Chocolate - irresistable and healthy?

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Touch it, smell it, taste it and you will quickly understand why chocolate was called the "Food of the Gods".

It is hard to believe that this delicious concoction of cocoa butter, sugar and milk that melts in the mouth and stimulates so many senses can also be good for us. Yet new research shows that, far from the common perception that everything that tastes good somehow must be bad for us, chocolate is a veritable cocktail of potentially protective substances.

Take the many antioxidants present in cocoa, which have been shown to play positive roles throughout the body. They appear to contribute to protecting cholesterol from oxidation, a process that can lead to blocked arteries and reduced blood flow. A group of polyphenols (antioxidants) known as catechins, which are a main component of tea, have been found in both dark and milk chocolate. It has been suggested that they play a role in preventing cardiovascular disease, boosting the immune system and potentially lowering the risk of certain cancers. A survey of over 6000 men and women revealed that chocolate contributed 20 per cent of the total dietary catechins. There has been much concern about the risk that foods rich in saturated fats will raise blood cholesterol levels. It is now clear that not all saturated fats are created equally harmful and some, such as stearic acid (which is about a third of the fat in chocolate) has actually a neutral effect on blood cholesterol.

The surprising effects of chocolate on blood composition do not end with fats and cholesterol. Often seen as a food that supplies a quick fix of sugar to the body, chocolate actually has a relatively low glycaemic index. This means that after it is eaten, blood sugar rises steadily, but not as quickly as it would after some other rapidly digested starchy or sugary foods and drinks.

Thus, the long-held belief that consuming a chocolate snack sets you on a roller coaster of sugar highs and lows is not based on fact and it may even be enjoyed, albeit occasionally, by people with diabetes.

Misconceptions about the effects of chocolate are not limited to its effects on blood sugar. It is often said that chocolate causes skin problems and acne, ...yet clinical research shows that this is not the case. Neither is there evidence that chocolate sparks migraines or is a major cause of dental decay.

In fact, scientists have discovered that tannins in cocoa help to prevent caries, probably by reducing the growth of plaque. Also, the milk protein in milk chocolate seems to protect against caries, while oxalic acid in chocolate appears to have a similar effect by lowering acid production.

There is one thing, however, on which most people agree: once you pick up a piece of chocolate it is hard to put down. There are theories that this desire is due to physiologically active substances found in chocolate. Phenylethylamine, for example, is said to mimic the hormone we release when in love. Anadamides bind to the same brain receptors as cannabis. Chocolate stimulates the release of endorphins, the body"s natural opiates. Although practically, none seem to be present in quantities large enough to produce such effects.

Our desire to consume this heavenly food must come back to the simple fact that it stimulates so many of our senses and is an affordable indulgence. When eaten in moderation, chocolate can not only provide nutrients and pleasure, but can be a part of a healthy and wholesome diet.


European Food Information Council


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