Can eating chocolate actually enhance health?

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As Valentine’s day approaches, many of us will be venturing into speciality chocolate shops in search of an edible token of affection for that special someone in our lives. Top-notch boxes of chocolates have a sexy and seductive image, and are a classic accompaniment to a bunch of red roses or a romantic meal à deux. Part of chocolate’s allure, I think, is its reputation as an indulgent treat. It is, we are led to believe, something to be enjoyed only in the strictest moderation on account of its insalubrious characteristics. However, recent evidence suggests that chocolate’s naughty-but-nice reputation might be an undeserved one: nutritional science has revealed that some cocoa confectionery is chock-full of substances that actually promote health in the body. It seems a little bit of what we fancy not only may do us no harm, but actually might do us some good too.

The essential ingredient in all types of chocolate is the cocoa bean, which is comprised of two basic components; a protein-rich part (cocoa) that gives chocolate its characteristic colour and taste, and a fatty part known as cocoa butter. Laboratory analysis reveals that the cocoa in chocolate is surprisingly loaded in minerals such as potassium, magnesium and copper. These nutrients play a multitude of roles in the body, but seem to be particularly important in maintaing a healthy circulation and help protect against conditions like heart disease and stroke.

Apart from some key minerals, cocoa is also rich in a class of plant substances called polyphenols. Also found in foodstuffs such as red wine, tea, apples and onions, polyphenols are known to have the capacity to combat ageing and disease”promoting substances called free radicals. The ability of a food to neutralise free radicals can be meaured and expressed as its oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC). Generally speaking, the higher a food’s ORAC, the better. Amazingly, weight for weight, cocoa-rich chocolate has an ORAC 10 times that of spinach, and about 15 times that of either broccoli or orange.

Many dieticians site chocolate’s high fat content as a good reason to moderate its intake. Actually, the two most prominent types of fat in cocoa butter, oleic acid (the predominant fat in olive oil) and stearic acid, have both been noted to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. Chocolate’s third most plentiful fat, palmitic acid, appears to have no effect on cholesterol either way. It appears that , if anything, the overall effect of cocoa butter on the heart and circulation is a beneficial one.

The varying amounts of cocoa, cocoa butter, milk and sugar used to make chocolate has a bearing on the nutritional properties of the final product. From a health perspective, the best type of chocolate to go for is plain. One benefit of plain chocolate is that it is generally lower in sugar than milk and white chocolate varieties. Plus, the darker the chocolate, the more cocoa there is, and the more it provides in the way of heart-healthy minerals and polyphenols. Brands that boast 60 or 70 per cent cocoa solid content are a good bet. Buy your lover some for Valentine’s Day, and eat it to your heart’s content.

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