Chocolate can be good for you
This week is Chocolate Week!!!!
The History of chocolate
The history of chocolate dates back over 3000 years to the Olmec civilization. Cocoa powder is made from cocoa beans that are harvested from a tree called Theobroma Cacao, meaning ‘food of the Gods’. Aztecs are thought to have enjoyed cacao beans by making a ‘drink’ called Chicolati, which was believed to increase wisdom, boost energy and act as an aphrodisiac. This brew was seasoned with vanilla, chilli, honey or fruit and whipped into a froth using little sticks. I love their choice of flavours, which have now become commonplace amongst chocolate bars and puddings.
Since its discovery by Europeans and the vast time through to modern day, millions of people have helped to drive the popularity of this ultimate sweet treat. The reputation of chocolate has evolved over time from a luxury food synonymous with wealth, to an easily affordable comfort food whilst the association with romantic gesture (food of love) and mood has remained since first discovered.
Global retail sales of chocolate are staggering with estimates of over £75 billion per year and in the UK alone, we spend over £3 billion annually.
Types of chocolate
Chocolate comes in many forms nowadays and is defined by the percentage of cocoa it contains. Milk chocolate contains a low percentage of cocoa (23% cocoa solids) and is high in sugar and saturated fat. Darker varieties have a greater percentage of cocoa (anything from 70-90% cocoa solids) and slightly less sugar and saturated fat (although still high). Cocoa powder contains hardly any sugar, low amounts of saturated fat and is rich in minerals and other compounds that may benefit health.
Nutritional content of cocoa
Cocoa in its raw form is a good source of minerals including iron (helps to maintain healthy red blood cell production), magnesium (helps to maintain healthy bones, promotes muscle relaxation and converts food into energy), phosphorus (healthy bones and converts food into energy), potassium (helps maintain fluid balance and helps the heart to work properly), zinc (helps to make new cells and enzymes in the body and wound healing) and copper (helps to produce red and white blood cells and with iron usage in the body).
Nutritional breakdown of unsweetened cocoa powder per 2 heaped tsp
Sat fat 1.8g
Iron 1.57mg (11% RDA)
Magnesium 73mg (19% RDA)
Phosphorus 92mg (13% RDA)
Potassium 210mg (10.5% RDA)
Zinc 0.97mg (9.7% RDA)
Copper 0.55mg (55% RDA)
Other compounds found in cocoa
Cocoa is richer in antioxidants that almost any other food on the planet. These antioxidant compounds are called flavanol polyphenols and have been shown to help reduce the risk of disease. Cocoa also contains a compound called theobromine, which acts as a stimulant similar to caffeine but without the jittery side-effects. You will also find phenethylamine (PEA) in cocoa, which is a compound that stimulates the central nervous system to amplify the action of brain chemicals including the ‘feel’ good hormones serotonin and dopamine. Phenethylamine is also thought to mimic the brain chemistry of someone in love, which is why it’s often thought of as an aphrodisiac.
What are the potential health benefits of cocoa?
In moderation there’s nothing wrong with eating chocolate within the context of a healthy diet, but too much of anything can have its downsides and our reliance on high sugar snacks has been instrumental in the rise of diet related diseases including obesity.
Whilst overindulging on chocolate snack bars and puddings is clearly not great for your health, research has shown that there may be health benefits associated with cocoa, which is the raw ingredient.
Just to be clear, there are no benefits associated with tucking into a few packets of Minstrels and any positive impact on health is linked to cocoa in its raw form of cocoa powder or raw cacao. The closest chocolate comes to having any health benefits is the dark variety with a high percentage of cocoa solids (70% and above), but this still needs to be eaten in moderation given its high sugar and sat fat content.
The polyphenols in cocoa are thought to dilate the arteries, which improves elasticity and may reduce the risk of heart attack. The effect of these antioxidants is also thought to be similar to aspirin in that they help to thin the blood and prevent unwanted clots with research showing that the effect after drinking a cup of cocoa lasting more than 6 hours (1). Findings from a large analysis of seven studies carried out by researchers at Cambridge University found that both men and women with the highest intake of cocao were 37% less likely to suffer with coronary heart disease and 29% less likely to experience a stroke compared to those with the lowest intakes (2).
