Can chocolate ever be good for you?
It's the ultimate in food indulgence, and usually leaves us feeling guilty. But new research shows chocolate could actually boost your health. Lisa Salmon reports
A little bit of what you fancy is good for you - and mounting evidence suggests that includes chocolate.
For while the melt-in-your-mouth treat is usually packed with sugar, fat and calories and is seen as the ultimate food sin, research suggests it has health benefits ranging from reducing cardiovascular problems and inflammation to improving mood.
On the flip side, anti-obesity campaigners point out that the evidence is flimsy, whereas there can be no doubt that obesity causes health problems, and eating lots of chocolate is likely to make people pile on the pounds.
I HEART CHOCOLATE
The latest research, published by scientists at Months University in Australia earlier this month, assessed more than 2,000 people at high risk of heart disease and found that daily consumption of 100g of dark chocolate - equating to one premium-quality block containing a minimum 70% cocoa - could prevent 70 non-fatal and 15 fatal cardiovascular events, such as heart attack or stroke, per 10,000 people over a 10-year period.
The researchers point out that dark chocolate contains polyphenols, specifically flavonoids from the cocoa bean, which are thought to help reduce blood pressure and have anti-inflammatory, antithrombotic and metabolic effects.
Researcher Ella Zomer says: "Our findings indicate dark chocolate therapy could provide an alternative to or be used to complement drug therapeutics in people at high risk of cardiovascular disease."
A WEIGHT-LOSS AID?
The Australian research is the latest in a long line of studies that have found chocolate may be beneficial to cardiovascular health.
However, a study published in March went a step further, suggesting that people who ate chocolate regularly were actually slimmer.
Dr Beatrice Golomb and colleagues from the University of California, San Diego, studied dietary and other information provided by 1,000 adults and found that those who ate chocolate on more days a week had a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who ate chocolate less often.
Those who indulged more frequently didn't eat fewer calories overall, nor did they exercise more. Nothing in the study suggested that their lower BMIs could be explained by these factors.
"Our findings appear to add to a body of information suggesting that the composition of calories, not just the number of them, matters for determining their ultimate impact on weight," explains Dr Golomb.
"In the case of chocolate, this is good news - both for those who have a regular chocolate habit, and those who may wish to start one."
In other words, whether you consume 500 calories of chocolate, or 500 calories of something more 'good' for you, doesn't matter!
While it may be surprising that chocolate has been linked with a lower BMI, it comes as no shock that studies suggest it can aid mental well-being.
Sunil Kochhar and colleagues from the Nestle Research Centre in Switzerland found reductions in stress hormones and other stress-related biochemical changes in volunteers who rated themselves as highly stressed and ate 40g of dark chocolate a day for two weeks.
Kochhar, whose follow-up to the study was published this month, says: "Health benefits from consuming a healthy balanced diet and active lifestyle are now well documented, and our study suggests that chocolate can be part of this diet and lifestyle."
But another study from the University of California, which questioned nearly 1,000 adults in 2010, found that people who ate at least one bar of chocolate every week were more depressed than those who only ate chocolate occasionally.
However, the scientists didn't determine whether chocolate was the cause of the depression, or a cure for it. After all, many of us reach for comfort foods when we're already feeling down...
NOT A HEALTH FOOD
British Dietetic Association spokesperson Jennifer Low says the problem with many of the chocolate studies is that they're not necessarily "robust" or conclusive, and further research needs to be done to establish that, if there are health benefits, exactly what is causing them.
"At the moment, we shouldn't all go out and start munching chocolate for health reasons," she says.
Dark chocolate is more 'healthy' than milk or white chocolate as it contains more polyphenols, which are antioxidants, and about 70% cocoa solids. It's also lower in fat and sugar.
And because the cocoa solids make it so rich, people tend to eat less of it.
However, Low points out that polyphenols are also found in plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables, legumes and unrefined wholegrains.
"There's definitely robust evidence for including those foods in your diet, so they'd be a better way forward," she advises.
"If you don't eat chocolate already, you don't need to start - it contains a lot of fat and sugar, which is linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes and the related health issues.
"It's never going to be a health food because of all the fat and sugar it contains."
As a standard chocolate bar contains around 250 calories, Low points out that eating one a day on top of your normal diet could lead to weight gain of half a pound a week.
"If people want to have chocolate as a treat as part of a balanced, healthy diet, I don't think there's any harm in that. But eat it mindfully, and don't just grab it because you're hungry."
She adds: "If you're eating it as a comfort food, perhaps you should ask yourself if you need a hug more than a bar of chocolate."
EVERYTHING IN MODERATION
Dr Matthew Capehorn, clinical director of the National Obesity Forum, stresses that while the chocolate research is interesting, it shouldn't influence people's diets or lifestyle choices, as most of it relates to benefits seen in healthy weight individuals, and the amounts eaten wouldn't be considered natural for the majority of people to eat.
"There's no such thing as a bad food," he emphasises.
"We shouldn't look to any particular food group to give us health benefits, but instead look to eating a balanced diet, with a physically active lifestyle.
"I eat chocolate, and enjoy doing so, but not because I think it will improve my health."