Please note: this information was current as of October 2008 but is still a useful guide today.
Tips for sustainable living
The good news about the health benefits of chocolate keeps piling up, while the range of fair trade and organic chocolates in supermarkets and health food stores is growing exponentially. Chocoholics finally think they have valid reason to indulge — with good conscience. We give you the facts behind the hype, while our expert tasters give us the verdict on the best chocolate.
Availability and sales of the higher percentage (70%) dark chocolate are increasing as people seek out a cocoa hit that’s not too bitter and not too sweet. We hit the shops looking for blocks of plain dark chocolate with around 70% cocoa solids, and fed them to a panel of chocolate experts who were asked to consider the appearance, snap, aroma, taste and texture.
Sometimes we mere mortals have different tastes from the experts, so we wanted to see what our lay tasters thought – and also whether consumers who are trying to do the right thing by chocolate growers and the environment will be satisfied with the taste of organic and fair trade chocolate. CHOICE staff were more than happy to help find the answers.
All in all, the evidence suggests that eating a small amount of dark chocolate won’t do much harm, and may do some good. If you enjoy strong dark chocolate, you get more of the good stuff — cocoa — and less of the sugar, and your chocolate craving should be satisfied with less. If you substitute plain dark chocolate for junk food, you may well come out ahead health-wise. On the other hand, there are plenty of other, perhaps healthier, ways to boost your flavonoid intake: fruit and vegetables give you the added benefits of fibre, vitamins and minerals, while straight black or green tea give you a kilojoule-free antioxidant boost.
Is it healthy?
Media reports in recent years have elevated the status of chocolate from guilt-ridden treat to functional food. Yet with more than 40% fat, including about 26% saturated fat, and almost 30% sugar, it’s extraordinary that even dark chocolate, which is considered healthier than milk chocolate, could be considered remotely healthy.
True, it contains a little protein and various minerals, including iron, copper, magnesium and zinc. But its main saving grace is that it contains high levels of flavonoids — chemicals that help protect plants from disease and insects. Gram for gram, cocoa contains higher levels of flavonoids than other renowned sources such as red wine, tea, apples and berries.
Studies researching the benefits of both cocoa and high-cocoa chocolate have shown that it:
- Improves blood vessel health by increasing the elasticity of artery walls so they can dilate more readily, which in turn affects blood flow volume and pressure.
- Reduces blood pressure in people with high blood pressure. And the more you eat, the greater the drop. People with normal blood pressure don't appear to be affected.
- Reduces inflammation and plaque build-up in blood vessels, which can lead to artherosclerosis.
- Decreases blood platelet activity. By clinging together to make clots and to the sides of blood vessel walls, blood platelets are involved in stroke and other clot-related problems such as thromboses, as well as artherosclerosis. Chocolate has been found to have the same anti-platelet effects as aspirin.
- Improves cholesterol profile by increasing HDL (good cholesterol) levels and lowering LDLs (bad cholesterol). Even though it contains high levels of saturated fat, one of these fats, stearic acid, is converted to oleic acid — a monounsaturated fat that doesn’t raise cholesterol. Combined with the oleic acids already present in the chocolate, these appear to counteract the negative effects of the other saturated fat, palmitic acid, making it at least blood cholesterol neutral and perhaps even lowering it.
- Improves insulin resistance and sensitivity.
Does it have to be dark?
Some people really don’t like dark chocolate and would much rather eat milk chocolate. If it means having to eat three times as much to get the same benefit … well, that’s the price that has to be paid for —ahem — good health. The trouble is, it’s not so simple. Some tests suggest that the milk proteins inhibit the absorption of cocoa flavonoids, so even if you eat more milk chocolate to compensate for the lack of cocoa, or eat milk chocolate with higher cocoa content, you still won’t get the same benefit as eating pure dark chocolate.
But evidence for this is contradictory: just as some studies have found that milk reduces flavonoid absorption, others have found it doesn’t. Such discrepancies appear to be in part due to differences between individuals, and in small studies these differences may mask an overall effect.
The theory also suggests that eating or drinking dairy products just before or after dark chocolate reduces its effects, and at least one study has found this to be true. So, while there’s no definitive answer on whether milk inhibits the flavonoids’ effects, you still get more antioxidant bang for your kilojoule buck by eating dark rather than milk chocolate.
It can be healthy, but...
Given all the positive health findings, it’s not surprising that chocolate is being promoted — especially by chocolate companies — as a deliciously useful part of the diet for improving cardiovascular health. Yet many health professionals have hesitated to embrace chocolate as the new cure-all superfood.
One reason is that it’s unclear whether or not short-term trial effects will translate into long-term real-life health benefits. Flavonoids are known to interact with certain proteins, fats, sugars and alcohol, which can affect their absorption. While you can restrict people's diets for a short time while conducting a trial, in a long-term real-life whole-diet perspective, results may not be quite as spectacular. Nor is it known how long any short-term effects will be maintained. So, more long-term studies are needed.
A couple of real-life studies linked long-term regular chocolate consumption with better overall health, but that may be more to do with other demographic and lifestyle factors of the people who choose to eat chocolate than the effects of the chocolate itself.
Another concern is that favourable results are often overemphasised, and what is a statistically significant result is not always clinically significant. That is, there may well have been a measurable difference in blood pressure or cholesterol, but not necessarily enough to make a meaningful difference to a person’s health. It’s been established that there are big differences in the way that people absorb flavonoids, so the effects won’t necessarily be consistent from one person to another.
To add to the confusion, not all chocolate is created equal — levels of flavonoids may depend not only on the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate, but also the growing conditions, initial handling of the cocoa beans and the manufacturing process. What you buy might not be in the same league as what was proven beneficial in tests.
This makes it hard to pin down how much of which chocolate you need for health benefits. And the amount of chocolate consumed in some of these studies is enormous. The 100 grams of chocolate in some studies would account for more than one-quarter of the average person’s daily kilojoule requirements — with little other nutritional benefit. You can understand why health professionals are reluctant to encourage this level of consumption.
Finally, much of the research is conducted or sponsored by the chocolate or cocoa industry, which leaves it open to potential bias, such as not reporting null or negative results.