Mythconception: chocolate is a health food
With Valentine’s day arriving, you might have bought your beloved a box of chocs. But you might want to wait until you hear what Kat Arney’s been finding out about a common chocolate-based mythconception.
Kat - Love is in the air - or, at least, the sickly manufactured version of love that passes for Valentine’s day merchandising. And one of the traditional gifts that people buy to show their undying affection is chocolate. After all, everyone knows that dark chocolate is meant to be good for you - so it’s practically a health food, right? Wrong.
First let’s take a look at where the idea that chocolate is healthy came from. The key thing is the main ingredient that gives chocolate its name and taste: cocoa beans, or cacao. These are harvested from plants and then fermented, dried, roasted, crushed, ground and pounded to produce rich-tasting cocoa powder and silky-smooth cocoa butter. Like the produce of most plants, cocoa beans contain chemicals called antioxidants, specifically molecules known as flavonols, or polyphenols. There’s a lot of interest in flavonols for bringing all kinds of purported health benefits, from boosting brainpower and lowering blood pressure to helping cut heart disease or even reducing cancer risk. So it makes sense that if chocolate is made from cocoa beans, and cocoa beans contain flavonols that are really good for you, then chocolate must contain loads of flavonols, and must therefore also be really good for you!
Alas, it’s not quite that simple. The manufacturing process from bean to bar is not kind to these chemicals. All that fermenting and roasting helps to destroy them, and sometimes cocoa is also treated to make it more alkaline - a process known as Dutching - which gives it a milder taste but can also destroy more of the flavonols. Adding extra ingredients, such as emulsifiers, milk and sugar can also mop up flavonols along the way.
Another thing that makes chocolate something to be enjoyed in moderation as a treat rather than a health food is the other stuff that’s in it. Flavonols are very bitter, and are pretty unpalatable unless served with a side-order of fat and sugar. As a result, there’s more than 550 calories in a hundred grams of chocolate, and that includes the really posh dark stuff. Eating too much of anything will make you put on weight - which can increase the risk of heart disease and other illnesses - and packing in a lot of high-fat and high-sugar chocolate is likely to have more of a negative impact on your health than any positive benefits from the tiny amounts of polyphenols.
All is not lost, if you still want to believe that chocolate can be good for you. Currently there’s a trial underway in the US testing whether capsules of flavonols purified from cocoa have an impact on cardiovascular health. Unfortunately they don’t taste like chocolate at all, don’t come wrapped in a shiny box, and are way less romantic. And, just to be a total killjoy, fruit, vegetables and beans are much better sources of polyphenols and other antioxidants than chocolate. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a chocolaty gift if that’s what the lady loves, but let’s stop kidding ourselves that it’s a health food. And if you really want to give the one you love a health boost this Valentine’s day, maybe a box of fruit and veg might be a better bet than a box of chocs. Although I can’t take any responsibility for any hearts broken over a bag of broccoli.