6 well-kept secrets about the rock star of sweets
1. It could save your life
If you've had a heart attack, a bar of chocolate is probably the last thing your doctor would recommend, but evidence from Sweden suggests it might just save your life by slashing your risk of having another heart attack in the future.
More than 1,000 heart-attack survivors were quizzed on their chocolate consumption, then followed-up for eight years to see how their health fared. The researchers discovered that the more chocolate was eaten, the lower the risk of death due to heart disease-even after taking into account other factors such as obesity, smoking and alcohol intake.
Those who regularly indulged in chocolate (two or more times per week) were up to three times less likely to die of heart problems than those who avoided it. Even eating chocolate less than once a month had a significant protective effect.1
2. It keeps the arteries healthy
Dark chocolate seems to increase 'good' HDL cholesterol while lowering 'bad' LDL cholesterol.2 It's also been shown to reduce platelet clumping (blood clots) and improve function of the endothelium, the inner lining of the arteries responsible for producing nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels and helps keep the arteries clear of obstruction.3
Dark chocolate has a positive effect on blood pressure too. Just a couple of squares a day (6.3 g) were able to significantly lower blood pressure in a group of adults with mild hypertension (high blood pressure). But it's got to be the dark stuff; white chocolate had no effect.4
3. It could help keep you slim
There's no need to avoid chocolate if you're watching your weight, research suggests; it might even help you stay slim. Scientists from the University of California at San Diego studied 1,000 men and women and found that those who regularly ate chocolate were thinner than those who indulged in the sweet stuff less often. Those with the chocolate habit didn't eat fewer calories than the others (they actually ate more) or exercise more often, but they did have significantly lower BMI scores (body mass index, based on weight in relation to height). The researchers think that chocolate's metabolism-boosting effects might be the reason why, in moderation, it doesn't seem to make you fat.5
4. It's a natural sunscreen
No chocolate body paint required-just eating a few squares of chocolate a day can help protect your skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. After three months of eating chocolate rich in healthy compounds called 'flavanols' (see below), a group of volunteers saw their 'minimum erythema dose'-the dose of UV needed to make the skin go red-more than double, while another group eating low-flavanol chocolate saw no such changes.6 The amount they ate was just 20 g a day, the equivalent of around six squares of a standard Green & Black's chocolate bar.
5. It can quiet a cough
Next time you've got an annoying cough, try sipping a mug of hot chocolate or nibbling on a chocolate bar-it might work better than standard cough medicine, UK research suggests. Theobromine, an ingredient in chocolate, was more effective than the cough-suppressing drug codeine in a small trial at Imperial College London-and had the added bonus of being side-effect-free.7 To get the same amount of theobromine used in the trial, you'd need to drink about two cups of cocoa.
6. It could help prevent diabetes
Believe it or not, chocolate could help to prevent type 2 diabetes-but again, only the dark kind, it seems. An Italian study found that eating 100 g/day (the equivalent of a standard Green & Black's chocolate bar) of dark, but not white, chocolate for two weeks improved insulin sensitivity (which can lead to type 2 diabetes) in healthy volunteers.8
1. J Intern Med, 2009; 266: 248-57
2. Free Radic Biol Med, 2004; 37: 1351-9; J Nutr, 2008; 138: 1671-6
3. Circulation, 2007; 116: 2376-82; J Am Coll Nutr, 2004; 23: 197-204
4. JAMA, 2007; 298: 49-60
5. Arch Intern Med, 2012; 172: 519-21
6. J Cosmet Dermatol, 2009; 8: 169-73
7. FASEB J, 2005; 19: 231-3
8. Am J Clin Nutr, 2005; 81: 611-4
The white stuff
Flavanols are generally considered responsible for chocolate's health benefits (see below), as it's only the flavanol-rich chocolate (which tends to be the dark kind) that has been shown to have positive effects on health. White chocolate, which contains no flavanols, hasn't proved to have the same benefits.1
But a new study reveals that white chocolate can improve platelet function in men and so may have some benefit for the heart.2 This suggests that there are other compounds in chocolate besides flavanols that may be good for you.
1. Am J Clin Nutr, 2005; 81: 611-4; JAMA, 2007; 298: 49-60
2. Mol Nutr Food Res, 2013; 57: 191-202
Chock-full of benefits
So how is it possible that such a high-fat, sugar-laden treat can be good for you?
