Sin or snack? It’s hard to think of another food that has been so distorted and overstated as chocolate.
Dieters were told to stay away from them – especially white or milk chocolate – due to their high fat and sugar content.
But growing studies show that the darker variety has a myriad of health benefits.
Research published this week found that cocoa can lower blood pressure and keep your heart healthy by making veins and arteries more dilated — thanks to antioxidants known as flavanols.
The researchers, from the University of Surrey, urged more people to eat dark chocolate because it is high in cocoa, while the more popular chocolate bars contain very little.
You might be surprised to learn that chocolate is an aphrodisiac, because it is packed with the “love drug” phenylethylamine which boosts libido by increasing levels of endorphins “the happy hormones.”
It may also make men’s erections stronger due to its blood flow-enhancing effects.
Scientists have also shown that regularly consuming dark chocolate can improve alertness – a 100-gram bar contains almost as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. It has also been linked to making people happier and reducing the risk of depression.
However, the benefits of eating chocolate are only gained by snacking on options that are high in cocoa, which have a more bitter taste. Relying on sweets for health benefits can lead to weight gain, which can offset health gains.
So, is chocolate a sin or a superfood? And what do the studies show?
What should a balanced diet look like?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains, according to the NHS.
• Eat at least 5 servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables count
• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates and whole grains
• 30 grams of fiber per day: Like eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat crackers, 2 thick slices of whole-wheat bread, 1 large baked potato with the skin on
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soy drinks) choose options that are lower in fat and lower in sugar
• Eat some beans, legumes, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including two servings of fish each week, one of which should be fatty)
• Choose unsaturated oils and fats and consume in small quantities
• Drink 6-8 glasses of water daily
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men per day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide
protects the heart
The latest evidence praising the health benefits of dark chocolate is a University of Surrey study that showed it can lower blood pressure and make blood vessels more dilated within hours.
This is due to the flavanols – the antioxidants in cocoa – which keep blood vessel walls flexible, allowing blood to flow through the body more easily.
The researchers recruited 11 adults, who took either cocoa capsules or a placebo on alternating days for two weeks. The results showed that their blood pressure was lower and their arteries decreased on the days they consumed the flavanols.
However, those who took part in the study were given a super-strength nutritional supplement that would equate to half a kilogram of dark chocolate – usually sold in 100g bars.
Researchers are still convinced that increasing the amount of dark chocolate you eat will be beneficial, however, even if you don’t eat copious amounts.
The findings are based on those of a separate team of scientists in Portugal, who found that eating dark chocolate every day lowered blood pressure in just one month due to the health benefits of flavanols.
Their finding was based on 30 young men who consumed 20 grams of milk or dark chocolate daily for a month.
Those who ate the high-cocoa chocolate saw their systolic blood pressure drop by 3.5 mmHg, compared to 2.4 mmHg in the lower cocoa group. Diastolic blood pressure decreased by 2.3 mm Hg and 1.7 mm Hg, respectively.
On top of increasing blood pressure and blood vessel health, scientists have also found that it can lower cholesterol.
A team of US researchers asked 31 people to eat 50 grams of dark or white chocolate for 15 days. Scientists found that those who ate dark chocolate had lower blood glucose and ‘bad’ blood fats, which could have an indirect effect of lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Brain health can be improved
Dozens of studies have shown that flavanols can also improve brain function, as the antioxidants enhance blood flow.
A 2011 study by a team at the University of Reading showed that memory and reaction time were enhanced just two hours after eating dark chocolate, while no benefit was found among those eating white chocolate.
Other studies have indicated long-term benefits.
Researchers at Columbia University found in 2014 that adults in their fifties and sixties who took cocoa supplements for three months performed better on memory tests than those who ate beans low in flavanols. The study authors said their brain was working as well as 30 years old by the end of the study.
A 2017 meta-analysis of existing studies on chocolate and brain health, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, found evidence that it improves brain blood flow, oxygen levels, and nerve function.
The Italian researchers who conducted that study say that in addition to flavanols, the magnesium in chocolate may play a role in increasing the brain’s oxygen supply and reducing the chances of brain damage through stroke.
