Chocolate – friend or foe?

Easter has come and gone but if chocolate is still on your mind you might be pleased to know that there’s now a growing body of research showing that your favourite indulgence might not be as bad as once thought and may actually offer some health benefits.

Chocolate contains a range of antioxidants, in particular flavonoids, which are also found in fruits, vegetables, tea and red wine, and which may help in the prevention of heart disease and cancer. In fact cocoa has more flavonoids than green tea. Dark chocolate is the best choice as it contains much higher levels of antioxidants than milk chocolate and white chocolate contains no cocoa flavonoids at all as it contains no cocoa!

Chocolate also contains some important nutrients including magnesium, potassium and copper. Milk chocolate contains calcium, although less than most calcium rich foods such as milk, yoghurt and cheese.

While chocolate is high in saturated fat, one of the main fats in chocolate, stearic acid, has been found not to increase blood cholesterol levels. In fact studies have found that cocoa products and dark chocolate may even reduce total and LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels.

Regularly eating dark chocolate can also improve the health of your blood vessels – reducing inflammation, improving blood flow and helping blood vessels to dilate. And eating dark chocolate has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, the underlying problem in type 2 diabetes and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

In fact, based on these findings, a group of Australian researchers published a paper in 2012, suggesting that daily dark chocolate consumption (100g/day) could be an effective cardiovascular prevention strategy in those with metabolic syndrome (who are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease). Sounds like a more palatable prescription than cholesterol-lowering medication!

But remember that all of these studies have used cocoa or dark chocolate, which has a high cocoa content, and is rich in flavonoids – it’s these important antioxidants which are most likely to be responsible for the health benefits of our favourite food. Where dark chocolate has been compared with milk or white chocolate, the same benefits have not been seen.

And despite its benefits, chocolate doesn’t belong in a class with other healthy foods such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrains. Chocolate is still high in fat and energy so should be eaten in small amounts, particularly if you are watching your weight.

They key is to choose good quality dark chocolate, stick to small amounts and take your time to eat and enjoy it!

When buying chocolate we also encourage you to consider where your chocolate came from and how it is produced. Check out this article from Choice on Organic and Fairtrade Chocolate and visit Shop Ethical! to find out exactly how your favourite chocolate rates.

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