and white chocolate.

2. Dental issues due to the sugar content which can promote tooth decay and cavities when consumed in excess.

3. Gastrointestinal discomfort such as bloating, gas or diarrhea, which can be caused by sensitivity to certain ingredients in chocolate such as lactose and caffeine.

4. Migraines which can be triggered by chocolate in some people due to it’s caffeine content or other compounds.

 

In summary, chocolate is wonderful and may have some health benefits, but should be enjoyed in moderation.  Choose chocolate with higher cocoa solids as this contains less sugar.  Instead of leaving the packet or box out, take a moderate portion and eat it slowly and mindfully.  I recommend two pieces of dark chocolate (about 20g) – if you then break these up into 4, you have 8 small pieces of chocolate.  There isn’t a lot of difference in mouth-feel between a big piece and a small piece so breaking it up makes your chocolate last longer and you feel like you’ve eaten more than you have.  Try and only have it at the weekend – chocolate should be a treat and it feels much more of a treat if you have it less frequently and that makes it taste even more delicious!

 

If you would like help to improve your nutrition and meet your health goals, or are just curious on my services, I’d love to hear from you, please contact me.

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