Guilt or superfood? It’s hard to think of another snack that’s been as maligned and hotly debated as chocolate.
Dieters used to be told to avoid it, especially white or milk chocolate, which is high in fat and sugar.
But more and more research is showing that the black variety has many health benefits.
Research published this week shows that cocoa can lower your blood pressure, keep your heart healthy, and strengthen your veins and arteries thanks to antioxidants called flavanols.
Researchers at the University of Surrey have urged people to eat more dark chocolate because it contains more cocoa than the most popular chocolate bars.
You might be surprised to learn that chocolate is an aphrodisiac because it contains the “love drug” phenylethylamine, which boosts libido by increasing levels of the “happy hormones” endorphins.
It also strengthens male erections due to its blood flow-increasing effect.
Researchers have also shown that regular consumption of dark chocolate improves alertness—a 100g bar contains as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. It has also been linked to making people happier and reducing the risk of depression.
But the benefits of eating chocolate can only come from eating the bitter-tasting, high-cacao varieties. And relying on sweets can have health benefits and lead to weight gain.
So is chocolate a sin or a superfood? And what does the research show?
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
According to the NHS, meals should include potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains.
• Eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables count
• Staple foods are potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, preferably whole grains
• 30 grams of fiber per day: This is equivalent to eating all of the following: 5 servings of fruit, 2 whole-grain crackers, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread, and a large baked potato with skin on.
• Choose low-fat and low-sugar varieties of milk or milk alternatives (such as soy drinks).
• Eat some beans, peas, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 servings of fish each week, one of which should be fatty)
• Choose unsaturated fats and spreads and use them sparingly
• Drink 6-8 glasses of water a day
• Adults should have 6g of salt per day and 20g of saturated fat for women and 30g for men.
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide
PROTECTS THE HEART
The latest evidence of dark chocolate’s health benefits comes from a University of Surrey study that found it lowered blood pressure and dilated blood vessels within hours.
This is due to the flavanols – antioxidants found in cocoa – that keep blood vessel walls flexible and allow blood to flow more easily throughout the body.
The researchers recruited 11 adults who alternated between eating cocoa capsules or a placebo every day for two weeks. The results showed that their blood pressure dropped and their arteries relaxed on the days they took the flavanols.
However, the study participants were given a very strong supplement equivalent to half a kilo of dark chocolate – usually sold in 100g bars.
Scientists believe that increasing the amount of dark chocolate can still be beneficial, even if you don’t eat large amounts.
The research, based on research from a separate group of scientists in Portugal, found that eating dark chocolate every day lowered blood pressure within a month, thanks to the health benefits of flavanols.
Their findings were based on 30 teenagers who ate up to 20 grams of milk or dark chocolate every day for a month.
Those who ate the high-cocoa chocolate saw their systolic blood pressure drop by 3.5 mmHg, compared to 2.4 mmHg in the low-cocoa group. And diastolic blood pressure decreased by 2.3 mm and 1.7 mm Hg, respectively.
In addition to improving blood pressure and vascular health, scientists have found that it can lower cholesterol.
A group of American researchers asked 31 people to eat 50 grams of dark or white chocolate for 15 days. Researchers have found that those who eat dark chocolate reduce blood glucose and “bad” blood lipids, which have the effect of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
BRAIN HEALTH IMPROVES
Dozens of studies have shown that flavanols improve brain function because antioxidants increase blood flow.
A 2011 study from the University of Reading found that after just two hours of eating dark chocolate, memory and reaction time improved, while those who ate white chocolate had no benefit.
Other studies have shown long-term benefits.
In 2014, Columbia University researchers found that adults in their 50s and 60s performed better on memory tests when they took flavanol pills and drank cocoa supplements for three months. The authors of the study said that at the end of the study, their brains functioned like those of a 30-year-old.
A 2017 meta-analysis of studies on chocolate and brain health published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition found that it improves brain blood flow, oxygen levels and nerve function.
The Italian researchers who conducted this study say that magnesium, like the flavanols in chocolate, increases oxygen supply to the brain and reduces the risk of brain damage through stroke.
