Easter can be a tough time of temptation, but if you choose your chocolate carefully, you can enjoy a sweet treat without spoiling your healthy habits.
Shiny gold eggs and cute choccy bunnies have been winking at us from some supermarket shelves ever since January — and most of us would admit to a lifelong love of the dark (and milk and white!) stuff that goes way beyond one long weekend in autumn.
Industry research suggests that Australians will spend nearly $186 million on chocolate eggs, hens and bunnies over the Easter break. That makes a pretty big contribution to our consumption of fat, sugar and kilojoules.
Of course, the other side of the chocolate coin is that both milk and dark varieties provide modest amounts of vitamins and minerals. Thanks to its higher cocoa content, dark chocolate is also rich in antioxidants.
Confused about cocoa and cacao? Though most people use the terms interchangeably, there is a technical difference. Cacao refers to the cacao tree and its seeds in their raw state, whereas cocoa describes any cleaned, roasted product of these seeds (which we confusingly call cocoa beans!). Delicious as it may be, this processed end product is a foodstuff that contains fewer nutrients than the raw stuff does.
The sweet science of chocolate
Research suggests that eating chocolate may benefit our heart health, which is pretty surprising for a food that’s loaded with fat, especially saturated fat!
In 2011, the British Medical Journal published an intriguing study. It showed that chocolate lovers were 37 per cent less likely to suffer from heart disease and had a 29 per cent lower risk of stroke than their counterparts, who were eating little.
Chocolate may offer even more health bonuses: When US-based scientists at Harvard University reviewed 24 published studies, they found that cocoa and cocoa products increased ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol and reduced ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol as well as blood pressure. Cocoa also improved insulin sensitivity, which helps lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
But before you stock up on big slabs…
You should know that studies don’t always distinguish between milk choc and dark choc. What’s more, this kind of research involves a range of bars, drinks and desserts, and the definitions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ intakes often differ. Thanks to this lack of information, you have no way of knowing which type of chocolate and exactly how much of it you need to eat (usually each day!) to achieve similar results. In fact, the National Heart Foundation cautions that eating chocolate will not result in the heart-health rewards that these studies lead you to expect.
The simple fact is that if you consume too many kilojoules and excess fat and sugar, your heart and waistline are more likely to suffer. The key to eating chocolate, as with all foods, is to enjoy it in moderation.
Which is healthier: dark, milk or white chocolate?
Cocoa beans are rich in flavonoids, compounds that act as antioxidants in the body. These appear to be responsible for many of the cardioprotective benefits that chocolate shows in studies. These flavonoids, which are also in tea and red wine, mop up free radicals, highly reactive molecules that can damage cells and cause disease.
As a general rule, the darker the chocolate, the more cacao it contains — a 2009 study shows that dark choc has double the flavonoids of the milk variety. (White chocolate has no cocoa solids whatsoever, and hence few antioxidants.) Unfortunately, these beneficial flavonoids taste quite bitter, so chocolate makers often remove some during the manufacturing process and add milk solids and sugar; however, some research shows that milk can hinder the body’s absorption of chocolate flavonoids.
As a result, a dark chocolate that’s at least 75 per cent cocoa is the best choice for your heart health. If you’re used to eating milk or white varieties, the dark stuff will taste more intense and less sweet, but your tastebuds won’t take long to adjust.
Which kind of chocolate is the most fattening?
Antioxidants aside, all kinds of chocolate are very high in fat and kilojoules, so if you eat it regularly and want to maintain your weight, stick to small amounts.
A chocolate that has a high percentage of cocoa solids also tends to be higher in fat and lower in sugar than a variety with less cocoa is. But as a dark chocolate, it has a richer taste, so you may find that a modest square or two is more satisfying than the same amount of milk chocolate.
Can chocolate really stop you from feeling tired and miserable?
Eating chocolate boosts the brain’s production of serotonin and phenylethylamine, neurotransmitters that help lift mood and regulate sleep. In a small English study, people who ate 45g (the equivalent of one small bar) of dark chocolate with 85 per cent cocoa solids every day for two months relieved their debilitating symptoms of chronic-fatigue syndrome.
But in the real world, nibbling chocolate on a daily basis is unlikely to have any more of a positive impact on your mood or overall health than a balanced diet has — so we’re certainly not suggesting you pop chocolate like a magic pill! It’s no substitute for a good night’s sleep either. In fact, most of chocolate’s mood-boosting effects are purely psychological: Treating ourselves to a favourite food feels good, in the same way that buying a new pair of shoes can improve our mood.
Can chocolate help lower blood pressure?
Studies show that people who eat a little chocolate or cocoa powder every day only moderately reduce their blood pressure. To significantly lower blood pressure, your priorities should be to lose weight, quit smoking, exercise more and slash your salt intake.
So how much chocolate can I eat?
Although there appear to be some links between chocolate and good health, it’s still a kilojoule-rich food that can cause weight gain.
We recommend choosing good-quality dark chocolate, and occasionally enjoying it in small amounts of about 25g. Look for individually wrapped portions, as these help stop you from polishing off half a block, and the process of unwrapping each chocolate slows your eating pace.
Enjoy the smooth stuff in moderation, and you’ll savour every single mouthful!
Five tips for surviving chocolate season
Store chocolate in the fridge (it lasts longer in your mouth when it’s cold!).
Buy individual chocs rather than big blocks.
Share your treats with friends and family.
If chocs come in foil or cellophane, count the wrappers to keep track of your intake.
Eat mindfully and pace yourself — savour every mouthful!
Every year, Aussies eat an average of 5.5kg of chocolate each! That’s equivalent to:
27 x 200g blocks
110 small 50g bars (that’s two a week!)
1667 mini Easter eggs
There’s little evidence to suggest that chocolate provokes pimples, but studies show that fruit and veg can promote healthy skin.