The good and the better about chocolate by Marnie Nitschke, Accredited Practising Dietitian at Fork That Nutrition.
Think of all the delicious foods we have here on earth, and then consider chocolate.
A food that is surely up the top of the Most Coveted and Celebrated list of foods.
Why does chocolate have such a special place in our hearts?
Could it be true that chocolate is not only delicious, but also good for us?
If we’re going to learn about chocolate, let’s start with where it comes from and how it’s made:
First important fact here: chocolate is plant based food (yay!) made from cacao beans, which grow on the Theobroma cacao tree, in tropical climates around the world.
The bean pods are harvested and the beans are then allowed to ferment in the sun for up to a week. Next, they are dried and roasted (both fermenting and roasting are key stages in the flavour development process). Then the shells are discarded and we have the cacao nibs!
Cacao nibs (which contain around 50% fat, in the form of cocoa butter) are ground into a thick paste called cocoa liquor. The longer it’s ground, the smoother and more luxurious the texture - but the chocolate at this stage is bitter and not at all sweet. Chocolate makers now add ingredients like sugar, milk powder, vanilla and may even add extra cocoa butter for a richer, creamier texture.
We’re not finished yet! Chocolate now needs to be tempered, because at this stage, it’s a pretty unimpressive, dull, crumbly looking mixture. Tempering is a process of raising and lowering the temperature, which alters the crystals within (or some such magic), to create the glossy, shiny, crackable chocolate stuff we know and love.
Why was this important to know? Well, because different chocolate products we eat and use in cooking will have very different health implications, depending on how they’re made.
The actual cacao is the part of chocolate that carries most of the health benefits, however the chocolate we eat and love can range anywhere form 30% right up to 90% actual cocoa. To be plain about it – dark chocolate is best, and the greater it’s cocoa content, the more benefits it’s likely to provide.
Why is chocolate good for us?
Dark chocolate is rich in different nutrients like magnesium, potassium, calcium, vitamin E, D and riboflavin. Hey – it’s a plant food after all! But we’d have to eat a lot of dark chocolate get significant amounts of these nutrients (which by the way, are plentiful in lots of other fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds).
Cocoa butter itself is relatively high in saturated fat (60%), but also contains significant monounsaturated fat (35%) and a small amount of polyunsaturated fat. Perhaps surprisingly, the fat profile of chocolate does not appear to have a positive or negative effect on our blood cholesterol or cardiovascular disease risk (better news than we might previously have thought!).
When considering the health benefits of this food, it’s less about the vitamins and minerals, and more about the antioxidant content of chocolate.
Antioxidants are huge family of different plant compounds, that counteract damaging molecules in our body called free radicals. Through this protective action, antioxidants prevent and undo damage to cells and DNA – fighting against aging and disease.
Cacao is a rich source of an antioxidant family called flavanols – particularly epicatechin, catechin and procyanidins. And let’s not forget theobromine – a bitter compound with high antioxidant qualities, unique to the Theobroma cacao tree (notably this is the stuff that makes chocolate so poisonous to dogs).
Theobroma cacao tree
These antioxidants have been shown to improve blood flow and vessel health, preventing the progression to cardiovascular disease, reducing potential of clot formation and improving blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain. Antioxidants in dark chocolate can also provide fuel for our good gut bacteria, and contribute to diversity of our gut microbiome. Some studies have even shown that dark chocolate can enhance athletic performance!
So, in the big scheme of things, what does a healthy consumption of chocolate look like?
A 2019 meta-analysis that looked at 14 different studies, concluded that consumption of chocolate up to 100g per week appeared to have a favourable (protective) affect against cardiovascular disease. The authors cautioned that when consumed at higher doses (>100g/week), the high sugar, saturated fat and energy intake of chocolate may start to have less favourable effects on health.
Here’s my take:
Seeing as this meta-analysis looked at chocolate consumption in general terms, rather than types of chocolate consumed, we can make some further conclusions:
• If it’s dark chocolate you’re consuming, you probably don’t need to limit to 100g per week, with higher doses contributing more of those potent antioxidants and protective effects.
• Including foods like dark cocoa powder in hot chocolates and baking is another way you can harness the delicious taste and health benefits of cacao.
• We haven’t even talked yet about the benefits of eating chocolate on emotional wellbeing and mood here! But let’s just acknowledge the deliciousness of chocolate, the mood elevating endorphins it produces in our brains, and it’s ability to deliver us comfort and joy like no other food can.
Chocolate lovers: Go out, get yourself some of the good stuff (for best results: ride your bike to the shops in the sunshine) and continue living your best life.