A Chocolate Fix is Actually Good For You!

16 September 2007

Interview with

Roger Corder, The Royal London Medical School & Peter Rogers, University of Bristol

Being addicted to things is usually bad news but now there's evidence that getting hooked on chocolate might not be such a bad thing: just so long as it's the dark variety. That said, is chocolate really addictive? To find out, Chris met up with anti-oxidant expert Roger Corder and addiction specialist Peter Rogers.

Chris - So Roger, what's the grounds for thinking (just like the chocolate manufacturers would love us to be thinking) that chocolate is actually good for us?

Roger -   Essentially, a number of population studies have shown a lower risk of heart disease in people who eat chocolate regularly and although this is a rather surprising finding a number of research groups over the past ten years or so have been looking at how this may be explained. What are the effects on blood vessel function that may be protective? We've done our own research in this area and shown that the potent effects; modifying the function of endothelial cells, which are the cells that line blood vessels. These effects could definitely be associated with reduced risk of heart disease; exactly the same molecules we're looking at when we're looking at red wine. There's so much similarity between the effects we're observing and the molecules that we're studying that there's a parallel between consumers of highly tannic red wine and those who like to eat dark chocolate, in terms of the effects observed.

Chris -   So it's got to be the dark chocolate?

Roger -   Absolutely. It's dark chocolate and no other choice. Cocoa as a drink may be an alternative but milk chocolate and white chocolate. These have virtually no flavinoids in; none of these protective polyphenols and therefore there's no scope for health benefits in consuming these products.

Chris - A lot of people criticise people who say, 'Drink red wine because it's good for you,'  because they say you couldn't possibly eat enough or drink enough to make a health-promoting effect.  Is that true with chocolate?  Can you eat enough to make a difference?

Roger -   I think we're at an early stage in defining what are the best chocolates to have. There's certainly some out there that have high cocoa levels with polyphenol levels you would say are consistent with the beneficial effects that are observed. So if you're talking about say 75%-85% chocolates: yes there are some. We need to have labelling of flavinoid levels on chocolate so that people can identify exactly what the best ones are. That's coming I'm sure.

Chris -   Talking to you Peter. A lot of people say, 'I am addicted to chocolate.' Now it sounds to me, from what Roger's saying, that it would be quite good to be addicted to chocolate if its going to make me live longer.

Peter -   Well, possibly. Although the other good news really about chocolate is it's not very addictive. In fact I'd say it's hardly addictive at all. We feel addicted sometimes but the way to sum it up is that we think of chocolate as 'nice but naughty.' We have conflicting attitudes about this food. We like its taste, its flavour, its texture. But it's also food we need to eat with restraint for a variety of reasons. We actually have in our heads that it's unhealthy food. Eating a lot of food is indulgent and that negative attitude is balanced against the nice part of it. Trying to resist a desire for nice things is difficult. Saying: 'I'm not going to eat chocolate because it will make me fat,' doesn't make the thought of chocolate go away. It makes it more intense if anything. We think about it more, we elaborate that thought and that then is a sort of feeling we then label as a craving. Craving them brings to mind the idea of addiction. So these things get linked in our heads together.

Chris -   Are there any chemicals in chocolate if you analyse it which could conceivably be addictive?

Peter -   Well this is one claim. What's special about it is it contains chemicals that have psychoactive effects/mood elevating effects and this is why we like it, crave it and perhaps even are addicted to it. But actually the evidence for this is pretty weak. Our own studies show that, where we have tested the idea directly. We don't find that cocoa solids (the key component containing these psychoactive chemicals) actually gives much of a mood lift beyond a caffeine buzz. We could probably get a stronger buzz from a cup of coffee. So it doesn't do any more than that so we don't think that plays a role at all.

Chris -   What about this idea that women say: 'I crave chocolate at certain stages of my menstrual cycle, either day 14 when I'm about to ovulate or just before I'm about to menstruate?'

Peter -   Well again we think that has more to do with our attitude to chocolate and how we use this food, rather than our biology. One thing here is if our biology puts us in a bad mood perhaps we feel it's legitimate to indulge in chocolate that will help cheer us up. We don't think there's anything special biologically about chocolate that gets rid of that bad mood, other than its just pleasurable to eat.

Chris -   So Roger, the best combo is then some red wine and a bar of chocolate?

Roger -   Absolutely. Although I prefer chocolate and coffee in the morning and a glass of wine in the evening.

Chris -   But isn't chocolate bad for you?

Roger -   There's lots of evidence to show that routine caffeine consumption decreases your risk of diabetes so to say it's bad is not really based on the evidence out there through population studies.

Chris -   So how much chocolate would I need to be eating on a daily basis in order to get the benefits?

Roger -   A very flavinoid, polyphenol-rich chocolate. About 30g would be a good choice and once you start exceeding that then you've got the problems of consuming excess calories. So we really need to have a good choice for consumers of high polyphenol chocolates (well labelled) that people will recognise.

Chris -   So there you have it. Chocolate is not addictive but it is very good for you as long as you eat the dark stuff: 30g. And combine it with a nice glass of red wine from the South of France (Roger tells me is the best place) and you should get set to live to 200!

Add a comment