Chocolate: The Good & The Bad
Chocolate: perhaps this is rather an odd choice to star in the #EatInSeason section – worry not if you were thinking that the good ol’ Brussel sprout deserved the December spot, it has been reserved for January (Brussel sprouts are not just for Christmas!). I agree, chocolate isn’t a home grown seasonal delight but it is almost Christmas and what better time of year than this to celebrate it? You can’t avoid it at this time of year, so let’s redefine it with some good facts. Read on, for while the common chocolate bar warrants its bad press, authentic dark chocolate is noted by many to be of nutritional benefit.
Many of my clients have claimed to be “addicted” to chocolate, so I thought I’d take a look at the facts about this seductive agent and see if the health claims are really all they size up to be. Most of the studies claiming health benefits from chocolate are small, with a degree of flawed design, and have a whopping conflict of interest as they are often paid for by chocolate manufacturers. With this in mind, their conclusions should be swallowed with scepticism and caution. Likewise, there is passionately conflicting opinion on the raw vs dark chocolate debate and there is currently very little scientific literature on raw chocolate, which does not mean its bad, or good, it just means that this has not been an area yet focused on or financed by the scientific community.
So, what’s in cocoa?
- Cocoa contains bioactive compounds called ‘flavanols’ (similar compounds are also found in tea, red wine and apples). These make up 10% of the weight of the cocoa bean, and have an antioxidant action, amongst other effects.
- Other important bioactive components include procyanidins and epicatechin.
- Methylxanthines (MXs) – including caffeine and theobromine, which are stimulants and also contribute to the bitterness of dark chocolate.
- And much more . . . !
What’s the difference between cocoa and chocolate?
Cocoa is the non-fat part of finely ground cocoa beans, whereas chocolate contains a number of other ingredients alongside cocoa (cocoa butter, sugar, dairy products and other components), which are then processed and formed into the chocolate readily available as bars or spreads.
Raw vs dark?
- Normal cocoa powder and cacao powder come from the same tree and same pods, and although technically mean the same thing, modern use of the words tends to refer to ‘cocoa’ as the traditionally heated & processed product, and ‘cacao’ as the less processed, or ‘raw’ product.
- To turn cocoa pods into normal cocoa powder or chocolate, the beans need processing by fermentation, drying, roasting at high temperatures, and also sometimes going through ‘dutch processing’ (alkalization). These processes may, however, reduce the concentration of antioxidant flavanols in the beans. (4)
- ‘Raw’ cacao is roasted at a much cooler temperature, and sometimes also avoids other steps in processing. However, the health benefits, or indeed possible harm, of consuming this form of cocoa are currently uncertain as very few studies have been carried out yet.
- Milk and white chocolate contains far more sugar, and far less cocoa, than dark chocolate, and so it therefore contains fewer beneficial compounds. White chocolate contains so little as to not even be considered a source of cocoa bioactives.
- Unsweetened cocoa powder is the best dietary source for weight.
What are the possible health benefits being researched?
- Eating cocoa or dark chocolate has been associated with a short-term slight reduction in blood pressure and insulin resistance for some people. (1)
- The possible association between chocolate consumption and a lower risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease is still undergoing research.
- Consuming cocoa can improve blood flow and promote circulation in a dose-dependent manner for some people (possibly by increased production of nitric oxide). (7)
- Some studies have also shown that chocolate also may have a positive impact on mood (although it’s been hard to pull apart whether it is the components of the chocolate, or the comforting taste and mouthfeel which give this result). (2)
- In trials supplementing chocolate for up to 12 weeks, there seemed to be a beneficial effect on the blood cholesterol marker LDL, in the short term, (3) although the long-term consequences are uncertain, and it didn’t seem to impact total cholesterol or Triglycerides.
However, any beneficial effects are likely to be undone by eating lots of high-fat, high-sugar content chocolate, and so this is why the darker, less adulterated versions are the sensible, healthier choice. Interestingly, chocolate with a higher sugar and cocoa content increases drive to eat more chocolate after the first taste (5), making sticking to a moderate intake harder.
(See references below)
So, here are my 3 delicious things to do with chocolate:
A small amount of cocoa, or high-cocoa content dark chocolate, is likely to be good for us, even if consumed daily (but dependant what else is consumed in terms of other sugars). Yippee!!
Make your own Chocolates!
