Like wine, we love to read about chocolate being good for us. The reality's not so sweet.
You'd have to be blind and have no sense of smell to have missed that we've been bombarded with tempting chocolate treats in the lead-up to Easter. In fact, the Creme Eggs and hot cross buns seemed to appear with indecent haste at checkout displays not long after the new year rolled around.
Chocolate is one of those things, like wine, that we love to read stories about telling us it's healthy. We are primed to crave licence to enjoy our treats without guilt. And chocolate tops many people's lists of favourite treats; it's got that magical combination of fat and sugar, so its flavour, texture and mouth feel seem designed to make us crave it.
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but I think you probably already know that your Easter egg is not a health food.
Although you may often hear that chocolate – especially dark chocolate – is full of antioxidants that can confer health benefits, the evidence for this is patchy. Some studies have found that eating chocolate lowers cancer risk; some have found no benefit, and some have found an increased risk. So we can't say from that, that eating chocolate is good for us.
According to the American Cancer Society, there is some evidence of heart health benefits from flavanols - the antioxidants found in cocoa beans. These have been shown to lower blood pressure and may benefit the heart.
But of course, when we take the cocoa beans and process them into chocolate with a ton of sugar and fat, those benefits are likely to get cancelled out. We know sugar and fat are energy dense; that means chocolate can pack in a wallop of calories in a small package.
The same is really true of so-called "healthier" chocolate. Chocolate labelled "sugar free" is likely to be sweetened with other sweeteners which have their own problems (such as the sugar alcohols erythritol or sorbitol, which can cause gut upsets) and can be just as calorific as regular chocolate. Organic chocolate is no healthier than regular chocolate; it's just been produced from organically-grown ingredients. "Raw" chocolate or cacao is not much different, either; I've seen products like this sweetened with agave nectar, coconut syrup or coconut sugar – all of which are just other forms of sugar and don't make the end product any healthier than a sugar-containing equivalent. (The idea that cacao is inherently healthier than cocoa doesn't seem to have much evidence behind it; cacao is a less processed form of cocoa but in terms of health effects the differences seem negligible). Vegan chocolate won't contain any dairy or other animal products, but again that doesn't make it healthier.
Whatever else you see on the front of the package, choosing chocolate that's as dark as possible will mean you're likely to get less sugar and more flavanols, if you're interested in that.
Health stuff out of the way; none of that means we should feel bad or guilty about eating our Easter eggs, whatever flavour they are.
We shouldn't feel guilty about eating any food.
I really hate the idea of guilt being associated with eating; food is something we need and enjoy; not something we should feel bad about. When special-occasion food, like Easter treats, present themselves, it's nice to be able to enjoy them for the pure pleasure they give us, rather than worrying about whether they're "allowed", or bad or good. This is part of having a good relationship with food.
Nutritionists who specialise in intuitive eating talk about removing the judgment from food; of not thinking of any food as good or bad, but of all foods being "emotionally equal". This is a powerful idea. It means giving ourselves unconditional permission to eat, which tends to take away the emotional power food can sometimes have over us. This in turn allows us to listen to our bodies a bit more. So the Easter chocolate becomes just another food; we can eat it or not eat it and not feel any emotion, other than enjoyment, about it.
That's hard for lots of people; chocolate is a food that tends to have quite an emotional pull. But it might be something to practise this Easter. If you choose to eat the chocolate, savour it.