Chocolate is sometimes praised as a superfood. We examine the basis for this claim and suggest that taking time to really appreciate chocolate makes for a pleasurable and healthy experience.
Search the internet for the “health benefits of chocolate” and you come across a startling variety of claims. Chocolate makes you smarter. Slimmer. It makes you happy. Helps you to live longer. And prevents wrinkles! If all of that sounds ridiculously far-fetched, read on – there is good neurobiological evidence for it all!
Chocolate as a superfood
It is no exaggeration (oh, alright, perhaps a teeny-tiny exaggeration) to say that chocolate is a veritable superfood. In this carb-conscious age, it's worth remembering that dark chocolate – that is, at least 70% cocoa content – has fewer carbs than pasta or rice, and packs in a good amount of protein and healthy fat. And there may be other benefits to be had from eating a moderate amount of it:
- Being derived from plants (i.e. cocoa beans), chocolate is rich in flavonoids. And that's exciting because flavonoids act as antioxidants in the body, protecting against the ageing process caused by free radicals. Dark chocolate contains eight times as many antioxidants as strawberries!
- Dark chocolate can protect your cardiovascular health. It seems to do this via two mechanisms, by lowering blood pressure and reducing levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad”) cholesterol).
- Chocolate has a mild stimulating effect due to the fact that it contains caffeine and theobromine – great if your energy levels are sagging a little.
- Consuming chocolate stimulates the production of endorphins. Endorphins are the hormones involved in feeling pleasure. It's hardly news that eating chocolate is pleasurable but it's rather satisfying to know that there's a good neurochemical reason for it!
- Similarly, chocolate boosts the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation. Which is science speak for the well-known capacity of chocolate to improve our mood. Interestingly, serotonin is a major component of many antidepressants. It's got to be nicer to consume that in chocolate than in tablet form!
So it seems that there is some basis for the apparently outrageous claims made for chocolate. The antioxidants could, indeed, prevent wrinkles and help you live longer. The endorphins and serotonin might well contribute to making you feel happier. The stimulants and micronutrients probably do boost brainpower. And since a small amount of good-quality chocolate often goes a long way, consuming that in preference to other sweet treats could well help with slimming. Hm, perhaps classifying chocolate as a superfood isn't an exaggeration after all.
Make the most of chocolate
Here's the catch: None of this gives you license to consume three Mars bars (other low-cocoa/high-sugar chocolate bars are available) a day. The health benefits apply specifically to the moderate consumption of dark chocolate. Here are some ideas to help you with this:
- Go for dark chocolate. The darker the chocolate, the higher the cocoa content. And it's the cocoa that holds the key to chocolate's superfood properties. Unfortunately, neat cocoa tastes like rather bitter chalk, hence the need to mix it with sugar and fat to make it palatable. The proportions of that sugar and fat relative to the cocoa are all-important. You need at least 70% cocoa to get optimum health benefits.
- Go for unadulterated chocolate. Steer clear of additions in the form of fruit, nuts, caramel and so on. It's basic maths, really: The more other stuff there is in your chocolate, the lower the percentage of cocoa will be.
- Take time to really appreciate the chocolate you eat. Rather than mindlessly cramming in a Twix (other low-cocoa/high-sugar chocolate bars are available), barely tasting it, make eating chocolate an experience to really savour. If you really take time to appreciate it, you should find that you automatically consume less, which helps with the “in moderation” bit! Have a look at the chocolate meditation below for inspiration.
- Use chocolate to replace something else, rather than as an add-on to your daily diet. So don't have chocolate on top of other treats, telling yourself that it's a health food, after all, but have it instead of that latte/biscuit/slice of cake.
A chocolate meditation
For the ultimate chocolate experience, try this exercise in mindful eating:
- Choose high-quality chocolate, perhaps one you haven't tried before.
- Take your time unwrapping the chocolate. Notice any anticipation. What can you smell? Does the packaging make any sound as you unwrap it?
- Break off a small piece of chocolate and examine it closely. Imagine you'd never seen anything like this before. Look at it as if you're trying to memorise it. What do you notice?
- Put the chocolate into your mouth. Can you hold it on your tongue as it starts to melt? Notice any urges to suck or chew at it and try to resist them. What flavours unfold in your mouth?
- When the chocolate has melted completely, swallow. Do this very slowly, and deliberately. How does it feel trickling down your throat? What is the aftertaste like?
Consuming chocolate in this way should heighten your experience, making the most of the sensual pleasure of consuming a food that has – wrongly – been labelled as junk.