Why chocolate can be a really healthy Valentine’s day treat

It’s Valentine’s day, and in honour of this my blog today is going to pay homage to a common-given gift on this day – chocolate. While this confectionery traditionally has a naughty-but-nice reputation, there is increasing evidence that some forms of chocolate might have some benefits for health.

The essential ingredient in all types of chocolate is the cocoa bean, which is comprised of two basic components; a protein-rich part (cocoa) that gives chocolate its characteristic colour and taste, and a fatty part known as cocoa butter. Laboratory analysis reveals that the cocoa in chocolate is naturally rich in minerals such as potassium, magnesium and copper, all of which are believed to play a role in protection from heart disease and stroke.

Apart from some key minerals, cocoa is also rich in a class of plant substances called polyphenols. Also found in foodstuffs such as red wine, tea, apples and onions, polyphenols are known to have the capacity to combat ageing and disease”promoting substances called free radicals. The ability of a food to neutralise free radicals can be measured and expressed as its oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC). Generally speaking, the higher a food’s ORAC, the better. Amazingly, weight for weight, cocoa-rich chocolate has an ORAC 10 times that of spinach, and about 15 times that of either broccoli or orange.

The varying amounts of cocoa, cocoa butter, milk and sugar used to make chocolate has a bearing on the nutritional properties of the final product. From a health perspective, the best type of chocolate to go for is plain. One benefit of plain chocolate is that it is generally lower in sugar than milk and white chocolate varieties. Plus, the darker the chocolate, the more cocoa there is, and the more it provides in the way of heart-healthy minerals and polyphenols. Brands that boast 60 or 70 per cent cocoa solid content are a good bet.

Some believe that chocolate can enhance feelings of amour. In fact, chocolate contains a range of psychoactive chemicals including one called phenylethylamine. This substance actually occurs naturally in the brain, and is believed to be secreted in higher amounts when we are in love. Phenylethylamine is found in the cocoa component in chocolate. What this means is that consuming chocolate rich in cocoa (dark chocolate) gives the best chance of individuals getting any mood-enhancing effect from phenylethylamine.

Another thing I like about dark chocolate is that it is generally unlikely to cause the gorging milk chocolate provoke in some people. Maybe it’s the lower sugar content, or the harder mouth feel, or something else – I don’t know. Whatever the explanation, the ability for individuals to consume dark chocolate happily in moderation makes dark chocolate an ideal choice for those of us who have a tendency to overeat. A dark chocolate treat is not just a good choice for Valentine’s day, but any other day of the year, I reckon.

4 Responses to Why chocolate can be a really healthy Valentine’s day treat

  1. James Ferris 17 February 2007 at 10:27 am #

    Interesting comment re the ORAC, it that comparison by weight? ie 1kg of chocolate v 1kg of oranges, or by portion? ie one piece of fruit v a bar of chocolate?

    On another subject, I can’t see any comment from you on the “Dr” McKeith issue going on at the moment, where do you stand on this? I also see your fellow writer in the Guardian group Dr Goldman is commenting quite a bit on her and Patrick Holford. As neither of these are supported by most professional (that I can see). I think it would be good to have your views published.

  2. jean fraser 17 February 2007 at 7:07 pm #

    Hi Dr. Briffa. I LOVE dark chocolate and used to eat it often, but would like your advice because I have steriod induced osteopenia (for which I take a once-a week medication). I understand that various foods including chocolate are high in caffeine and oxalic acid which leach calcium from the bones (or prevent its absorption, i’m not clear which, but anyway a bad thing in relation to bone density). Can you give me any information about whether or how much chocolate I could safely eat, and spinach too! It’s probably a matter of moderation in all things, but it does concern me, as Ive broken my right ankle four times in 5 years! Thanks, Jean

  3. Dr John Briffa 21 February 2007 at 7:04 pm #

    Hello James
    The ORACs referred to in this piece are for a given weight (not portion size).
    As regards the Goldacre/McKeith/Holford issue, I’ve been a bit out of the loop because I was away on holiday last week. However, I am planning to blog about this – this week I hope. In short, I feel that if Dr Goldacre’s aim is to expose pseudoscience and conflict of interest, he might find a rich source of potential material by turning his attention to the dietetic profession and the British Dietetic Association. I’ll be elaborating about this in my blog.
    Regards

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