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World Chocolate Day on 7 July marks the momentous first journey of this delicious treat from Mexico, Central and South America to Europe in 1550. Chocolate has become synonymous with great taste and indulgence ever since.

Indeed, chocolate is not the first word that comes to mind while talking about healthy foods. On the contrary, they have been associated with an increased risk of acne and diabetes due to their high sugar and fat content. 

Experts, however, say that sugar is only an additive to chocolates, a confectionary made from the seed pods of the cocoa plant Theobroma cacao - literally the food of gods. And dark chocolates have shown many benefits of health which include but are not limited to improved mood, reduced risk of heart diseases and obesity, and improvement in the gut microflora. 

Chocolate was first used by the Mayans who used to make a drink with cocoa and hot water - a drink that was only preserved for the royalty and the highest-ranking people in the society. Cocoa and the chocolate made out of it was introduced in Europe in the 16th century and it took a while before the medicinal aspect of this food was considered.

Did you know?

Cocoa beans were used as a currency in Mesoamerica.

  1. Types of chocolate and how is it made
  2. Chocolate nutrition facts
  3. Chocolate health benefits
  4. Chocolate side effects
  5. Why eating chocolates lightens you up

Chocolates are broadly classified into three types:

  • Dark chocolate: Contains the most amount of cocoa (up to 80% of its weight) along with cocoa butter. It tastes a bit bitter and has a strong aroma of cocoa.
  • Milk chocolate: Contains anywhere between 20-25% cocoa solids along with cocoa butter, sugar, milk powder and lecithin (a type of fat). It tastes comparatively sweeter and with a bitter note of cocoa.
  • White chocolate: Contains no cocoa solids; is entirely made of milk, sugar and cocoa butter. White chocolate is just sweet. 

Regardless of the type, every chocolate comes from the cocoa plant. To prepare chocolates, cacao beans are first separated from their pods. Then they are dried, fermented and roasted to bring out that chocolatey aroma and flavour and to stop their germination and kill any bacteria present on the surface of the beans. Once the beans are roasted enough, the cocoa nibs are separated from the outer papery shell by winnowing. 

The cocoa beans have two parts - the inner nib and the outer shell. It’s the nibs that are used to make the chocolate.

The nibs are ground and refined and turned into cocoa liquor. The cocoa liquor is then pressed to separate cocoa butter. The remaining mass left is called cocoa cake. The latter can be further processed to make cocoa powder. 

To make chocolate, cocoa liquor is mixed with sugar, cocoa butter, milk and any flavours and the whole mixture is then slowly mixed and ground in a special instrument to obtain the thick velvety texture of the chocolate - a process called conching. This liquid is then put into moulds and solidified to turn into the chocolate seen in market shelves.

Chocolate is rich in calories, fats and carbohydrates but it also has a good amount of fibre and minerals. As per the US Department of Agriculture, here are the nutrients present in 100 g of dark chocolate with 70-80% cacao solids:

Nutrient Value per 100 g
Energy 598 kcal
Water 1.37 g
Carbohydrate 45.9 g
Protein 7.79 g
Fats 42.63 g
Fibre 10.9 g
Minerals  
Potassium 715 mg
Phosphorus 308 mg
Magnesium 228 mg
Calcium 73 mg
Sodium 20 mg
Iron 11.9 mg
Manganese 2 mg
Copper 1.7 mg
Vitamins  
Niacin 1 mg
Beta-carotene 19 µg
Vitamin A 2 µg

Most of the health benefits of chocolate are attributed to cocoa polyphenols. Hence, dark chocolate is said to be healthier than milk chocolate. The latter also has more milk and added sugars which have side effects when taken in excess. 

