Forget about an apple a day – have a square of chocolate. Long considered a guilty pleasure, this melt-in-your-mouth treat is jockeying for position as a superfood alongside blueberries, green tea and wild salmon. Here’s a closer look at the sweet science behind the hard-to-resist indulgence.
Cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, is rich in flavonoids (or phenols), powerful antioxidants known to fight cancer, heart disease and ageing, and to help control blood sugar levels. In fact, US food scientists have discovered that cocoa contains a higher antioxidant concentration than both red wine and green tea.
These include potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure; copper, which promotes a healthy thyroid; calcium for bone health; magnesium, which aids calcium absorption in the body; and iron, which helps oxygenate the blood and maintain healthy hair, skin and nails.
The flavonols in chocolate protect against and may even reverse chronic inflammation, a major threat to cardiovascular health as well as other age-related diseases. A recent Australian study concluded that eating a piece of dark chocolate every day for 10 years may reduce heart attacks and strokes in people with metabolic syndrome, thanks to its antioxidant effects.
Other research has shown that the flavonols in cocoa can lower blood pressure and improve blood flow – findings that led to the European Commission’s recent approval for Swiss chocolate-maker Barry Callebaut to feature a health claim on its products stating that 200mg of cocoa flavonols daily contributes to a healthy blood circulation.
While generations of ads depicting women in various states of chocolate-induced ecstasy are grossly exaggerated, there is solid scientific evidence that the taste of chocolate ignites the brain’s pleasure response. Acting like nature’s own antidepressant, cocoa contains phenethylamine, an amino acid that prompts the release of feel-good chemicals in our brains, such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin.
Drinking flavonol-rich cocoa does wonders for the complexion, boosting hydration, improving blood flow to the dermis and protecting against UV damage. The evidence that the theobromine in chocolate hardens tooth enamel, fights cavities and strengthens teeth better than fluoride is so compelling that one US company has launched Theodent, a theobromine toothpaste – and, yes, it comes in a chocolate flavour!
Even the smell of chocolate can make you feel relaxed. Studies have shown that it increases the theta waves in the brain, which take us to that blissful state we reach just as we’re about to fall asleep. Additionally, the theobromine in chocolate is the same natural stimulant in tea that gives you that calm alertness, unlike the jitters you might get from coffee.
Chocolate’s fabulous flavonoids are also credited with enhancing cognitive function, memory and thinking skills by boosting blood flow to the brain.
Most studies involve dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa content and some focus on raw cocoa alone. That’s part of the reason why the jury’s still out on how much chocolate a day we should eat to reap these benefits – and whether daily chocolate consumption is right for everyone.
But commonsense will tell you that a whole bar at one sitting is not the way to go. Think moderation – about 85g. Even high-quality dark chocolate contains saturated fat and sugar, so we have to balance the pros and cons.
The Heart Foundation recommends raw cocoa powder over chocolate as an antioxidant source, stressing that a balanced diet including fruit and vegetables is the ideal way to obtain all the health benefits antioxidants have to offer. Try sprinkling some cocoa powder on your porridge, add it to smoothies or stir it into warmed trim milk.
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