As we are about to head into the annual chocolate gorging season, a timely post on all things chocolate. Chocolate is a food that brings immense pleasure and enjoyment to people and can be a part of any person’s regular diet. It's sweet, it's tasty, we desire it and crave it. And in case you were looking for any more valid reasons to eat it, no, you haven’t been lied to by the media, scientists confirm that it can be good for you.
How chocolate is made
Chocolate is made from cocoa beans which grow on Cacao trees. The cocoa bean is roasted and ground to make cocoa liquor (cocoa mass) which has a fat content of about 50% (as cocoa butter). The cocoa butter can be removed which leaves behind a solid powder (cocoa powder).
Milk chocolate has milk and sugar added to a blend of cocoa powder and cocoa butter, but has less cocoa content than dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate has typically 2 to 3 times more cocoa than milk chocolate (which is why it is ‘dark’) and doesn’t contain any milk solids and typically has less sugar added. The cocoa content of dark chocolate can range from 30% up to around 85%.
White chocolate, as tasty as it may be, isn’t really ‘chocolate’ as only uses cocoa butter, a lot of sugar and contains no cocoa powder.
Can chocolate be healthy?
Dark chocolate is a rich source of flavanols which are potent antioxidants and which can also have favourable effects on the heart and blood vessels. It is the cocoa content of chocolate that is the source of these flavanols so dark chocolate will contain much more flavanols than milk chocolate. Apples, grapes, red wine and tea are also rich sources of these flavanols.
Dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease oxidation of the more harmful LDL-cholesterol, improve blood flow by causing relaxation of the muscles lining blood vessel walls, and improve the action of insulin. Longer term, there is some evidence that people who are regular eaters of cocoa-containing foods have lower rates of cardiovascular disease. Yes, chocolate can be healthy for you.
One caveat here: much of the chocolate research has been sponsored by the chocolate industry. This in no way means the results are fraudulent or not to be trusted, far from it, but industry sponsored research is far more likely to show a favourable result in published studies because commercial industries are more likely to fund research that has a good chance of giving a positive finding.
It is possible that other flavanol-containing foods could be just as potent, if not more, than chocolate, but the research dollars may just not be there to drive this research if we are talking about humble fruit and vegetable growers. Although what would you rather read more in newspaper headlines: "Scientists discover chocolate is healthy for you" or "Scientists discover cabbage is good for you"? I rest my case.
How much is enough?
A healthy serving of chocolate is one row or 25 grams two to three times a week. For heart-health benefits from eating dark chocolate, even one square of chocolate a day can give some benefit. With chocolate, the best advice is to always go for quality over quantity and include some dark chocolate for variety.
Be kind to your dog
Chocolate contains theobromine which is a naturally occurring stimulant found in the cocoa bean. Theobromine (along with the caffeine) increases urination and affects the central nervous system as well as heart muscle. Theobromine poses no real health issues for us humans (and even if it did, it’s doubtful people would stop eating chocolate!), but for dogs it’s potentially poisonous and can trigger vomiting, nausea, increased urination and diarrhoea.
Theobromine, along with other chemicals found in chocolate, are thought to promote the release of the feel-good hormone serotonin, which may be one reason to explain its desirability. Many people report cravings for chocolate, and far from being a true drug effect, actually come from its unique smell, taste and texture which few other foods have. Your chocolate craving is real.
Confused about the mixed soup of nutrition messages being stirred through the media? Tim maintains an active nutrition blog at www.thinkingnutrition.com.au  where you'll find the latest nutrition research and controversies discussed in straight forward language, distilling out what you need to know for your better health.