Chocolate – call it the perfect celebration treat, mood enhancer, or guilty pleasure, just the name gives us the fuzzy-happy feels of enjoying the silky, chocolatey goodness. From fun-sized bars and cakes to ice creams and brownies, the mind-boggling varieties make it hard to resist indulging into this tantalizing treat!
Chocolates, like many other foods, affect your emotional state. You feel happy and relaxed, even slightly drowsy after gorging on chocolate. It leaves you craving for more and more…
But, why does that happen?
Science has the answer! Tryptophan found in chocolate helps your brain produce more of the happy chemical – serotonin. Not to mention the copious amounts of endorphins and dopamine, the pleasure hormones, released by the brain as you bite into the chocolate.
While chocolate makes a bad day feel better, how much of it is good for you?
With nutritionists focusing on the downsides of consuming chocolate regularly, and some studies making grand health claims, it can get a tad confusing. Before we find out more about how chocolate affects your body, let’s look at what’s in it.
Ever wonder how bitter-tasting seeds of the cacao tree become everyone's favorite food ingredient? Chocolate is an end-product of the cacao bean. From cacao bean to chocolate, the journey has been an interesting one.
Unroasted cacao beans are referred to as cacao, while the roasted version is termed as cocoa. Chocolate, the offshoot of cocoa, is a relative newcomer with barely 200 years of history behind it. But cocoa bean has long enjoyed a kingly status in South America. For over 2000 years, it was served as a bitter, spiced drink reserved for rituals and ceremonies, and was also used to pay taxes by the Aztec and Mayan elite.
When Europeans first tasted cocoa, they found it weird and unpalatable. Enter sugar, fats, and milk! And before long, sweetened chocolate concoctions become the order of the day. The Dutch with their Dutch cocoa powder, Belgians with their pralines, and Swiss with their smooth and creamy treats have made chocolates what they are today; well-received by masses of population.
Chocolate facts for the uninitiated:
- Cocoa and cocoa butter derived from fermented cocoa beans are the main ingredients in quality chocolates
- Cocoa is inherently bitter; anyone who has eaten it raw can attest. Sugar (and its alternatives) amps up the sweetness quotient, even of your essentially dark, bittersweet and semisweet delights
- Milk chocolate, on the contrary, has additional ingredients ranging from condensed milk, milk powder, sugar, and flavorings
- White chocolate, if you can call it chocolate, is nothing but an amalgam of cocoa butter, milk powder and lots of sugar
- Compound and many commercial versions of chocolate substitute cocoa butter with dairy butter or unhealthy oils, and contain substantial amounts of sugar
Debunking chocolate myths
While chocolate has received its fair share of positive press, some myths continue to do the rounds. Let’s demystify a few:
Myth: Many have considered it an aphrodisiac right from the time of the Aztecs.
Fact: Unfortunately, current research finds little evidence to support this claim.
Myth: Teenagers and women alike blame chocolates for their acne spurts.
Fact: According to a Journal of the American Medical Association’s study, other factors, apart from chocolate, are common triggers for acne.
Myth: Diabetics are expected to give up chocolate to avoid blood sugar spikes.
Fact: Small amounts of dark chocolate, sugar-free, and special diabetic chocolates can be eaten without causing a spike in blood sugar.
Is all that hype about chocolate justified?
Research stops short of declaring it the holy grail of the food world (unless you consider chocolate company-sponsored research), but gives dark chocolate brownie points on several counts, thanks to the cocoa solids in it.
For one, cocoa contains phenolic antioxidants or flavonoids including epicatechin, procyanidins, and catechin. The high antioxidant content is retained in artisan and less-processed dark chocolates (with at least 60% cocoa and less than 25% cocoa butter). According to recent research, these antioxidants provide numerous health benefits on moderate consumption:
- Promote blood flow to the brain
- Prevent blood clots and reduce the risk of strokes
- Lower inflammation and protect from cell damage
- Reduce the risk of heart disease
- Lower blood pressure
- Protect skin from the sun damage and improve skin elasticity
- Improve insulin resistance in the short term
- Increase good cholesterol or HDL in the body
- Boost short term reasoning and memory skills
- Reduce stress levels and improve mood
- Boost psychological health in elderly men
Fat, in the form of cocoa butter confers some health benefits while being calorific. It’s primarily made of good fatty acids like oleic (found in olive oil), palmitic, and cholesterol-neutral stearic acid.