A separate study conducted by researchers at the University of Glasgow in 2013 concluded that chocolate boosted carbon dioxide levels, improved blood flow and the health of brain cells. This team’s discovery was based on measuring the speed of blood flowing through the brain’s largest artery, while the volunteers ate chocolate.
In 2014, a team from Cornell University in New York identified an antioxidant in a sweet treat called epicatechin that may protect against amyloid plaques that cause Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.
It could have helped you get through the afternoon stumble
In addition to promoting long-term heart and brain health, chocolate can also offer short-term benefits by manipulating energy levels during an afternoon slump. The snack contains caffeine and theobromine, another stimulant.
US researchers recruited more than 100 young adults who consumed just one gram of dark chocolate or a placebo for every kilogram they weighed. For example, a person weighing 60 kg (nine and a half stone) is given 60 grams – a little more than the Mars bar.
A 100-gram bar of chocolate contains about 80 mg of caffeine, just under a cup of coffee (95 mg), and 1,000 mg of theobromine – about a third less than a cup of black tea (1600 mg).
Then they underwent brain scans while they engaged in thinking and memory tasks.
The results showed that dark chocolate eaters were more alert and alert than those who ate other snacks. However, the Northern Arizona University team noted that the sweet snack can raise blood pressure, too.
Scientists have found that flavanols – the antioxidants found in dark chocolate – can keep your heart healthy by lowering blood pressure.
Unsurprisingly, it makes you happier
Scientists say that eating a few squares of chocolate a day makes people happier.
Last year, a team of Korean scientists conducted what they described as the first-ever study that demonstrated that eating chocolate every day has positive effects on mood.
They recruited about 50 people who ate 30 grams of 85 percent or 70 percent dark chocolate — about a third of a large piece — or nothing at all daily for three weeks. The results of psychological tests showed that those who ate the blackest option were the happiest.
Analysis of volunteers’ stool samples indicated that chocolate increases microbial diversity in the gut, specifically the gut bacteria Blautia, which may be the mechanism behind the mood boost. Gut bacteria produce hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate mental processes such as mood, memory, and learning.
Separate research by a team at University College London indicates that those who regularly eat dark chocolate are less likely to develop depression.
They questioned 13,000 people in 2019 about their chocolate consumption and symptoms of depression. Those who reported eating dark chocolate were less likely to suffer from bad moods. However, there was no association between mood and intake of white or milk chocolate.
While the team said the results don’t prove that chocolate fights depression, they do note that it contains a number of psychoactive ingredients — including two forms of anandamine, which produce a euphoric feeling similar to that of cannabis.
Dark chocolate also contains more antioxidants, which reduce inflammation in the body — a reaction that some experts believe is linked to depression.
Trouble in bed? Eat chocolate instead!
Chocolate is said to act as an aphrodisiac – a substance that increases sexual desire – because it is packed with anandamide, a neurotransmitter that targets the same parts of the brain as cannabis, and phenylethylamine, known as the ‘love drug’. It mimics the brain chemistry of a person in love. These two ingredients cause the body to release the happy hormones, known as endorphins.
However, studies have yielded conflicting results about the relationship between chocolate consumption and sexual habits.
A University of California study last year concluded that those who ate chocolate more often were less interested in sex. Researchers questioned 1,000 people about their weekly chocolate intake and attitude toward sex.
But an earlier study of 163 women in 2006 by a team at Vita Salut San Raffaele University in Italy found that those who ate more chocolate reported higher levels of sexual desire and pleasure.
However, cocoa also contains methylxanthines, which can make people more lethargic and reduce sexual desire.
And flavonoids — the same blood-flow-promoting antioxidants that mean chocolate supports heart health — may also lead to better erections.
Results published by Harvard researchers in 2016, based on questionnaires sent to 25,000 men, showed that men who consumed three or four servings of flavonoid-rich foods per week were about a tenth less likely to develop erectile dysfunction.
…but the downsides?
Experts warn that many of the studies pointing to the benefits of dark chocolate don’t apply to the real world, as they use cocoa supplements instead of the chocolate people can buy in stores.
This means that people will have to eat a lot of dark chocolate, so that some of the health benefits are offset by the extra calories.
Relying on dark chocolate for flavanols, which are also found in berries, apples, nuts and tea, can lead to weight gain when snacking.
Being overweight or obese increases your risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer — negating any small gains in heart and brain health.