Is chocolate good for you?

In Britain we are Europe's top chocoholics.  Britain on average eats its way through 605,000 tonnes of chocolate every year (a quarter of the continent's entire chocolate supply!) What is in chocolate nutritionally? Is it good for you? How much chocolate should we be eating?

Chocolate has been eaten and drunk since 400AD when a Mayan tomb was found containing pots with residue of cacao (cocoa) inside. Food historians state that the Maya drank their chocolate warm whilst the Aztecs mixed their chocolate cold with chilli pepper, vanilla, honey and allspice. When the Conquistadors (from Spain) invaded South America it is believed that they brought back the recipe of chocolate to Europe.

Chocolate contains primarily cocoa solids and cocoa butter in varying proportions. Much of the chocolate consumed today is in the form of sweet chocolate, combining chocolate with sugar, fat and other flavourings i.e. vanilla. Chocolate also contains an alkaloid called theobromine, which has a physiological effect in humans, like caffeine, on the central nervous system. It is theobromine that is toxic to some animals, in particular dogs and cats, hence do not give your pets chocolate.

Milk chocolate is sweet chocolate that contains cocoa, sugar, milk powder or condensed milk. In the U.K. and Ireland, milk chocolate must contain a minimum of 20% total dry cocoa solids; in the rest of the European Union, the minimum is 25%. White chocolate, although similar in texture to that of milk and dark chocolate, does not contain any cocoa solids. Dark chocolate, European rules specify must have a minimum of 35% cocoa solids. Raw chocolate, often referred to as raw cocoa, is always dark and has a minimum of 75% cocoa.

There are a number of studies looking at the effects of dark chocolate in the human body. A systematic review of studies looking at chocolate consumption and cardio metabolic disorders, found that out of seven studies with 114,009 participants, the highest level of cocoa consumption was associated with a 37% reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29% reduction in a stroke. Other studies looking at 2000 participants eating 100gm of dark chocolate daily found that this was a cost effective strategy for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Evidence to date suggests that the chocolate would need to be dark and of at least 60-70% cocoa, or formulated to be enriched with polyphenols. However more studies are required on humans to establish further benefits and in particular how much dark chocolate is required to be beneficial.

We know that over-consumption of chocolate can have harmful effects, weight gain, high cholesterol and dental caries. So what is in 100gm of dark chocolate? (Medium sized bar)

100gm of dark chocolate (average of 15 samples)

510kcals (a quarter of females Kcals required for the day), 5 gm of protein, 28gm of fat (16gm of which is saturated, this is a high amount), Carbohydrate 65gm (62gm of which is sugar; this is nearly 16 level teaspoons! our maximum sugar intake per day is 6 teaspoons), potassium 300mg, calcium 33gm, magnesium 100mg, iron 2.3gm, moderate amounts of vitamin Bs (apart from B12)

Chocolate comes into the food group fats and sugars, and is therefore part of a balanced diet in small amounts. As chocolate is high in fat it is not recommended as a pre sports snack or a treatment for hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose levels) in type 1 diabetes. If you are a chocoholic I would advise from a health perspective, and psychological perspective 2 small cubes of dark chocolate a day, in conjunction with a healthy diet will help to feed the body and the chocoholics in us all.

Picture supplied by Victoria Lee