Well, not all chocolate is created equal. Most of the research suggests that it's the dark kind-containing at least 70 per cent cocoa solids-that's good for your health. Although dark chocolate still typically includes a generous serving of sugar, the cocoa packs such a healthy punch that it counteracts the sugar's negative effects.
The key ingredients in cocoa are the flavanols, a subgroup of the natural antioxidant plant compounds called 'flavonoids', which are well known for their heart-healthy properties.1 In fact, the Kuna Indians of Panama, who regularly consume large amounts of flavanol-rich cocoa, are virtually free of hypertension and stroke, despite the salt they add to their food. 2 Unfortunately, most commercial chocolate is low in flavanols because of their bitter taste, so many manufacturers choose to sacrifice these compounds for the sake of flavour. As a general rule, the higher the percentage of cocoa solids in a chocolate product and the more bitter the taste, the higher the flavanol levels.
As for the fat in chocolate, much of it is present in the form of stearic triglycerides, which increase good HDL cholesterol and are readily cleared from the body through the gut.3 Plus the fat slows the rate at which the sugar is released into the bloodstream, making dark chocolate a low glycaemic index (GI) food.
So while it may be some time before doctors start recommending a bar of chocolate a day, it seems that the old adage is true: a little of what you fancy does you good.
1. Nutr Today, 2002; 37: 103-9
2. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol, 2006; 47 Suppl 2: S103-9
3. Crit Care Nurse, 2007; 27: 11-5
Mark'eta's famous When Harry Met Sally Raw Chocolate Cake
Mark'eta Bola, a natural nutritionist and raw living-foods chef, became interested in the power of food as medicine after suffering a number of childhood illnesses. She now leads raw-food workshops in Birmingham (www.treeoflife-events.co.uk), and this is one of her favourite recipes.
"I invented this recipe during the early stage of my raw-food journey as a chocolate addict. It was my friend who named it after the famous scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally-given the orgasmic reaction after experiencing such healthy and delicious chocolate cake without any cooking or baking.
"It's a fantastic recipe for all of you who want to cut down or avoid using dairy and soya products, wheat, gluten or any other refined ingredients. This cake is made from only natural and, as much as possible, organic raw foods. It's done without heating above 43C/109.4F and so retains most enzymes, nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
Nutty base of the cake
1/2 cup flaxseeds
1/2 cup Brazil nuts
1/2 cup desiccated coconut
8 Medjool dates
1 First grind the flaxseeds into flour using a high-speed blender or coffee/herb grinder.
2 Mix all the ingredients well together in a food processor (using the S-blade) until it becomes a soft pastry.
3 Choose a cake form and spread the pastry evenly on the bottom.
4 Use your fingers or a spoon to press the pastry firmly to create a delightful crusty consistency as the first layer of the cake.
Chocolate cake filling
1 1/4 cups cacao powder
1 cup melted cacao butter
1/3 cup melted coconut butter
1 Tbsp carob powder
1 Tbsp maca powder
1 Tbsp lucuma powder
1/4 cup cashew nuts (soaked)
1/3 cup agave nectar (honey or soft dates are good alternatives)
1/4 tsp vanilla powder (or 3 drops of vanilla extract)
pinch of Himalayan salt
pinch of cayenne pepper
2 1/2 cups red grapes
1 Soak the cashew nuts in filtered water for at least 1/2 hour (and up to 4 hours), then rinse and strain well before using.
2 Melt the cacao and coconut butters in warm water (or in a dehydrator) to a temperature below 43C/109.4F (the melting point of cacao butter is around 34-38C/93-100F).
3 In a food processor or high-speed blender, blend together the soaked cashew nuts, bananas and all the powders, including the pinches of salt and cayenne pepper.
4 Slowly add the melted butters to the mixture and continue blending until it has a smooth and silky texture.
5 Pour half the mixture evenly over the cake base. Spread the 2 1/2 cups of grapes evenly over the mixture and cover it completely with the second half of the filling to create a lovely smooth final layer of cake.
6 Leave the cake in the fridge to settle down for several hours before serving.
7 If you like, you can decorate it with a sprinkling of goji berries or bee pollen.
WDDTY vol 23 no 12