Chocolate is always seen as a luxury food and therefore something rather naughty or even unhealthy – but is that a fair assessment? Along with so many other things in our diets, the supposedly negative or positive aspects of eating chocolate are the subject of much controversy. Each time a new report is published it throws the conclusions of the previous one into disarray. This is true for many other foods as well as our beloved chocolate! Perhaps the true answer is not so much in chocolate itself but in the way, and the amount, that we eat. The chemical constituents of chocolate include a flavinoid and as flavinoids are known to benefit the circulation there can be no argument about that aspect of the benefits of eating chocolate. Chocolate also contains anti-oxidants which help remove other harmful constituents from the blood such as free radicals- again that is not in dispute.
This is the point at which opinions begin to different, as the argument for chocolate in terms of flavinoids and anti-oxidants is negated for many people by the presence of the sugar and fat in chocolate. The potentially harmful effects of these are seen as outweighing the benefits of the others, particularly as flavinoids are available in other food and drink such as vegetables, fruit and tea. As with many things, common sense has to play a part. All things are harmful when taken in excess, even foods which are generally believed to be beneficial to our health. Moderation is the key in every aspect of life and eating chocolate is no exception.
Where sugars are concerned, from a health point of view complex sugars are deemed to be better as they take a longer time to break down within the body. However simple sugars are also carbohydrates and will furnish energy on demand, enabling our bodies to function efficiently. Fats in small quantities perform necessary functions within the body, helping to modulate some hormones within the brain and as a carbohydrate it also provides energy quickly when required. However it must be said that one of the fats found in chocolate is stearic acid, which is a saturated fat and thus can lead to an increase in cholesterol. Again, moderation is the key. There are many chemical compounds in chocolate that are far more beneficial and should be taken into account when worrying about any possible negative effects of the fats and sugars. For example caffeine – though harmful if taken to excess, is thought to be a positive influence on health if taken in small amounts. The quantity of caffeine in chocolate is less than that in coffee so having a cup of hot chocolate is less of an issue than having an equivalent cup of coffee – though I have to confess to a personal weakness for a dash of coffee in my hot chocolate or even a dash of chocolate in my coffee!
There is no doubt that chocolate has a ‘feel good’ factor, and is much loved by many women when PMT strikes. In fact there are times when it is not safe for any male to enter our house unless they carry a bar of chocolate in front of them like a shield! Tryptophan, one of the compounds that develops into Serotonin, is found in chocolate. Serotonin is a chemical within the brain that helps us to handle the effects of stress and combat depression so there is another benefit there. Serotonin is created within the brain when we are sleeping so if you are short of sleep chocolate can be of great help in keeping you on an even keel. Research has also indicated that chocolate causes the release of endorphins within the brain which gives you a ‘high’ in the shape of a feeling of well being and relaxation. Combined with the mild stimulant effect of Theobromine, chocolate can produce a feeling of alertness and generates a much more positive outlook that some of the other stimulants we occasionally take on board like alcohol.
Better quality, high cocoa solid content chocolate, the so called gourmet chocolate, has far less fat and sugar, and provided that, like all good things, we take it in moderation there is little harm done. In short, chocolate makes us feel good and that has to be beneficial to our sense of health and well being.