A separate 2013 study by researchers at the University of Glasgow concluded that chocolate increases carbon dioxide levels, improves blood flow and improves brain cell health. The group’s findings were based on measurements of blood flow through the largest artery in the brain while volunteers ate chocolate.
And in 2014, a team at Cornell University in New York identified an antioxidant in the sweet food called epicatechin that protects against amyloid plaques that cause Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.
IT WILL HELP YOU UNDERSTAND IT
In addition to long-term heart and brain health benefits, chocolate also offers short-term benefits by boosting energy levels when you crash in the afternoon. The food also contains caffeine and theobromine.
American researchers recruited more than 100 young adults to either one gram per kilogram of dark chocolate or a placebo. For example, a person weighing 60 kg (nine and a half stone) would be given 60 grams – a little more than a Mars bar.
100g of chocolate contains 80mg of caffeine, slightly less than a cup of coffee (95mg) and 1000mg of theobromine – a third less than a cup of black tea (1600mg).
They then underwent brain scans while performing reasoning and memory tasks
The results showed that those who ate dark chocolate were more alert and attentive than those who ate other snacks. But a team from Northern Arizona University noted that sweet snacks can also raise blood pressure.
Researchers have found that the flavanols—antioxidants—in dark chocolate can keep your heart healthy by lowering your blood pressure.
NO SURPRISE, IT WILL MAKE YOU HAPPY
According to scientists, a person who eats a few squares of chocolate a day will be happier.
Last year, a group of Korean scientists conducted the first study showing that chocolate can have a positive effect on the mood of people who eat it every day.
They recruited around 50 people to eat 30g of either 85 per cent or 70 per cent dark chocolate – about a third of a large bar – or none at all every day for three weeks. The results of psychological tests showed that those who ate the darkest version were the happiest.
Analysis of the volunteers’ fecal samples suggested that chocolate increased the diversity of gut microbes, specifically the gut bacteria Blautia, which may be a mechanism for mood enhancement. Gut bacteria produce hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate mental processes such as mood, memory and learning.
A separate study by a team at University College London found that those who regularly ate dark chocolate were less likely to suffer from depression.
They surveyed 13,000 people in 2019 about chocolate consumption and symptoms of depression. Those who reported eating dark chocolate had lower mood. However, there was no relationship between mood and eating white or milk chocolate.
While the team said the findings do not prove that chocolate fights depression, they did note that it contains a number of psychoactive ingredients, including two forms of anandamine, which produce feelings of euphoria similar to cannabis.
Dark chocolate also contains antioxidants that reduce inflammation in the body – a reaction some experts have linked to depression.
TROUBLE IN BED? EAT CHOCOLATE INSTEAD!
Chocolate is said to act as an aphrodisiac — a sex drive — because it contains anandamide, a neurotransmitter that targets the same parts of the brain as cannabis, and phenylethylamine, a so-called “love drug.” mimics the brain chemistry of a lover. These two ingredients cause the body to release happy hormones called endorphins.
However, studies have produced conflicting results regarding the relationship between chocolate consumption and sexual behavior.
A University of California study last year found that people who ate a lot of chocolate were less interested in sex. Researchers surveyed 1,000 people about their weekly chocolate intake and sex.
But earlier research in 2006 involving 163 women by a team at Vita-Salute San Raffaelle University in Italy found that those who ate more chocolate had greater sexual desire and pleasure.
But cocoa also contains methylxanthines, which can make people lethargic and lower libido.
And flavonoids—the same blood-flow-boosting antioxidants chocolate helps with heart health—may improve erections.
Harvard University researchers published results in 2016 based on questionnaires sent to 25,000 men, showing that men who ate three or four servings of flavonoid-rich foods per week were ten times less likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction.
…But the DOWN SIDES?
Many of the studies that experts tout the benefits of dark chocolate don’t apply in the real world because they use cocoa compounds instead of store-bought chocolate.
This means that people should eat so much dark chocolate that it adds up with extra calories that have health benefits.
And for the flavanols found in fruits, apples, nuts and tea, snacking on dark chocolate has been shown to lead to weight gain.
Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and some cancers – negating any small gains in heart and brain health.