Many of us love the taste and pleasure chocolate provides, but should we be eating it to gain a health benefit?Duane Mellor looks at chocolate past and present and the philosophy that chocolate could be good for health
Chocolate is one food that many of us feel we simply cannot live without; some of us even feel we’re addicted to it. Well, the chocolate we know today hasn’t always looked like this; it’s an invention of the 19th century when the industrial revolution, built on the produce of the slave trade, made sugar cheaper and more widely available.
A bit of history
Chocolate, or more accurately cocoa or cacao, originated in Central America. Today, you can buy a ‘Paleo’ raw cacao bar in health food shops, but the fact is cacao was not cultivated until quite recently in human history, perhaps only 4000 years ago. Slightly more recently, in Mayan culture, it was highly revered being used as currency as part of religious ritual and even human sacrifice! At this time, it was used to make a drink with spices such as vanilla and chilli; on occasion, it was actually mixed with human blood. It was also a product of the upper classes of society with men, who were the rulers, priests and soldiers, being the only ones allowed to consume it. During this time, Emperor Montezuma suggested a soldier could march for an entire day on just one cup of cocoa, which is possibly the first health claim recorded.
Cocoa, and the tree it comes from, are interlinked with creation stories of the Mayans. This led to the cocoa tree being given the Latin name ‘Theobroma cacao’ literally meaning ‘Food of the Gods’, but does it deserve that name in our modern scientific world? Millions would probably agree as they love the taste and pleasure chocolate provides, but over the last two decades, the health potentials of chocolate have become increasingly interesting to scientists, including myself. I’ve spent the last 10 years investigating what might be in chocolate that could be healthy whilst taking into consideration the potentially adverse effects on health and weight because of its high fat and sugar content.
“Chocolate, or more accurately cocoa or cacao, originated in Central America„
Strict European laws control what’s in chocolate and dictate that only a small number of extra ingredients can be added to cocoa to make your favourite bar. This isn’t the case in other countries such as America where alongside cocoa, sugar can be added with milk (in milk chocolate) and fat from vegetable sources and vanilla and lecithin, which is an emulsifier made from soya and stops the fat ‘floating to the top’ of your chocolate bar.
The law also states that added ingredients cannot make up more than 40 per cent of the chocolate. It’s also illegal for chocolate to contain non-milk animal fats, flours or starches. The amount of cocoa in the chocolate varies according to the type of chocolate, as does the balance of cocoa solids (the dark bitter part) to the creamy cocoa butter, with dark chocolate containing more of the solids and white chocolate containing only cocoa butter.
Modern smooth chocolate is the result of a range of innovations including the development of freeze dried milks. These allow the development of milk chocolate and use of processes that improve flavour to produce a smooth and stable bar. This means it can remain in good condition for up to 2 years, although not many of us can leave a chocolate bar that long!
“Modern smooth chocolate can remain in good condition for up to 2 years„
The idea that chocolate could be good for health probably started with observations of the Kuna people in Panama who drank 3 cups of traditional cocoa a day. It was noticed that they had lower blood pressure and fewer heart attacks than those living in Panama City. This has, over the last 20 years, led to hundreds of studies including those I’ve carried out. These studies have shown that chocolate and cocoa drinks may help lower blood pressure, make cholesterol less likely to lead to heart disease and improve the health of blood vessels. The problem with much of this research, (including most of my trials) was that they used specially designed chocolate for research that is not available in the shops. Having said this, studies over many years have linked regular consumption of small amounts of chocolate with lower rates of stroke, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes compared to those who eat no chocolate at all. The problem with these types of what is called ‘epidemiological study’ is that they cannot provide information about what causes the benefits.
So, although chocolate cannot be considered a true health food, there doesn’t seem to be a logical reason to avoid it. The problem with chocolate is that it’s pretty easy to eat in large amounts, and it’s very high in energy (calories), sugar and fat; 100 grams of chocolate contains around 520 calories, 50 grams of sugar and 28 grams of fat. Typically, dark chocolate contains less sugar and more fat whilst milk and white chocolate contains less fat and more sugar. Some of the early studies, which suggested chocolate could lower blood pressure over 14 days, gave its participants 100 grams of halbbitter (a dark chocolate) a day. As this would provide about one quarter of an average woman’s daily calorie intake this is clearly not a good idea. My research, using special research chocolate, was specially made with more of the bitter cocoa solids so we could get the same amount of potentially beneficial compounds (polyphenols) into a much smaller bar. It is these polyphenols that have been seen to help blood pressure health and improve cholesterol quality.
How many squares?
So, to help fit chocolate into your balanced diet, it’s sensible to only eat 3-4 squares in any one go and this will provide about 100 calories. There’s an increasing number of small snack type bars available, weighing in at 15-20 grams, which meet the Public Health England recommendation for this new energy limit for the maximum of 2 snacks a day – ‘look for 100-calorie snacks, two a day max’. These sweet chocolate products are unlikely to contain enough of the potentially healthy polyphenols to have any health effects though.
Chocolate has also been believed to make us ‘feel good’ which may possibly be because of the action of chemicals it contains which are linked to pleasure centres in the brain. Other experts have linked these feelings to how the chocolate melts in our mouths and the flavour and sweetness we learnt to enjoy as children.
Cup of hot choc?
Another belief is that drinking chocolate can help us sleep, which is a long way from the Mayans who used it to provide energy to keep armies marching. There’s a surprising lack of evidence for the benefits of chocolate for use as a sleep aid which is possibly due to it containing a caffeine-like compound called ‘theobromine’. Theobromine can keep you awake so it’s more likely to be the milk in these drinks that helps you relax into a good night’s sleep.
When eaten in small amounts, chocolate can be enjoyed and may have very limited health benefits, particularly if it’s a bitter chocolate. The percentage content of cocoa solids is not always the best sign as to the possible health benefits because this figure is a combination of the cocoa butter and the cocoa solids and any benefit is likely to be from the bitter solids. So, is chocolate really ‘The Food of the Gods’ and should we be eating it to gain a health benefit? Probably not, but then again, if you’re one of those chocolate lovers then eating about 15-20 grams of dark chocolate a day for enjoyment can be a pretty decent idea.
References available upon request.
Duane Mellor is an academic dietitian and nutritionist. He has worked in universities both in the UK and Australia. Currently he leads the Nutrition and Health degree at Coventry University.