Cocoa beans contain many heart-friendly minerals. Chocolate and cocoa powder has a decent amount of copper, magnesium, iron, dietary fiber, protein, and calcium available after processing.
Which brings us to an easily accessible source of antioxidants – Dark Chocolate!
Is Dark chocolate better than milk and white chocolate?
One serving (28.5gm) of cocoa and cocoa-rich products provide more antioxidants than most foods. The darker the chocolate, the more cocoa in it, and more of the beneficial antioxidants. This alone makes it a healthier option to milk chocolate.
If we look at the mineral content, dark chocolate wins, hands down!
Dark Chocolate (100 kcal or 3 squares)
Milk Chocolate (100 kcal or 3 squares)
(100 kcal or 3 squares)
DI = Dietary Intake
Unfortunately, the lack of cocoa solids and high sugar levels makes white chocolate the unhealthiest option.
How does chocolate fit into a healthy diet?
Nearly all the health claims related to dark chocolate with high cocoa content. And even the darkest of dark chocolate contains a fair amount of fats and some sugar, adding more numbers to your daily calorie chart.
If you follow an otherwise healthy diet and consume fewer sugars, this isn’t a cause for much concern. So, when the hunger pangs hit you, next time reach out for some dark chocolate. Enjoying small amounts of dark chocolate each day, 25-30 gm or 2-3 squares, as part of a balanced and healthy diet is a healthy portion to savour.
Enjoy the benefits of cocoa without worrying about excess calories
If all this talk about fats and sugar has put a dampener on your chocolate love, fret not. There are even better ways to reap the benefits of cocoa beans. Choose cocoa drinks, cocoa-based supplements, nut butter, protein bars, and energy balls with minimal to zero added sugars, or substituted with natural sweeteners.
Health restrictions and chocolate – is that even a thing?
Unfortunately, even the great mood lifter, chocolate, is not without its own issues. Cocoa like many other foods can cause adverse reactions in some people.
Sugars in your favorite chocolate bar can accelerate tooth decay, while cocoa being acidic can cause abdominal discomfort and increase acid reflux in some people with a weak digestive system. Chocolates can sometimes trigger fresh episodes of headaches in migraine patients.
According to a study by Drexel University, given the sugar and fat content, chocolate addiction is a real worry for some. Someone with a history of emotional eating, food disorder, or addictive tendency is at a high risk of becoming a clinical chocoholic. So, yes. Chocolate too, comes with its’ own set of limitations.
How do you choose the healthiest chocolate?
As a thumb rule, look for dark chocolates- high in cocoa and low in sugar content. To get the most of flavonoids and essential minerals, check the nutrition labels of various brands. According to nutritionists, cocoa supplements provide the maximum benefits followed by dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa.
According to some studies, milk may hinder the absorption of antioxidants. Avoid milkier chocolates as they have fewer antioxidants. Stay clear of compound chocolate made with vegetable oils, as they have extremely low nutritional value.
A note from chocolate experts: Dutch-processed cocoa undergoes a substantial loss of flavonoids due to the alkali treatment. Stick to chocolate products made with natural cocoa which retains most of its flavonoids.
Which brings us to this pressing question:
Should you wolf down a chocolate bar of every day?
Chocolate does offer some health benefits but is equally addictive. As with other sugary and fatty foods, it’s easy to overindulge. A sedentary lifestyle combined with chocolate binging pushes you towards weight gain and obesity. Overeating can lead to weight gain, not to mention tooth decay from prolonged grazing.
Honestly though, how many of us can settle for a few pieces of rich, creamy chocolate, and quietly put away the rest? The trick is to eat mindfully, eat it with meals, and take long breaks between nibbles. This allows your tummy to adjust and gives your brain enough time to switch on the satiety buttons.
There is something warm and comforting about eating chocolate; like the feeling of getting a hug at the end of the day, or a warm fuzzy-snuggle on those trying and discomforting times. Therefore, it is no surprise that chocolate has found its way into the hearts of several people, and continues to spread its chocolatey-sweetness in our lives.
Enjoyed reading this article? This article was written by the Fitday Nutrition team.
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