Did you know that over 7.2 million tonnes of chocolate are consumed worldwide every year? That’s a lot of chocolate! We can all appreciate a few sneaky squares of the treat, but just how good is chocolate for your body?
What is Chocolate?
Chocolate is derived from the beans of the tropical cacao tree in areas like Western Africa that receive high temperatures and rainfall. The chocolate that we all love and know is produced from these beans in a multi-stage process; from harvesting, fermenting, drying, cleaning, and then grinding the cacao beans. After grinding, the paste is then pressurised into chocolate liquor (also known as Cocoa Liquor, or Cacao Liquor), and cocoa butter. The different types of chocolate are made by blending the liquor and butter in varying proportions, from fine dark chocolate (with at least 70% cacao), to milk chocolate (at around 50% of the mixture), and finally, white chocolate, which is made with only the cocoa butter.
Why do People Enjoy Chocolate? It all Lies in the Science
The chemistry of chocolate has long been a hot topic for scientists; there are several hundred different chemicals within chocolate – and some of them seem to do more than just make it taste good. Stimulants are all found in your average bar of chocolate, alongside feel-good chemicals such as anandamide, which is also found naturally in the brain. Anandamide is normally broken down quite quickly after its production, but scientists believe the anandamide found in chocolate makes our natural anandamide last longer – giving us a longer-lasting “chocolate high”.
Using brain scanners to study how activity changes when we eat chocolate, scientists have been able to find out that one set of brain structures remains active when people eat smaller amounts of chocolate, while an entirely different set became active when too much was eaten. Although too much chocolate isn’t necessarily bad for you, your brain might not see it that way!
Is Chocolate Good or Bad for You?
Chocolate itself isn’t necessarily bad for you – the problem lies in the sugar found in chocolate products. For dental health, sugar causes plaque, which can lead to tooth decay and gum disease, whereas the chocolate elements themselves (the butter and liquor) are relatively harmless.
Now, this is where it gets tricky - Some studies suggest moderate amounts of chocolate can help lower blood pressure, while others advise that the high levels of saturated fats in chocolate products can actually do the opposite. Don’t despair, there’s good news – Studies have found that chocolate-eaters actually live longer, possibly because chocolate also contains high levels of phenolic, an antioxidant chemical that prevents fats from causing a build-up of cholesterol. Additionally, a high-quality dark chocolate boasts high fibre, iron, and magnesium content – all minerals that we need daily for a happy, healthy lifestyle.
Moving to the Dark Side
The three main types of chocolate (dark, milk, and white) are all chemically different, so they’re likely to affect us in different ways. While milk and white chocolate are both higher in sugar and fat content, darker chocolate is high in epicatechin (which may improve vascular health), so if you’re reaching for a bar, it seems like the darker the better!
Within the past decade, scientists have found that chocolate consumption may be associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease and stroke, although studies have found that the risk of stroke was lowered mainly in women – So it’s good news for the ladies. Another study discovered evidence that although dark chocolate didn’t reduce blood pressure in itself, cocoa products with specific amounts of epicatechin and cocoa flavanol can help with blood flow, and therefore blood pressure, in some cases.
Essentially, in practice, this means that what you eat, how much, and how often is crucial - studies suggest benefits from eating chocolate in smaller amounts, due to the associated sugar and fat contents.
All in all, the science of chocolate is far from clear, but it looks like eating moderate amounts of chocolate may do you more good than harm – so feel free to treat yourself to a few squares, just make sure you brush your teeth afterwards!
Enhanced affective brain representations of chocolate in cravers vs. non-cravers.
Edmund T. Rolls and Ciara McCabe. European Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 26, pp. 1067–1076, 2007.