Chocolate's dark secret is revealed

A bar a day can really help you work rest and play say scientists

By Anthea Gerrie, October 14, 2010

This is Chocolate Week - and possibly the most delicious aspect of it is that we no longer need to regard a bar of the dark stuff as a guilty pleasure.

For as the Mayans who discovered the fruits of the cocoa plant discovered, it is, when properly made, choc-full of healthful ingredients. Recent scientific studies have shown dark chocolate can lower blood pressure, improve brain function and contribute to heart health.

That is on top of the mood-improving benefits which are already well-known… eating chocolate induces happiness by triggering the same endorphins you get from falling in love.

Credit the phytochemicals, flavanols, phenolics and theobromine which are constituents of the cocoa plant from which chocolate is made. The theobromine - more commonly associated with tea - is responsible for the instant pick me up effect which makes people reach for a bar in the mid-afternoon.

But it is the flavanols - powerful anti-oxidants - which can help the heart by clearing the arteries, and phenolics which can boost the immune system and help protect against degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. Chocolate is also one of the richest dietary sources of magnesium, considered essential for brain health.

It has even been shown to be the key to a longer life if a study conducted over 18 years at Harvard is to be believed. Scientists there studied nearly 8,000 male graduates over 18 years and found the group which ate chocolate lived nearly a year longer.

Men seem to absorb some of chocolate's benefits for the heart better than women, though no-one has yet figured out why. But females do benefit from the stress-busting effects of chocolate - at least the anxious ones whose stress hormones were lowered by eating a couple of squares of dark chocolate every day for a fortnight.

And the other catch is you need to keep eating the chocolate to get its health benefits, and you also need to eat it dark. Milk and white chocolate have too few of the cocoa solids containing the magic ingredients.

However, just picking up a bar marked 70 per cent or higher cocoa solids is not enough to guarantee health-giving qualities: "What counts is cocoa mass versus cocoa butter, and the label doesn't say how much of that goes to make up the percentage," says Professor Roger Corder, who, having identified the benefits of red wine in The Wine Diet, is investigating if and why we need chocolate.

It is the flavanols which excite him: "This is a group of chemicals which can produce a positive change in blood vessel function. And the cocoa mass in dark chocolate may be the only dietary source for Brits who do not drink enough red wine or eat enough cranberries and apples."

Professor Corder points that flavanols are lost in roasting - and over-roasting cocoa beans is a cheap trick of some mass producers to create a richer flavour. Some producers, like the Grenada Chocolate Company use slower roasting methods. Lynn Cunningham, spokepserson for another chocolate maker, Hotel Chocolat, says it is striving to minimise loss of flavanols and other anti-oxidants from the beans grown on its own plantation in St Lucia.

Until all growers make their practices more transparent, price is the only clue to careful chocolate-making, delivering flavour without robbing nutrients.

A new book called The Chocolate Therapist summarises the health benefits of the better bars and suggests some guidelines on how to choose. Author Julie Pech recommends organic chocolate - it's chemical free - and suggests buying fair trade to invest in the future of the industry.

From a flavour point of view, there are other considerations. It is now possible to buy bars of single origin, and those from South America and the Caribbean taste quite different from those from Madagascar and other tropical places known for their fine chocolate.

And you do not have to go to speciality chocolate shops to find them; all the best supermarkets have some fine bars on their confectionery aisles - just do not confuse them with the over-roasted, industrially-produced big brand-name slabs.

The Chocolate Therapist is published by Wiley

Last updated: 3:16pm, October 27 2010