- 125g cacao butter
- 50g cacao powder
- 50g coconut nectar
Melt the cacao butter in a bowl over simmering water, remove from the heat and sieve in cacao powder. Combine with coconut nectar and stir until smooth and cooled down, it needs to get below 31 degrees if you are able to measure it. Pour it into moulds to make your own chocolate. You can get creative and add in peppermint or orange oil, sea salt, orange or lime zest, hemp or chia seeds for a little crunch. I made crunchy mint chocolates. Just pour the chocolate mixture into moulds (which you can buy online) and put into the freezer to set. Makes 18 so perfect for a healthier Christmas. If you don’t have moulds then try setting them onto teaspoons – just grease the spoons with a little coconut oil first then pour onto them and set in the fridge on a tray. Easy peasy!
Dip Fruit & Nuts Into It
Make your own melting chocolate as above. Then get creative – dip wonderful fresh and dried fruits and nuts into the melted chocolate. Carefully lay them onto a sheet of parchment paper and pop into the fridge. You can of course make these with good quality commercially bought dark chocolate but it’s so much more rewarding and delicious to make your own from scratch, especially at this time of year when you can enrol family and friends to help.
If you are looking for a gluten-free, dairy-free pud to ‘wow’ your guests, look no further. This chocolate mouse is decadent but super easy to make; top with festive cranberries and orange zest, or toasted nuts and cacao nibs.
- 100 ml almond milk
- 30g cacao butter
- 3 tbsp cacao powder
- 3 to 4 dates, about 25g
- 2 eggs, separated
Heat the almond milk with cacao butter, cacao powder and dates until the cacao butter has melted and bring it just to boiling.
Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks and set aside. Place the egg yolks in a small food processor or Nutribullet and pour the boiling mixture onto the yolks and whizz for a minute until creamy smooth, and cooled a little. Add one spoonful of the whites to the chocolate mix to loosen it before folding gently into the egg whites. Divide into small glasses, or pretty teacups.
Chill for about 2 hours before serving with your choice of toppings. Try orange zest, toasted hazelnuts or cacao nibs.
These are so quick to make and yet taste complex, luxurious and like a naughty treat. A perfect healthy take on a classic so you and your guests can enjoy a treat without any of the worries…
– Studies generally contained twice daily consumption of between 20-55g cocoa. This translated to between 50-100g dark chocolate per day! (50g dark chocolate generally contains 230-250kcal, so unless diet is otherwise isocalorically balanced, the risks of gaining weight are likely to far outweigh the benefits.
– However, for longer-term use, there seems to be some consensus that you get benefit from around 10-40g of dark chocolate of >70% (ideally 85%) cocoa solids per day for health benefit (6), although optimum doses are still being researched.
10g dark chocolate, 70-85% cocoa content:
1.4g saturated fat
(1) Hooper, L., Kay, C., Abdelhamid, A., Kroon, P. A., Cohn, J. S., Rimm, E. B. and Cassidy, A. (2012) ‘Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials’, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 95(3), pp. 740–751. (2) Scholey, A. and Owen, L. (2013) ‘Effects of chocolate on cognitive function and mood: A systematic review’, Nutrition Reviews, 71(10), pp. 665–681. (3)Tokede, O. A., Gaziano, J. M. and Djoussé, L. (2011) ‘Effects of cocoa products/dark chocolate on serum lipids: A meta-analysis’, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 65(8), pp. 879–886. (4) Suazo, Y., Davidov-Pardo, G. and Arozarena, I. (2014) ‘Effect of fermentation and Roasting on the phenolic concentration and Antioxidant activity of cocoa from Nicaragua’, Journal of Food Quality, 37(1), pp. 50–56. (5) Nasser, J. A., Bradley, L. E., Leitzsch, J. B., Chohan, O., Fasulo, K., Haller, J., Jaeger, K., Szulanczyk, B. and Del Parigi, A. (2011) ‘Psychoactive effects of tasting chocolate and desire for more chocolate’, Physiology & Behavior, 104(1), pp. 117–121. (6) Van Wensem, J. (2014) ‘Overview of scientific evidence for chocolate health benefits’, Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, 11(1), pp. 176–177. (7) Examine.com Cocoa extract – scientific review on usage, dosage, side effects. Available at: http://examine.com/supplements/Cocoa+Extract/ (Accessed: 17 November 2015).