Here are some benefits of chocolates and the scientific reason behind them:

  1. Chocolate benefits in high cholesterol
  2. Chocolate benefits in high blood pressure
  3. Chocolate benefits for the heart
  4. Chocolate reduces the risk of stroke
  5. Chocolate reduces diabetes risk
  6. Chocolate effects on cognition and mood
  7. Chocolate benefits for skin
  8. Chocolate may aid in weight loss
  9. Other benefits of chocolate

Chocolate benefits in high cholesterol

Chocolate has a good amount of saturated fats - a type of unhealthy fat that is associated with increased cholesterol levels and a higher risk of heart diseases. However, the saturated fat present in chocolate mainly comprises of stearic acid and oleic acid (two fatty acids). Studies show that both these types of fatty acids do not increase or have no significant effect on LDL (bad cholesterol) levels.

A meta-analysis of about 10 clinical trials consisting of 320 patients suggested that chocolate or cocoa products reduce LDL levels in body.

In an older study published in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine, dark chocolate consumption was associated with an increment in HDL (good cholesterol) levels.  

In a small study done on about 28 soccer players in the age group of 18-20 years, regular consumption of 105 g of flavanol containing milk chocolate or white chocolate was shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels.

The study did not mention the exact mechanism of action of flavonoids, though, previous studies have suggested various ways in which these biological compounds can effect cholesterol levels in the body. These include increased uptake of LDL by the liver, reduced production of LDL cholesterol and inhibiting the absorption of LDL from food.

Read more: High cholesterol symptoms

Chocolate benefits in high blood pressure

Several studies show the positive effects of chocolate and cocoa on blood pressure levels. According to a meta-analysis published in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Medicine, dark chocolate is superior to placebo in reducing systolic blood pressure and diastolic pre-hypertension. 

In another study, short term intake of dark chocolate was associated with a reduction in blood pressure. The same effect was not seen with the intake of white chocolate.

A randomised controlled trial done on 24 women and 20 men with pre-hypertension found that consumption of 6.3 g dark chocolate per day can improve blood pressure levels within 18 weeks.

The anti-hypertensive action of chocolates are attributed to the polyphenols present in it. These compounds reduce oxidative stress and improve endothelial function thus helping in the management of high blood pressure.

Chocolate benefits for the heart

According to a study published in the open-access peer-reviewed journal Nutrients, consumption of up to three 30 g servings of chocolate per week can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

Another study published in the British Medical Journal suggested that regular consumption of chocolate can bring down the risk of any cardiovascular disease by a third. Though the study did not find any association between chocolate intake and heart failure.

A prospective analysis done in the USA found no significant association between chocolate consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in women. In fact, the study suggested an increased risk with higher chocolate consumption in women above the age of 65. 

So more studies are needed to confirm the effects of chocolate or cocoa consumption on heart health.

Chocolate reduces the risk of stroke

Stroke is a potentially fatal condition that occurs due to the rupture of a blood vessel in the brain or due to a clot in the blood vessels of the brain.

A prospective cohort study done on about 38,182 men and 46,415 women found that there is an inverse relationship between chocolate consumption and stroke risk in women.

Another meta-analysis done on 37,103 men suggested that moderate chocolate consumption is associated with a reduced risk of stroke.

According to a study done in Canada, those who consume 50g chocolate once every week have a 46% lesser risk of dying of a stroke.

Though these effects are attributed to cocoa flavonoids, more studies are needed to find out the exact mechanism of action.

Chocolate reduces diabetes risk

Experts say that the flavonols present in cocoa slow down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates in the gut and help maintain glucose homeostasis.

Cocoa flavonols are also shown to improve insulin sensitivity (the sensitivity of body cells towards insulin). This may lead to improved blood glucose levels.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, there is an inverse relation between chocolate intake the risk of diabetes mellitus.   

A meta-analysis published in the journal Nutrients suggested that chocolates are good for reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes but only until you have 2 servings (30 g each) per week. No link was found between T2 diabetes risk and consumption of more than 6 servings of chocolate a week.

