Is your chocolate Easter egg good or bad for you?

What’s the science behind our love affair with chocolate? And does it do our health any good?

Milk chocolate does not have the same effect – it usually contains no cacao at all, just a mix of pasteurised milk and sugar.

Milk chocolate does not have the same effect – it usually contains no cacao at all, just a mix of pasteurised milk and sugar.

 

It might be the delicious snap of anticipation under the unopened wrapper before a square has even passed your lips. Or feeling like you have just been kissed by someone who knows how, when the melting chocolate fondant you have ordered is just right.

Chocolate is associated with so many emotions, occasions and rituals in our lives, we even have a word for the proud bearers of their obsession with it: chocoholics. Shared as a symbol of love, at Christmas and Easter, for comfort, for forgivenes. Even the best bit of the Cornetto makes it a very special part of our lives.

But what is the science behind it? What makes us go so bonkers for it? And does it do our health any good?

Since I had my first Fry’s Chocolate Cream, a favourite of my granny, I have been in love with chocolate. When I’m up, when I’m down, celebrations or commiserations, break-up medicine, being wooed with beloved Double Deckers or the Christmas tin of Roses; chocolate is sprinkled through so many parts of my life, and I never tire of it.

It can be demonised as the cause of spots, cavities, obesity and yet it is cited as a natural painkiller or as helping to prevent heart disease. So what is the truth when it comes to our health?

Dr Tara McMorrow, vice-president of the Irish Society of Toxicology and senior lecturer in bio-medical science in UCD, is a fellow chocoholic. She says that while there is still much we don’t know about chocolate, recent research is helping us better understand how it affects our health.

“The good news is that most of the bad effects of eating chocolate are either overstated or entirely false. Eating chocolate neither causes nor aggravates acne. Studies from the US have shown that eating chocolate [or not eating it] did not produce any significant changes in the acne conditions of the study’s participants.”

Cacao and sugar

Hurrah for chocolate lovers. McMorrow explains that basic chocolate is made up of cacao powder, cocoa butter and a sweetener like sugar. However, modern chocolate includes milk solids, added flavours, modifiers and preservatives. “Cacao is the plant component which gives the unique taste and bitterness to chocolate. The chocolate mixture is made of mixtures of cacao and sugar, and globules of cocoa butter and milk solids,” she says.

The strength of our reactions to chocolate can oscillate from joy to relief; some even say it is better than sex. McMorrow says that even the thought of chocolate can evoke a pleasurable response for some people.

“Chocolate contains small levels of serotonin which, along with theobromine, will enhance your mood. Not only that, but it also contains phenylethylamine – otherwise known as ‘the love drug’. The neurochemical response to it is very similar to what you see when someone falls in love. You get a surge in dopamine and serotonin that gives you a feeling of elation. Some people have suggested that it is similar to the effects of marijuana.”

Antioxidant effects

But as I commence my annual gorging over Easter, I want to know if it is doing me any good. McMorrow gives some reasons to be cheerful. “The polyphenols and theobromine found in cacao produce antioxidant effects similar to green teas. Antioxidants can help remove damaged cells in the body and can also protect cells from damage.”

But is one chocolate – dark, milk or white – better than the other? McMorrow says any potential health benefit is all down to the cacao. “The higher the concentration of cacao, the greater the health benefits as the processing of the cacao to make chocolate requires the addition of ingredients that diminish the effects of the polyphenols of the cacao bean. The darker the chocolate, the higher amount of theobromine and polyphenols,” she says.

So dark chocolate it is – rich in theobromine and polyphenols which can act as antioxidants which can protect our cells from damage. Recent research has also found polyphenols, or phenolics, may help lower the risk of heart disease and are good for our gut.

“Apparently, phenolics prevent fat-like substances in the bloodstream which are involved in the formation of plaques in the arteries which can lead to clogging of the arteries, a major cause of heart attacks. Also, some research has shown that eating dark chocolate may help promote gut health by feeding beneficial bacteria, as opposed to harmful ones.”

But don’t get too excited. Everything in moderation are the words she emphasises. “Chocolate is high in calories, and excess calorie intake leads to weight gain. Being overweight can result in a number of health problems including heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Chocolate is also high in sugar. High amounts of sugar in your diet can lead to dental problems like gum disease and cavities.”

Many women report experiencing chocolate cravings just before their period, so does this mean women fall for chocolate more than men?

“It is believed that women can have increased cravings for chocolate depending on the time of the month, possibly due to the low serotonin and dopamine levels experienced at these times.

“As chocolate can mimic these ‘feelgood’ factors, women can feel better after eating it. While chocolate does contain potentially mood-altering substances, these are all found in higher concentrations in other less appealing foods such as broccoli,” says McMorrow.

I am fairly certain I won’t be swapping my Bountys for broccoli anytime soon. Happy Easter, chocolate lovers.

Square deal:

Dr James McIntosh and Dr Tara McMorrow, president and vice-president of the Irish Society of Toxicology, break down the language of chocolate.

What is chocolate? The word “chocolate” comes from the Nahuatl word Xocolatl for “bitter water”, referring to its original incarnation as a hot, spiced beverage in the Mayan and Aztec traditions.

What’s in typical chocolate? 10-20 per cent cacao, 8-16 per cent milk solids, 32-60 per cent sugar, 10-20 per cent cocoa butter, 1.2 per cent theobromine and polyphenols which come from the cacao.

What is theobromine? Found in the cacao in chocolate and considered to be a stimulant, its effect is caffeine-like and similar to tea. Although theobromine itself does not have caffeine, the stimulation of the heart and nervous system that it causes acts like caffeine.

What are polyphenols? Also found in the cacao and they act like antioxidants which protect the body’s health. Antioxidants can help remove irregular cells. They can also benefit circulation and cellular health.

How much? A bit less than half a bar a week is the ideal amount for a protective effect against inflammation and cardiovascular disease. The findings apply to dark chocolate only. Milk chocolate does not have the same effect – it usually contains no cacao at all, just a mix of pasteurised milk and sugar.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.