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Healthy eating: is there a healthy chocolate?

 

Healthy eating, weight loss and low-calorie diets dictate much of what we choose to eat these days. Diverse in variety, flavour and forms – and as the perfect gift or snack for any occasion, chocolate is what we call a guilty pleasure. A pleasure, because it’s delicious; guilty, because it is often bursting with sugar and fat, high amounts of which lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease, for example. But the right kind of chocolate can even protect you from these diseases! 

With Easter fast approaching, it is only natural that our bodies are longing for those chocolate Easter eggs. These days, we have a rich variety of chocolates to choose from: vegans, especially, no longer have a sad and limited choice of vegan chocolate when it comes to these occasions! Read on to find out more about healthy chocolate, its origins, its health benefits and more.

Where does chocolate come from originally?

The history of chocolate goes back a long way: more than 5,000 years ago, people in South America were already cultivating the cacao tree, the beans from which chocolate is made.[1] The Spanish conquerors then brought cocoa back to Europe in the sixteenth century, at which point, it became a phenomenon for the whole world. Today, 2.9 million tonnes of cocoa fruit are harvested annually in Africa alone. From this quantity, almost six million bars of chocolate can be produced.

How does cacao become chocolate?Kakaobohne

Chocolate is made from the cocoa beans of the cacao tree. After harvesting, the beans undergo fermentation – a chemical process during which aroma, flavour and colour develop. The cocoa beans are then dried, roasted and ground. The result is a cocoa mass made from cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Finally, the two products are mixed with milk, oil and sugar.[2]

The cocoa tree can grow up to 15 metres tall and grows mainly in Central Africa, South America and South East Asia. There are two types of cocoa tree: criollo trees with highly aromatic fruits and forastero trees with less- aromatic fruits. Forastero trees provide the main bulk of the cocoa bean crop, as they are not as susceptible to climate and pests as the criollo trees.

 

What are the differences between the chocolate varieties?

Milk, dark and white chocolate – these main types differ in their cocoa and sugar content. The cocoa fruit actually tastes bitter. Sugar gives chocolate its typically sweet taste. In general, the darker the chocolate, the higher the cocoa content and the lower the sugar content. Dark chocolate, for example, contains much more cocoa and less sugar than milk chocolate. White chocolate, on the other hand, consists only of cocoa butter.[3]

Chocolate type

Cocoa content

Dark chocolate

at least 70 per cent

Dark chocolate

at least 50 per cent

Milk chocolate

between 25 and 30 per cent

White chocolate

0 per cent

The chocolate selection on our supermarket shelves is continually growing and growing – particularly healthy chocolate products. To really cater to everyone, there are now chocolates with nuts, biscuits, caramel, fruit and numerous other fillings and toppings. Vegans and people with a milk allergy or lactose intolerance can choose vegan chocolate varieties that contain oat, rice, soy or even coconut milk instead of cow’s milk. Some manufacturers also sell sugar-free healthy chocolate. These varieties contain sweeteners, which you should beware of if you are sorbitol intolerant.

Did you know that there is such thing as a chocolate allergy – although, it is rare. Some people actually cannot eat chocolate because they are allergic to the cocoa. An allergic reaction to chocolate is similar to other food allergies. As a cocoa substitute, allergy sufferers can turn to carob products from health food shops. The fruit of the carob tree is an optimal substitute for cocoa.[4]

Find out more about food intolerances vs allergies here.

Healthy eating: is chocolate healthy for you?

 

Calling all those with a sweet tooth: chocolate is actually healthy – but only in moderation! In fact, when chocolate arrived in Spain in the sixteenth century, it was considered a medicine. Numerous studies have observed that dark chocolate benefits cardiovascular health – that is, heart health.

The Danish Diet, Cancer and Health Study examined how more than 55,000 people ate over several years. The findings revealed that participants who regularly ate chocolate had a lower risk of cardiac arrhythmia.[5] In another study, the consumption of a few portions of dark chocolate was also able to improve cholesterol levels – it increased the levels of healthy HDL cholesterol and improved the reduction of LDL cholesterol, which is significantly involved in arteriosclerosis.[6]

Cholesterol is indeed a hot topic, and our cholesterol levels tell us a lot about what we eat, what we should eat less of – and even our genetics. You can test your cholesterol levels with various cholesterol tests – or at your doctor’s – to find out how or if you need to make changes to your diet and general lifestyle.

