Chocolate has a long history as a favoured food of many cultures, including Aztec and Mayan. Today, it is considered a luxury food that should be eaten sparingly, since it can contribute to migraines, and obesity. However, new research is debunking these common fallacies. Studies are now indicating that chocolate or cocoa in moderation is actually good for us, and may help prevent heart disease, cancer and other degenerative illnesses, but more evidence is needed.
Vitamins, minerals and nutrients
The nutritional content of chocolate varies according to its recipe. Generally, chocolate contains:
Protein - needed for cell maintenance and repair.
Fat - mainly saturated fats, up to 50 per cent.
Vitamin E which is a fat-soluble vitamin essential for the integrity of cell membranes.
Calcium, phosphorus and magnesium minerals that are essential for strong bones and teeth.
Iron - needed to form haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying compound in blood.
Caffeine - a nervous system stimulant.
Copper assists iron metabolism, formation of melanin (in hair and skin), and in the functioning of the central nervous system.
The link to migraines
Migraines are debilitating headaches caused by spasms of the arteries leading to the brain. The underlying mechanisms remain unclear, but a number of triggers seem to be needed to start the migraine process. Certain foods, including chocolate, are commonly cited as triggers. However, for most sufferers, chocolate can't start the migraine chain reaction by itself. Numerous international trials have found that other factors, such as stress (as a result of tiredness, excitement or anger) and hormones, need to be present at the same time. Fasting and some foods may also play a role. More research is needed before chocolate can be completely exonerated, but the evidence so far seems promising for chocolate lovers.
Acne and pimples
A recent study has shown that most people, around 70 per cent, believe that certain foods can cause or exacerbate acne. Chocolate was indicated as one of the main culprits. However, there is no evidence to back up this long held belief. According to scientific research to date, there are no compounds, ingredients or naturally occurring chemicals in chocolate that can either trigger acne or make it worse.
If a person regularly eats more food than their body needs, they will store the excess energy as body fat. Chocolate is energy dense, which means it contains comparatively high levels of kilojoules for its weight, approximately 2,200kJ per 100gm. Regularly eating energy dense foods is perhaps the fastest way to gain excess weight, but it would be wrong to say that regularly eating chocolate will lead to obesity. It is overeating in general that is the culprit, not specific foods. A person with a healthy diet can safely eat chocolate in moderation without fear of weight gain.
A healthier type of saturated fat
On average, chocolate contains around 50 per cent fat. Blood cholesterol levels are usually boosted by foods containing saturated fats, but the main type of saturated fat in chocolate is stearic acid. This type seems to have no effect on blood cholesterol levels at all, which means those who are trying to limit their saturated fat intake for the sake of their blood cholesterol could safely consume chocolate on the odd occasion.
Heart disease and cancer
Antioxidants, such as catechins, are substances found in some foods like tea, fruits and vegetables and are thought to protect the body against degenerative illnesses like heart disease and cancer. The antioxidant content of chocolate has been found to be significantly higher than tea. Chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, is a good source of catechins and may help prevent the oxidation of blood cholesterol and decrease the tendency for blood clotting. However, more evidence is needed on how these findings translate to heart health. If you want to boost your intake of catechins, while keeping your fat intake low, try drinking cocoa instead of eating chocolate, since it generally has a much lower fat content.
Things to remember
Chocolate doesn't cause acne or automatically trigger migraine attacks.
The main type of saturated fat in chocolate is stearic acid, which doesn't increase blood cholesterol levels.
Chocolate and cocoa contain substances called catechins, which may help protect the body against degenerative illnesses like cancer.
Chocolate is a high fat food that must be consumed in moderation as part of an otherwise nutritious diet.
Cocoa provides the same amount of catechins as chocolate, but with less fat.
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