We often hear that chocolate can help de-stress, from a nutrition perspective- Chocolate was identified as one of the stress-busting foods as it contains mood enhancing nutrients. It seems that we’re often bombarded with conflicting messages; some people call it “junk” snack while others referred to it as a “health food”. So should you eat more chocolate? Or perhaps less? Let’s find out.
Cocoa beans are indeed healthy
Simply put, most plant-based foods contain high levels of antioxidants. That’s due to the fact that plants naturally develop a self-protective mechanism to fight against the sun’s damaging effect. As a rule of thumb, vibrantly-coloured as well as longer-life plants have higher levels of antioxidants.
The main ingredient in chocolate is cocoa beans (sometimes referred to as cacao beans). Cocoa is loaded with a wide variety of antioxidant compounds; these include polyphenols, flavanols and catechins, among others. A study in 2011 compared cocoa’s antioxidant activity with other fruits and superfood powders, including those often considered as superfoods such as blueberries and acai berry. Researchers found that cocoa powder and dark chocolate had the same amount or even higher antioxidant activity as measured in their ORAC values. The higher the ORAC value, the greater the antioxidant activity. The study also discovered total polyphenol, and total flavonol values in dark chocolate were comparable or higher than other fruit juices and powders tested. These results proved that the nutritional value of cocoa beans are indeed quite comparable with other superfoods.
In addition to its stress-busting ability, chocolate and cocoa powder have associated with other health benefits. Research showed that after eating cocoa powder for 4 weeks, people with hyperlipidemia saw a drop in LDL (bad cholesterol) and a boost of HDL (good cholesterol). An additional study also found that eating chocolate at least two times a week lowered the risk of developing calcified plaque within arteries by 32%.
One antioxidant in dark chocolate - flavonol - can stimulate the production of nitric oxide in our bodies. Nitric oxide has the ability to relax blood vessels, hence improving blood circulation and lowering blood pressure. A 2015 study found that when people with type 2 diabetes and blood pressure ate 25 grams of dark chocolate every day for 8 weeks, their blood pressure significantly improved. Another study also confirmed similar results, and revealed that benefits were more promising among the elderly population.
You may wonder, since chocolate has such a range of health benefits, why is there still a debate as to whether it’s a health food or junk food?
The fact is, most of the chocolate products we buy at the supermarkets are indeed candies, not real chocolate.
3 steps to choosing a good-quality chocolate product
As shown in the above health studies, chocolate can be incorporated in a healthy diet. The key is to choose better-quality chocolate products.
Step 1: The shorter the ingredient list, the better.
All chocolate products are high in calories. Therefore, it is rather futile to compare calories among products. A better strategy is to choose a better-quality chocolate by checking the ingredient list. A good-quality chocolate does not need a ton of ingredients to make it good. In fact, it’s the opposite. Cocoa and sugar, that’s it. Two or three ingredients is already enough.
Step 2: The first ingredient MUST be cocoa
Choose a product with “cocoa beans” or “cocoa mass” as the first ingredient, not sugar. At the end, you are eating chocolate, so it makes sense that the product should contain mostly cocoa ingredients.
On the contrary, chocolate candies often have “sugar” as the first ingredient. What this means is that there is more sugar than cocoa in this chocolate product. Simply put, when the first ingredient is sugar, the product should be regarded as a candy. And more often than not, chocolate candies will contain food additives such as emulsifiers and artificial flavourings.
Step 3: Choose dark chocolate (70% or higher cocoa)
As I’ve mentioned above, better-quality chocolate is often made with two or three ingredients; the more cocoa content, the less sugar. A 80% dark chocolate would only have no more than 20% sugar; a 70% dark chocolate would have 30% sugar. In other words, the “darker” the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain. In addition to having less sugar, another reason to choose dark chocolate is that it is quite rich in cocoa flavour. Remember. instead of needing to eat a lot more candy chocolate, a small piece of good-quality dark chocolate can instantly satisfy any cravings.
Gloria Tsang - Registered Dietitian