How many times have we heard about the decadent lure of chocolate, as though it were some class A drug? (Unless it’s for Valentines Day or Easter)
Chocolate makes you fat, it is addictive, gives you acne, heartburn, Type 2 Diabetes, migraines and constipation. There are many accusations along with studies to prove many of these cases wrong. However, large amounts of milk chocolate fudgey candy bars, cakes and ice cream along with obvious weight gain and tooth decay, are likely to cause an inflammatory response and the outcome is never positive. I’m being kind, it’s bad.
Once we get past the sweet taste and mood enhancing sensation that milk chocolate creates, this effect wears off and we are back in the world of fat-shaming ourselves.
So what is it about chocolate that can turn it around from a delectable confection and into a functional food with nutrigenomic properties?
It’s actually the polyphenols in cocoa powder that are creating the magic. Cocoa has a high concentration of proanthocyanidins.
Proanthocyanidins are what gives fruit and vegetables their red, blue or purple colouring. These compounds fall under the category of polyohenols and then are further classed as flavanoids. (In case you were wondering, or needed to know this)
The benefits of cocoa have been reported in numerous studies. In 2011 Katz DL et al, wrote that cocoa may stimulate changes in gene expression and the immune response. Cocoa can protect nerves from injury and inflammation and protect the skin from oxidative damage from the sun’s damaging UV rays.
Researchers (Khan 2012) showed that regular consumption of cocoa powder with skimmed milk increases HDL (good) cholesterol and reduces oxidised LDL (bad) levels in individuals with a high-risk for cardiovascular disease. Obviously, eating a diet high in processed sugars, fats and artificial ingredients cannot be remedied with another bar of chocolate, and a skimmed milk cocoa drink is not the antidote for an overall destructive diet or lifestyle. But, cocoa used as a neutraceutical has multiple benefits.
Individuals who have had their genes tested and have a high risk variant for reduced nitric oxide (NO) production, should be advised to use cocoa flavanoids (along with other recommendations). A variant in the eNOS gene may be a risk for athersclerosis, high blood pressure, renal disease and pre-eclampsia.
Before we can get down to how much cocoa powder or dark chocolate to get into our daily diet, we need to talk a bit about the processing of cocoa and how this affects the flavanol content. How much of the magic remains in the product.
Cocoa beans (Yes, chocolate is a plant, even a vegetable!) have to be processed and this can alter the flavanoid content in the cocoa powder. Just as microwaving broccoli till it’s dead and gone leaves very few nutrients and flavour in the poor broccoli.
Once the beans are roasted,the cocoa liquor goes through a fermentation process. The longer the liquor ferments, the higher the higher the concentration of flavanoids.
To make cocoa powder, the cocoa is often alkalised to neutralize the natural acetic acid found in cocoa. This neutralising process is called ‘Dutching’. The level of Dutching results in the final amount of beneficial polyphenols that are left in the cocoa powder product we pick off the shelf. Heavy Dutching, as can be seen in some commercially available products (Miller et al.) have next to nothing left to be of any benefit to our insulin levels, blood pressure, skin protection or cardiovascular protection.
Check the ingredients labels before you splash out! Beware of Dutching and make sure your dark chocolate and cocoa powder contain a high level of non-fat cocoa solids.
100g of high quality dark chcocolate per day or 40g of high quality cocoa powder in 500ml of skimmed milk or almond milk with a teeny bit of maple syrup or stevia should put a sparkle in your eye and add a spring to your step.