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Chocolate: friend or foe? It's the ultimate in food indulgence that usually leaves us feeling guilty but research regularly shows chocolate could actually boost our health. To celebrate National Chocolate Week, nutritionist Ruth Joseph finds out if it really is our friend or enemy.

Byline: Ruth Joseph

YOU'VE been a dietary paragon the whole week but now it's a Saturday night; it's raining and that bar of chocolate is beckoning.

You're already imagining the creamy rich smoothness in your mouth and it's nagging you from its place of hiding.

So, is chocolate the devil incarnate guaranteed to ruin your diet and destroy your health in the process, or is it the delicious treat that will relax and soothe instantly? As the average Britain eats approximately 11 kilos of chocolate a year (about three bars per week) and the UK is the seventh largest consumer of chocolate in the world, maybe understanding a little more about chocolate and its effects on health might be useful.

For years scientists have been testing the effects of chocolate on the body and some of their conclusions are fascinating. Considering the cacao bean, from which chocolate is extracted, contains more than 400 separate chemicals, which have to be isolated and analysed, this is no simple matter.

Chocolate's effect on coronary heart disease Research recently published in the British Medical Journal suggests that a daily intake of seven ingredients including 100g dark chocolate, along with fish, fruit, vegetables, almonds, garlic and 150ml of wine could lower the risk of coronary heart disease by a massive 76%.

The scientists involved in that study presented at the European Society of Cardiology, used seven studies involving more than 100,000 people, and concluded that eating 100g of dark chocolate per day could reduce blood pressure and the risk of a heart attack or stroke by 21%.

However, the authors of that study remained guarded about the results, not wanting to proclaim chocolate as a so-called 'super food', as it is high calorie, can cause weight gain and thus still end in heart disease. It's hoped in the future that manufacturers may produce chocolate with a lower calorie count.

Fat content In the past, chocolate has been criticised as both high fat and high sugar and therefore damaging to health. Certainly, 100g of milk chocolate contains approximately 30g of fat, while dark chocolate with 70% cocoa solids contains an even higher 49% of fat.

But if you look at the types of fat within that chocolate, you will immediately see that one-third is oleic acid - the same virtuous type of fat in olive oil.

Another third is stearic acid - which is saturated - but the body is able to convert stearic acid into oleic acid.

It also has a proportion of palmitic acid - a saturated fat which boosts cholesterol.

And although that doesn't seem like good news, scientists nevertheless believe that dark chocolate actually reduces cholesterol, which can again assist in the fight against coronary heart disease.

Unfortunately though, this is not the case with milk chocolate, which, although lower in fat, has a lower proportion of cocoa butter.

For 100g of milk chocolate, there is nearly 57g of sugar compared to 70% dark chocolate, which only contains 26g sugar.

And although the fat content in dark chocolate is higher and so higher in calories, its concentrated flavour tends to satisfy so in theory, a couple of squares will do.

However, in comparison, the sugar content in milk chocolate can create an addictive craving for more.

Flavonoid content Within the cacao plant lies a specific anti-oxidant called epicatechin - a type of flavonol or plant chemical also prevalent in other plants.

Cherries, blackberries, apples and black tea have large amounts but the richest source is in dark chocolate. It seems to have a protective effect on the body by aiding nutrients vital for regular body function.

Flavonols also have the property of reducing swelling and the accumulation of cholesterol from artery walls.

Feel good factor Chocolate is high in the alkaloid theobromine and also caffeine.

Theobromine creates a feeling of calmness and can lower blood pressure while caffeine creates a feeling of brightness and contentedness and reduces fatigue but raises blood pressure.

Together these chemicals offer that magical feel-good factor producing feelings of euphoria and relaxation.

Mineral source Chocolate is a source of minerals particularly magnesium and iron.

Calorie count Chocolate contains a huge number of calories. 100g of milk is 520 calories and dark, 510 calories. Because of its high sugar content, sweetened chocolate, particularly milk and white chocolate, will create mood swings, as our gluc-ose level rises suddenly then drops. This rapid sugar drop encourages us to eat yet more chocolate and so gain weight. And this ongoing situation encourages the development of Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Horrid heartburn Chocolate contains methylxanthine, which in some people results in a pleasant buzz sensation, but can, in some cases, make hearts beat faster and also cause acid heartburn by relaxing the muscle between the oesophagus and the stomach allowing acid to return causing pain.

So what's my verdict? Opt for a little bit of dark The Aztecs cleverly thought chocolate gave their warriors strength. And as scientists have proved - the better quality chocolate contains the highest level of anti-oxidants.

So, perhaps it is better to spoil ourselves buying a little of the very best dark chocolate, and relishing it slowly, knowing that will improve our health.

In the case of chocolate, it's definitely quality not quantity that counts. And sadly for our health's sake, maybe those bars of creamy chocolate need to be relegated to high day and holiday treats.

| Ruth Joseph, author of Warm Bagels and Apple Strudel, practised as a qualified nutritionist for 10 years and now writes on food, cookery features and health. She lives in Cardiff.

Let's look at the positives...But, now for the dreaded downsides. While it all sounds positive there are negative points...The average Britain eats approximately 11 kilos of chocolate a year which is about three bars a week

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| Nutritionist, cook and food writer, Ruth Joseph
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Oct 6, 2012
Words:972
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