  • Find out if your cholesterol and triglyceride levels are normal
  • Learn about cholesterol-related matters, such as blood lipids and arteriosclerosis

Why chocolate is good for you

It is furthermore thanks to the antioxidants found in cocoa beans that dark chocolate, particularly, is so beneficial for heart health. Antioxidants protect our cells from inflammation and strengthen our immune system. But they can do much more:[7-10]

  • they improve blood circulation and lower blood pressure
  • they protect the skin from aggressive UV radiation
  • they brighten our mood
  • they lower blood sugar levels

So, the science shows us that chocolate can offer us plenty of positives to boost our health and well-being. To find out more about how to boost your immune system, head to our article on immune system boosters.

What are cacao benefits?

Kakao-Nibs

 

The more the cocoa bean is processed, the more the antioxidant content decreases. Manufacturers are now enriching chocolate products with additional antioxidants. Some manufacturers therefore process the bean only slightly, by producing cocoa nibs. These are dried and crushed cocoa beans. In this way, a large part of the antioxidants is preserved.[10]

What nutrients are in dark chocolate?

Did you know that dark chocolate is also rich in essential nutrients, such as magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc and selenium?[11] It is important to keep your nutrient levels in check, as our bodies use minerals to carry out various crucial functions – such as promoting bone, muscle, heart and brain health. Minerals are also responsible for enzyme and hormone production.

Does chocolate have a lot of magnesium? The mineral most predominantly found in cocoa is magnesium, which is linked to our metabolism, energy levels and healthy development of bones and teeth. Some experts suggest that dark chocolate contains around 64 milligrammes of magnesium per 28 grammes.[14] So, snacking on some types of chocolate could help you reach your daily magnesium requirement of around 300 milligrammes.[13]

Did you know that some researchers believe that women crave chocolate before menstruation because it contains a high level of magnesium? Women tend to be deficient in magnesium at certain stages of their menstruation cycle. Magnesium intake has been known to significantly improve mood fluctuations accompanying menstruation.[15]

Is chocolate good for your skin?

You may be well aware of the age-old tale warning us that chocolate is the ultimate cause for breakouts, bad skin and acne. While it is true that some of us do have small skin breakouts a fews after consuming chocolate products, there is not sufficient conclusive evidence to concretely tie all chocolate varieties to bad skin and skin conditions, such as acne vulgaris.[16]

Interestingly, it has been proven that eating a small amount of dark chocolate daily with a cocoa content of at least 70 per cent can actually promote healthy skin. This is because dark chocolate boasts flavanols – a group of flavonoids found in fruits and vegetables, tea, and cocoa beans – which promote a healthy blood flow, hydrate your skin and protect it from UV exposure. Not only that, cocoa is known to even reduce the number of stress hormones (cortisol) in our bodies which cause collagen to breakdown and lead to the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.[17]

Healthy eating: how to integrate chocolate into your diet

Healthy eating does not mean you have to refrain and resist from eating chocolate. But it is important that you don’t overdo it when it comes to your sugar intake. So, here are some tips on how you can integrate chocolate into your everyday diet – by using cacao powder or dark chocolate. Give your body a boost of all the health benefits discussed in this article – and embrace cacao benefits and your sweet-tooth tendencies.

  • Add a small amount of dark chocolate to savoury sauces, such as bolognese or chilli con carne.
  • Add cacao powder to your smoothie or your protein shake.
  • Mix some cacao powder into your porridge or cereal in the morning.
  • Mix cacao powder into your yogurt.

Healthy eating & healthy chocolate – at a glance

Short and sweet: dark chocolate is good for health. You can be both healthy and get your chocolate fix. Dark chocolate has been shown in many studies to be healthy due to its antioxidant content. But even though it reduces the risk of heart problems, it should be enjoyed in moderation. Too much chocolate increases the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes due to the amounts of sugar and saturated fat it contains. Harvard University recommends an average of four 30-gramme portions of chocolate a week.[12]

Tip: Here’s a mindfulness exercise. Take one bite into the chocolate – this is enough to increase any temptation you might have to devour the whole bar straight away. Try to let just a small piece melt on your tongue. Only when it has melted, swallow it. This exercise will satisfy your craving for chocolate and save you from spending money on more bars.

