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Keep it a Secret: How to Enjoy the Health Benefits of Chocolate

If you had to quit caffeine, alcohol or chocolate, which would you choose? All three are widely regarded as being less than good for us, and yet, there are proven health benefits to each.

Chocolate is, arguably, less physically addictive than the others, and its soothing, feel-good properties perhaps more widely appreciated by a greater section of the populace, despite its reputation as mere indulgence. However, thanks to the social value we place on their consumption, alcohol and caffeine use is encouraged all the time. Chocolate, on the other hand, is thought of as a personal, gluttonous extravagance, lacking nutritious merit or usefulness as social lubricant. We can put the world to right with friends over a coffee, or a glass or three of wine, but when we reach for the chocolate, it tends to be a strictly solo affair. We may feel guilty after eating a chocolate bar; after all, the calorific content of some confectionery bars would put a cheeseburger to shame.

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But like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, all is not quite as it seems. Beneath the caramel and Gianduja, lies a surprisingly beneficial food item. Cocoa and chocolate in their purer, darker forms – free of excess sugar, milk and butter – are not only rich in bioflavonoids, the antioxidants that help to neutralize the pesky free radicals which cause cancer and other chronic disease, but also have many therapeutic properties. In fact, historically, many European cultures have been only too aware of the benefits of chocolate, and the substance has long been used to treat kidney, liver and digestive ailments, and especially heart problems.

It is only in the last twenty years or so, since we have begun to apply a more determined scientific approach to the study of the effects of cocoa and chocolate, that these long held beliefs are being corroborated with some compelling academic results.

A 1996 study conducted by the University of California, and published in The Lancet, found that a 1.5 oz piece of chocolate contained around 205 mg total of phenol (a bioflavonoid) compared to a cup of hot chocolate which had around 146 mg total phenol. However, cocoa powder extract was a potent antioxidant and was almost as effective as pure catechin (the powerful antioxidant found in green tea).

Similarly, a study published in 2000 in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition compared the antioxidant effects of teas, with and without milk, and showed that adding milk appeared to reduce the antioxidant content considerably, particularly when full fat milk was used. Though scientific opinion is still mixed on this outcome, these studies seem to point to a diluting effect where milk, antioxidants and chocolate are concerned.Other research has also concluded that dark rather than milk chocolate has more health benefits. A 2009 Malaysian study found that dark chocolates contained much higher levels of flavonoids than milk chocolate, with very few flavonoids in white chocolate.

The way chocolate is processed can also affect its antioxidant properties. ‘Dutch’ processing means the cocoa is treated with an alkaline to neutralize its natural acidity and improve its flavor. However, this processing greatly reduces the antioxidant properties and so it is best to avoid cocoa and chocolate that has been ‘Dutched,’ or treated with alkaline.

If reducing blood pressure and combating chronic disease isn’t good enough reason to enjoy the guilt-free benefits of chocolate, one 2010 study seems to bear out yet more therapeutic effects; having found that chocolate is a great antidepressant. Ten subjects with chronic fatigue syndrome were enrolled in the study. Their fatigue score improved significantly after eating high cocoa polyphenol rich chocolate for eight weeks. The scores deteriorated significantly when subjects were given simulated iso-calorific chocolate. Likewise, the patients’ Hospital Anxiety and Depression score also improved after the HCL/PR chocolate, but deteriorated after eating the iso-calorific chocolate. Interestingly the subjects’ mean weight remained unchanged throughout the trial, indicating that small amounts of purer, high cocoa content chocolate are not as likely to induce us to pile on the pounds.

A further benefit of chocolate is linked to the idea of ‘good fats’ and ‘bad fats.’ Chocolate naturally contains cocoa butter; a mix of both saturated and monounsaturated fats. However, over half of this saturated fat is primarily stearic acid, which does not raise cholesterol levels in the way that other saturated and trans fats do.

The conclusion is a happy one: chocolate is actually pretty good for you, so long as you choose a chocolate with at least 65 percent cocoa content. Moderation is key, and heaps of sweet fillings and coatings are a no-no, but a few pieces of the pure, dark stuff several times a week may not only help keep you healthy, but will put a smile on your face too. That’s a secret worth sharing.

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