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Food of the month - Chocolate

March 2016

Okay, chocolate is never going to be classified as a super food! But with Easter coming and all those lovely chocolate Easter eggs now in the shops, there are actually some good reasons why we shouldn’t feel too guilty about our occasional indulgence.

The key to chocolate is its content level of cocoa. Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cocoa tree and it is the cocoa content (especially the cocoa solids) that gives chocolate some important health benefits. However, it always has to be remembered that chocolate can also contain fats, sugar and milk as well as cocoa solids…white chocolate is made from cocoa butter, sugar and milk but without any cocoa solids at all. So the key to gaining benefit from chocolate is to look at its cocoa levels.

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The best chocolate from a health point of view is dark chocolate that is made from 70 - 85% cocoa; this can mean the chocolate tastes slightly less sweet and more bitter than some of the more popular chocolates but the higher level of cocoa ensures the better health benefits.

As a guide, a 100 gram of dark chocolate with around 80% cocoa with contain 11 grams of fibre; plus
67% of the RDA for iron; 58% of the RDA for magnesium; 89% of the RDA for copper; 98% of the RDA for manganese. It also has plenty of potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium.

Very interesting is the fact that cocoa contains flavanoids. These are antioxidants that are good for us…they help protect cells and remove damaging free radicals and chelating metals.
According to American’s University of Michigan which has undertaken several in-depth studies of chocolate, the main reasons to include dark chocolate in your diet are because it can be associated with:

  • A decrease of LDL (bad) cholesterol
  • A reduction in the risk of blood clots
  • An increase blood flow in arteries and the heart
  • Lowering of high blood pressure

The University explains that cocoa may have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels because it consists mainly of stearic acid and oleic acid. Stearic acid is a saturated fat, but unlike most saturated fatty acids, it does not raise blood cholesterol levels. Oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, does not raise cholesterol and may even reduce it.

They also say chocolate may improve mood and pleasure by boosting serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain and regular intake is associated with better cognitive performance in older people.

It is important to remember though that any potential health benefits from chocolate have to be weighed against the fact that the chocolate also contains sugar and fat. Just one ounce of dark chocolate with 70 to 85 percent cocoa solids has 170 calories, 12 grams of fat and 7 grams of sugar, which equals about 2 teaspoons of granulated sugar. The same portion of milk chocolate has 150 calories, 8 grams of fat and double the sugar.

Reports on the health benefits can be taken out of context. For instance, research at Cambridge University found that people consuming the most chocolate had a 37% lower risk of heart disease and a 29% lower risk of stroke than those who consumed no chocolate. This was picked up by the media under great headlines such as "Chocolate is good for you".  In fact, the report did not prove this and other factors needed to be taken into account; chocolate should never be thought of as a health food. Even the author of the study, Dr Oscar France, said that while chocolate shows benefits, it should only be eaten in a moderate way and not in large quantities.

Overall, it seems that enjoying small amounts of chocolate on a fairly regular basis can be fine and bring certain benefits but… as the saying goes… it is also clear there can be too much of a good thing.


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