Chocolate: The food of love – but is it healthy too?

By Amanda Johnson 09/02/2011

As Valentine’s Day approaches, many of us may be hoping for a lovely box of fancy chocolate from our loved one. So it is very timely to see new research published this week in the Chemistry Central Journal, suggesting that cacao (or cocoa) beans are a ‘super fruit’, with more antioxidant capacity than blueberries, cranberries and pomegranate powder on a gram per gram basis.

So what does this mean for us on Valentine’s Day, as we are faced with that fancy box of chocs? Can we devour them with a sense of superiority and feel good about ourselves for eating such a healthy treat — or is there more to this story than meets the eye?

It’s long been known that chocolate (particularly dark chocolate) has antioxidant properties and the conclusions of this latest research are really no surprise — with natural cocoa powder and dark chocolate having a significantly higher total flavanol content than the fruit powders and juices tested. However, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that chocolate also contains fats, saturated fatty acids and refined sugars (unlike fruits) and we should certainly not be rushing out to regularly eat ‘five plus’ portions of chocolate a day. Also, whether the benefits of the antioxidants in cocoa translate into actual health benefits is currently unproven.

In order to optimise our intake of antioxidants, my advice is to stick with a rainbow of different-coloured vegetables and fruit. By doing so, we can benefit from all the wonderful tastes and textures that these lovely foods have to offer, in addition to the fantastic package of important nutrients they provide. Fruits and vegetables supply a variety of vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre, and a range of antioxidants such as lycopene (in tomatoes) and beta-carotene (in carrots). Such foods also have a low energy density and can be a great help in managing your weight, ensuring your calorie intake is not too excessive.

Enjoy the odd bit of chocolate as a treat every now and again, if you really like it, but don’t kid yourself that you are eating a ‘super-fruit’ or that it is particularly healthy in large amounts. Keep your focus on the healthier fruits, vegetables and salads — along with lean meat (or alternatives), dairy products, and wholegrain cereals.

A nice light salad or a platter of fresh fruit shared with your loved one on Valentine’s Day is likely to leave you feeling healthy and invigorated — surely a better option in advance of a night of passion than having a large lump of chocolate sitting in your stomach!

Reference: Crozier et al., Cacao seeds are a super fruit: a comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products. Chemistry Central Journal (February 2011) 5; 5.

0 Responses to “Chocolate: The food of love – but is it healthy too?”

  • Hi! Would antioxidant compounds actually survive the digestive tract? It seems to me that many of them would be broken down in the stomach or the intestines and lose their activity. Is there any In vivo evidence that antioxidants in fruit and vegetables help reduce reactive oxygen species?

  • How much evidence is there that antioxidants are good for you anyway?

    e.g. this Bad Science column:

    Quoting: “So trials were done, in huge numbers, giving one group extra antioxidants, in pills, and the other group our old friend the placebo sugar pill. Some of these trials were stopped early because the people getting the antioxidants were dying faster. Overall, if you look at all the results on a big spreadsheet (a technique called meta-analysis) it seems that antioxidant supplement pills either do nothing, or worse, kill you quicker. There might be something in the antioxidant story, but they might be rubbish. You don’t read that everyday in press releases on wine and chocolate.”

  • Jared, yes they would survive digestion. Antioxidants include some vitamins and minerals (e.g. vitamin C, beta-carotene, selenium) along with other plant constituents. The presence of the vitamins, minerals and other bioactive substances in plant foods are thought to provide the basis for their beneficial effects – although more research is needed into the mechanisms of action involved.

  • Repton – yes I agree, the evidence does support the beneficial effects of fruits and vegetables and other plant foods in terms of reducing risk of some chronic diseases – but this does not mean we should be taking antioxidant supplements

  • Thanks Amanda. I am a little skeptical about the actual efficacy of the diet-based antioxidants in the body. After all each cell has a number of mechanisms/enzymes which break down superoxide and hydrogen peroxide. I’m sure it is difficult to determine the difference between the bodies innate ability to deal with free radicals and how much is contributed by antioxidants from our diet. I suppose only if those processes broke down then would you be able to see a measurable effect.

  • Hi Jared, there is evidence on the health benefits of fruits and vegetables in terms of reducing risk of CVD and cancer, but, yes I agree, we know very little about which specific active components are beneficial and what mechanisms are involved at a cellular level. Evidence from in vitro studies and animal studies have been consistent and positive but there is little evidence for specific antioxidants promoting human health. And of course we need to be cautious about supplements – with some large interventions studies demonstrating that beta-carotene supplementation may be detrimental in some groups such as smokers. I think we need more mechanistic studies to identify the active components in plant foods and to elucidate their mode of action and specific effects on human health.