Is now a good time to talk about chocolate? Well, given that Easter is upon us and we are likely consuming more than at most other times of the year, it probably is. Thankfully, for the most part, I can share some good news about any potential bad habits . . . and it’s not often that I can say that.
Not all chocolate is created equally. Many of the health properties chocolate offers come from the catechins and procyanidins in the cocoa bean, helping to ramp up the body’s endogenous processes that are protective for hypertension, lowering blood pressure and helping reduce cholesterol absorption by decreasing oxidation of LDL cholesterol particles. Oxidised LDL are the lipoproteins that increase risk of cardiovascular disease.
A population-based study in Japan found that regular consumption of dark chocolate reduced risk of stroke by 16 percent in women (and not men). Though the authors noted that they couldn’t exclude other factors being responsible for the reduction in risk, this may well be another hat-tip to the benefits of chocolate.
Increased nitric oxide production may also help increase insulin sensitivity in people who have insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is the underlying process that occurs when we have elevated blood sugar over an extended period of time; the beta cells on our pancreas have to produce more insulin to help drive the sugar from our bloodstream into our cells. Over time it takes more and more insulin to do this as the beta cells become less sensitive to the glucose. The end result of this is type 2 diabetes.
One study found that 100g of dark chocolate a day for 15 days improved insulin sensitivity, reduced blood pressure and improved beta cell function. While I think this is interesting research, unsurprisingly I don’t recommend that anyone consume this amount of chocolate as part of their normal diet (as in, an entire Lindt block!) However I think it highlights how the antioxidants in chocolate can play an important role in health.
We don’t need to consume cocoa in chocolate form to experience the health effects. A recent study found the combination of cocoa and coffee significantly reduced error rates in task and enhanced feelings of attention, along with reducing any anxiety-inducing effects of consuming coffee alone. This cognitive booster could be a good option for people who feel a bit jittery from drinking just straight coffee.
Though cocoa does contain some caffeine (known to enhance attention), the amount is around 5-20 times less than you’ll find in caffeinated drinks. I will point out, though, that your standard mocha at a cafe may not have the desired long-term effect given the sugar you’ll find. You are much better adding a teaspoon of dark cocoa powder to your coffee and trying it that way.
As we head into the cooler months, many may be planning a mid winter getaway to warmer climates. If this is you, then it’s time to start on the cocoa now. Daily ingestion of a cocoa drink for 12 weeks was found to decrease skin redness after UV light exposure. The flavanols from cocoa contribute to our body’s own photoprotection systems and improved blood flow to the skin. They also reduced roughness and scaliness of skin appearance, and increased skin hydration compared to a group that had a cocoa drink that had its flavanol content reduced.
Your best bet for a chocolate fix is dark chocolate. The sugar content of even 72 per cent is going to be around 26g per 100g, significantly higher than the 6.3g you will find in 90 percent. The first block of 85 per cent chocolate I bought had to be given away as it was just too strong.
Palates change though, and if you’re currently consuming at the lower end of the dark chocolate spectrum, perhaps the next block you buy could be a level up. For some people, the higher sugar content can affect the neuroregulation of your appetite; ie you are unable to stop at just a few pieces of the higher sugar variety, but happily stop at two pieces of a darker version.
Why do women crave chocolate more than men?
Woman tend to crave chocolate in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle (days 14-28 in a 28 day cycle). Research has found that this is due to a higher estradiol level that is associated with increased craving for higher carbohydrate, higher sugar food. In addition, carbohydrate containing foods (such as chocolate) can help produce serotonin by increasing the availability of a precursor tryptophan.
Therefore this craving is a fairly natural response to having lower levels of the “feel good” hormones. Studies investigating the difference in individual stress response have found premenopausal women to have a higher cortisol level (cortisol is a stress hormone) compared to post-menopausal women.
Cortisol elicits a change in blood sugar, signalling to the brain to dump glucose into the bloodstream as a way to mitigate against a potential “fight or flight” situation. Subsequent changes can drop sugar levels and cause our body to crave sugar — and more often than not, chocolate.
So there you have it. Enjoy your chocolate knowing that it may well be enhancing your health. I will say, though, that there is almost always a law of diminishing returns with enjoyment— the first few pieces are always going to taste so much better than the end of an entire block. However, if you end up consuming more than you’d ultimately like, you haven’t “blown it” — the next opportunity to eat well is the next meal, and an extra chocolate egg or two is not likely to harm you. In fact, it may even do you some good.