Chocolate- Superfood or Super Treat?
Chocolate’s growing reputation as a health food is mainly due to the cocoa bean being a fruit rich in flavanols and polyphenols. Indeed, a recent study* by Hershey Centre for Health and Nutrition found that cocoa powder has more anti-oxidant capacity and heart healthy flavanols and polyphenols than blueberries, cranberries and pomegranate powder gram for gram. So far so good. But when so many scientific studies on chocolate are funded by the industry itself (Mars and Hersheys, for example) it is little wonder that chocolate remains in the headlines as a must-have superfood.
Aside from the well-documented benefits of the flavanols and polyphenols, dark chocolate is a good source magnesium, copper, potassium and manganese. Numerous substances found in chocolate, such as phenylethylamine, theobromine, anandamide and tryptophan are also mild mood elevators.
So what’s the downside? Keep in mind that what makes chocolate healthy is the cocoa itself. Most modern chocolate confectionary is so processed that its natural goodness is destroyed. In the same way that overcooked vegetables are nutritionally depleted, cheap processed chocolate may have very little of the health promoting phytochemicals left. It may also contain hydrogenated vegetable oils and a load of sugar.
Fortunately, there is a selection of high-quality and even organic chocolate available today, but even good quality, dark chocolate can be around 40% fat and 30% sugar, so this is one superfood best taken in moderation. The stronger the chocolate, the more concentrated the stimulants such as caffeine. The take-home message is, pack in phytonutrients from a diet rich in vegetables and fruits and enjoy chocolate as a ‘super treat’. Choose organic, 70% cocoa mass or above and try to limit yourself to 1 or 2 squares when the need for something sweet strikes. Combine with a handful of fresh nuts and this makes a convenient, delicious and satisfying snack.
Some chemicals in chocolate, most notably tyramine, can trigger migraine in susceptible people. Remember that theobromine (which will be more concentrated in dark chocolate) is harmful to animals.
*Cacao seeds are a "Super Fruit": A comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products Chemistry Central Journal 2011, 5:5doi:10.1186/1752-153X-5-5
BSc Nutritional Medicine