Read more: Exercises for diabetes

Chocolate effects on cognition and mood

Chocolate has long been considered to be good for uplifting mood and reducing depression

A lot of people find emotional comfort in chocolate. In a study done on a group of people who were made to listen to either happy or sad music, those who listened to sad music ate more chocolate.

There are various ways in which chocolate affects mood and cognition - the ability of the brain to perceive, understand and learn things. 

Chocolate contains a small amount of tryptophan, an amino acid that is involved in the production of the happy hormone and neurotransmitter serotonin. It also has tyramine, a compound derived from the amino acid tyrosine. The latter is a precursor of dopamine, the neurotransmitter and hormone associated with the pleasure centre in the brain. Together, they help in elevating mood and make you feel good.

The flavonoids present in chocolate have strong antioxidant activity and are associated with both short and long term improvement in memory and cognition. 

Finally, chocolate improves blood flow to the brain and the brain oxygen levels, which improves brain function.

Read more: Home remedies to improve memory

Chocolate benefits for skin

Studies indicate that the flavonols present in chocolate/cocoa have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Hence it may be highly beneficial for the skin.

In a randomized controlled trial done on 74 women in the age group of 20-65 years, consumption of 30 g of chocolate daily shows a significant reduction in skin sensitivity to photodamage.

In another study, topical application of cocoa polyphenols showed an improvement in skin collagen and elasticity. Collagen is the protein that helps maintain the skin structure. 

However, in a study done on 33 men of various ages, it was found that dark chocolate consumption increases bacterial growth on the skin of young men and may hence promote acne development. 

According to a study published in the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, chocolate flavonoids increase the production of inflammatory cytokines in the body, which, in turn, may lead to new acne.lesions.

More studies are hence needed to confirm the effects of chocolate on skin.

Read more: Benefits of collagen

Chocolate may aid in weight loss

Chocolate is a high-calorie food that contains ample amounts of fats, hence it is often associated with weight gain and obesity. 

However, according to a systemic review and meta-analysis published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, moderate intake (about 30g per day) of chocolate for about 4-8 weeks may help you shed some kilos.

A research published in the peer-reviewed journal Phytotherapy Research suggested that dark chocolate or cocoa helps lose weight by reducing the expression of the gene responsible for fatty acid synthesis, reducing the digestion and absorption of carbs and fats from food and by promoting satiety.

On the other hand, in a study done in the USA, increased chocolate intake was associated with more weight gain in postmenopausal women.

So, it is best to talk to a nutritionist to know more about the effects of chocolate on BMI and weight, especially if you are trying to lose weight. 

Read more: How to lose weight fast and safely

Other benefits of chocolate

Apart from the benefits already mentioned above, here are some other benefits of chocolates:

  • Cocoa flavonoids have shown prebiotic effects in the gut. This means they improve gut microflora. Specifically, chocolate consumption increases the number of lactic acid bacteria and Bifidobacterium in the gut. Good gut microflora is associated with reduced inflammation in the body and improved digestion.
  • A study done in the US suggested that chocolate consumption improves vision in short term due to increased blood flow. However, more studies are needed to ascertain any significance of this effect in the long term.
  • Animal studies show that cocoa polyphenols help reduce IgE antibodies and hence can be used to treat allergic reactions. Cocoa polyphenols also improve overall immune function.

The following are some side effects of chocolate:

  • Excess consumption of chocolate is linked to weight gain in some studies.
  • Some chocolates contain a lot of sugar and may hence be bad for the oral cavity and overall health.
  • Chocolates are a possible trigger for migraine.
  • Some types of chocolate and cocoa powder have been found to contain heavy metals like lead and cadmium. While lead can damage kidneys and brain, long term cadmium exposure is associated with damage to bones, kidneys and lungs.
  • Some people are allergic to various undeclared ingredients in chocolate like nuts, cow milk. Chocolates also have hidden allergens like insect parts. The US Food and Drug Administration allows up to but less than 60 insect parts in 100 g of chocolate.
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