Food Of The Health-Conscious Gods

Don't feel guilty about eating chocolate this Easter - we've got the lowdown on how it can be good for your physical and mental health!

Few things are certain in life, but an opinion about chocolate is almost nearly guaranteed. Whether you find it addictive, nauseating or simply overrated, it's pretty hard to avoid at this time of year.

Long touted for its medicinal properties, chocolate has been used for the past three thousand years to cure illness, fight fatigue, induce pleasure and stave off PMT. Its ability to boost health in both the brain and body is no less potent today than it was when first discovered by ancient civilisations so many millennia ago.

:: A natural health food


Once used as currency in South America, chocolate was named by the Aztecs of Mexico, who associated the 'xocoli' (bitter) 'atl' (water) with the goddess of fertility, Xochiquetzal, and declared it 'the food of the gods'.

They had good reason: chocolate is naturally choc-a-block full of alkaloids, flavinols, antioxidants, minerals and vitamins. Countless studies showing that eating the stuff can boost memory, improve circulation and release endorphins, which produce a feeling of pleasure and reduce sensitivity to pain.

But don't just reach for any bar of the stuff: the health benefits you'll reap depend on what kind of chocolate you eat, says chocolatier Paul A Young, a board member of the Academy of Chocolate.

"Dark chocolate is the best for you, as it has the least amount of sugar and fat," he explains from his shop in London, where he is busy adding final touches to chocolate eggs and truffles.

"Milk chocolate is chocolate with milk powder or condensed milk and sugar and fat, while white chocolate isn't even chocolate - it's sugary, fattened milk with cocoa butter in it but no cocoa solids."

Cocoa solids are what remain from the manufacture of cocoa beans into chocolate bars - and the higher the amount of cocoa solids in a bar, the better the chocolate is for you, says anti-oxidant expert Professor Roger Corder of London's Queen Mary University.

He recommends eating about 30g (one or two squares) of the dark stuff, with 75-85% minimum cocoa solids, on a daily basis.

"But once you start exceeding that, then you've got the problems of consuming excess calories."

:: Good for the brain


Chocolate may actually improve the way our brains work, a recent study from West Virginia's Wheeling Jesuit University suggests.

Chocolate contains natural stimulants theobromine, phenylethylamine and caffeine, which appear to increase alertness and mental performance.

Similar work at the University of Nottingham has shown that the consumption of dark chocolate can increase blood flow to the brain, leading to improved cognitive function.

:: Easy to swallow


Next time you have a bad cough, reach for the chocolate - its high doses of theobromine have been found to be a third more effective at stopping persistent coughs than codeine, according to a recent study at London's Imperial College.

:: Heart to heart


Cocoa contains high levels of naturally occurring compounds called flavinols and polyphenols that have been shown to reduce blood pressure, helping to improve heart health.

Polyphenols' antioxidant properties also help prevent disease and accelerated ageing, and are thought to help reduce the risk factors for cardiovascular disease in the same way that red wine can, Professor Corder has found.

"Flavinol, a plant extract found in dark chocolate, changes the function of platelets, decreasing their stickiness, thus reducing blood clots, which can lower the risk of a heart attack or stroke," he says.

:: Strong bones


To gain the chocolatey benefits of milk chocolate, you should aim for a bar with a minimum of 30% cocoa solids, Professor Corder says.

But if it's the milkiness you're after, then you're in luck: the milk in milk chocolate provides useful quantities of a wide range of nutrients including calcium, potassium and magnesium, with a 49g bar of milk chocolate providing over 15% of the adult Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) of calcium.

:: In the mood


Chocolate is said to contain at least 300 natural chemical compounds, resulting in a complex range of tastes and odours that connect with the human brain as it runs over the taste buds of the tongue.

Its mood-boosting chemicals, like serotonin and tryptophan, mingle with theobromine and phenylethyalamine, which the brain reproduces when we fall in love. Couple that with chocolate's amazing ability to melt in the mouth, and it's no surprise we eat so much of it.

:: Everything in moderation


Chocolate may boast some amazing health benefits, but only if you eat it in moderation.

Significant quantities of nutrients are provided when cocoa is combined with ingredients such as milk, sugar, fruit and nuts, but as the products are often higher in fats and sugars than many other foods it is important that they are consumed infrequently as "treats", says Sarah Band, a confectionery specialist at Nestle UK.

"Chocolate is a 'calorie dense' food and contains relatively high levels of sugar and fat, but this doesn't mean that it can't be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle," she explains.

"It is important that fats and sugars are present in our diet, especially if we live a busy life and take plenty of exercise."

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