Sources

[1]        Zarrillo, S. et al.The use and domestication of Theobroma cacao during the mid-Holocene in the upper Amazon’, Nat. Ecol. Evol., p. 1, Oct. 2018, doi: 10.1038/s41559-018-0697-x

[2]       Die Fermention:feuchte Kakaobohnen–Gärung::Kakaoanbau-Schokoinfo’ available at https://schokoinfo.de/fermention-farbe-und-aroma-kakaoanbau-kakao-schokoinfo.html, accessed on 17 October 2018

[3]       Schokolade: Von sahnig bis bitter - kakaohaltiger Genuss für jeden Geschmack’, available at https://www.bzfe.de/inhalt/schokolade-31690.html, accessed on 10 October 2018

[4]       Chocolate allergy and chocolate sensitivity: Differences, triggers, and symptoms’, Medical News Today, available at https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317775.php, accessed on 15 October 2018

[5]        Mostofsky, E., Johansen, M. B., Tjønneland, A., Chahal, H. S.,  Mittleman, M. A., Overvad, K. Chocolate intake and risk of clinically apparent atrial fibrillation: the Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Study’, Heart, p. heartjnl-2016-310357, May 2017, doi: 10.1136/heartjnl-2016-310357

[6]        Baba, S. et al. Plasma LDL and HDL cholesterol and oxidized LDL concentrations are altered in normo- and hypercholesterolemic humans after intake of different levels of cocoa powder’, J. Nutr., vol. 137(6), 1436–1441, June 2007, doi: 10.1093/jn/137.6.1436

[7]       New studies show dark chocolate consumption reduces stress and inflammation, while improving memory, immunity and mood | LLUH News’, available at https://news.llu.edu/for-journalists/press-releases/new-studies-show-dark-chocolate-consumption-reduces-stress-and-inflammation-while-improving-memory-immunity-and-mood, accessed on 15 October 2018 

[8]        Katz, D. L., Doughty, K., Ali, A. Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease’, Antioxid. Redox Signal., vol. 15(10), 2779–2811, November 2011, doi: 10.1089/ars.2010.3697

[9]        Rostami, A. et al. High-cocoa polyphenol-rich chocolate improves blood pressure in patients with diabetes and hypertension’, ARYA Atheroscler., vol. 11(1), 21–29, January 2015

[10]     Chocolates & Heart Health’, Cleveland Clinic, available at https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/16774-heart-healthy-benefits-of-chocolate, accessed on 15 October 2018

[11]     Candies, chocolate, dark, 70-85% cacao solids Nutrition Facts & Calories’, available at https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/sweets/10638/2, accessed on 15 October 2018

[12]      Donnelly, L. Three bars of chocolate a month can reduce chances of heart failure, study finds’, The Telegraph, 27 August 2018

[13]     ‘Others – Vitamins and Mineral’ NHS, available at www.nhs.uk/Conditions/vitamins-minerals/Pages/Other-vitamins-minerals.aspx#magnesium, accessed on 18 March 2021

[14]     Marengo, K. ‘Ten foods high in magnesium’ Medical News Today, available at https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318595#5-dark-chocolate, accessed on 19 March 2021

[15]     Ghalwa, N. A., Qedra, R. A., Wahedy, K. Impact of calcium and magnesium dietary changes on women pain and discomfort from premenstrual syndrome at the Faculty of Pharmacy-Gaza Strip’, WJPPS 3(2), 981–1005, 2014.

[16]     Kucharska, A., Szmurlo, A., Sińska, B. Significance of diet in treated and untreated acne vulgaris (review paper)’, Adv Dermatol Allergol, vol. 23(2), 81–86, 2016, doi: 10.5114/ada.2016.59146

[17]     Al Sunni, A., Latif, R. Effects of chocolate intake on Perceived Stress; a Controlled Clinical Study’, Int J Health Sci, vol. 8(4), 393–401, 2014

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