Studies have shown that cocoa may have a positive impact on cholesterol, raised levels of which are considered to be a risk factor for heart disease. Findings from a clinical trial published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that the polyphenols found in cocoa powder contributed to a reduction in LDL (bad) cholesterol, elevation in HDL (good) cholesterol and suppressed the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which is thought to be particularly damaging to tissues such as those lining the arteries of the heart (3). The effect on oxidation may be explained by the antioxidant effect of polyphenols as they help to protect the body from free radical damage (4).
Research around blood pressure stems from islanders of Kuna that don’t appear to develop high blood pressure as they get older, which is in part attributed to the high amounts of cocoa they consume on a daily basis. It was noticed that once they left the island and consumed less cocoa they lost the protective effect on blood pressure. The link between cocoa and blood pressure is that the flavanols it contains increase the availability of nitric oxide in the blood, which dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. Researchers from Adelaide University found that drinking cocoa (rich in flavanols) significantly lowered blood pressure when compared to a flavanol-free placebo drink (5). Similar findings have also been shown in several other studies although the effect is not that strong (6, 7).
Studies have shown that drinking cocoa at least 5 days of the week boosts the flow of blood to the parts of the brain that help with cognition and may improve performance and alertness (8). The antioxidants in cocoa also help to neutralise the low-grade inflammation associated with ‘foggy’ thoughts. Studies of older people that are mentally impaired have found that those who regularly drank cocoa had greater improvements in memory and verbal reasoning than those who did not (9). It’s for this reason that cocoa has been of interest to researchers investigating dementia.
Chocolate as a functional food?
Advances in innovation have seen a rise in chocolate products with added health benefits. Companies such as Ombar produce a dark chocolate bar fortified with probiotic cultures.
How to add more cocoa into your diet
Whilst many people enjoy eating chocolate and may understand the potential benefit of choosing dark over milk varieties, less people know how to use cocoa powder beyond a drink.
If you’re not familiar with using cocoa powder, then try these ideas below for a little inspiration:
- Add 1 tbsp to your protein shake.
- Add 1 tbsp to porridge.
- Make homemade energy balls by blending cocoa or raw cacao powder, dates and chopped hazelnuts to a food processor.
- Combine 1 tbsp with hot milk of choice for a warming evening drink rich in magnesium that helps to promote muscle relaxation and has been shown by research to induce sleep. Try adding cinnamon, ground cardamom or chilli for extra flavour.
- Add cocoa or raw cacao powder to chilli con carne for richness and intense flavour.
The reality of chocolate and health
The truth still remains that chocolate, even dark chocolate, is never going to be considered a healthy food as it contains high amounts of sugar and saturated fat, which if eaten in excess will counteract any potential health benefits of cocoa. However, you can reap the health benefits of cocoa by incorporating it into your diet in ways that allow you to control the amount of sugar and saturated fat. It’s also worth pointing out that the true benefit of nutrition lies in the overall diet and not single foods so whilst the health potential of cocoa is interesting, you still need to focus on eating a well balanced and varied diet.
Try this recipe from my book The Detox Kitchen Bible. These brownies are still a sweet treat but contain much less sugar than usual recipes and harness the benefits of cocoa.
150g raw beetroot, peeled and cut into small cubes
100g gluten and wheat-free flour
1 tsp baking powder
60g raw cacao powder
120g runny honey
½ tsp salt
75ml rapeseed oil
- Preheat your oven to 200°C. Line the bottom and sides of a 20cm square cake tin with greaseproof paper.
- Put the beetroot in a microwave-safe bowl with 50ml water, cover with clingfilm and cook on a high heat for 7 minutes until soft. If you don’t have a microwave, wrap the beetroot in foil and bake in the heated oven for about 40 minutes until soft.
- Put the hazelnuts in a blender and blitz until they are roughly chopped. Transfer them to a large mixing bowl. Sift in the flour, baking powder and cacao powder.
- Now blitz the cooked beetroot in the blender for 1–2 minutes until smooth. Add to the dry ingredients in the bowl but do not mix just yet.
- Using the blender for the third time, put the honey, salt and eggs in it and blitz for 3 minutes. Pour into the bowl and mix with the rest of the ingredients using a wooden spoon. Be gentle, as you want to keep air in the mixture whilst combining it thoroughly.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and bake in the heated oven for about 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Allow to cool completely before cutting into squares.
You can find more delicious recipes from Lilly and the gang at the Detox Kitchen website.