It is Easter, so the ‘food of the gods’ can be savoured

Whatever your views on the medicinal benefits of chocolate, enjoy your Easter treat

Milk chocolate and white chocolate Easter bunnies.

Milk chocolate and white chocolate Easter bunnies.

 

It’s only Christmas since I last wrote about chocolate and health. But just like the half-eaten Easter egg tempting you this morning, you cannot have too much of a good thing if you’re a chocoholic like me.

The Mayans regraded chocolate as sacred, and credited the dark stuff with having medicinal and aphrodisiacal qualities.

Chocolate was reserved for men of high rank such as priests, who presumably tolerated increased libido as a necessary burden to achieve improved health.

Chocolate comes from the tree Theobroma Cacao. Theo means God in Greek and broma means food, hence, it is sometimes referred to as the “food of the gods”. From a health point of view, cacao is a key ingredient of chocolate.

Chocolate made its way to Europe, with its use as a medicine developing into three broad categories: as a source of nutrition for the emaciated; as a stimulant for the moribund; and at lower doses, a relaxant and a “soother” of digestion.

More recent claims of chocolate benefiting health revolve around flavonoids, a chemical found in the Cacao tree. Flavonoids are potent anti-oxidant substances that protect cells and tissues from the damage induced by “free radicals”, which have been implicated in the development of coronary heart disease and cancers.

A 1997 study by Harvard University researchers on the Kuna people was a key moment in crediting cocoa with substantial health benefits.The Kuna, who live on islands off the coast of Panama, have very low blood pressure, live longer, and have lower rates of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and cancer than their peers on mainland Panama.

Researchers identified a major difference between the island-dwelling Kuna and those who live on the mainland: Kuna have a high consumption of cocoa, drinking, on average, more then five cups of the stuff a day.

There have been many studies since claiming the benefits of chocolate and cocoa for heart health. But a lot of the research has been of poor quality, or tainted by funding from the confectionery industry.

As a reality check, a team of Australian researchers decided to look at the cost effectiveness of eating dark chocolate as a way of preventing heart disease. In a best case scenario, they estimated that you would have to have 10,000 people eat 100 grams of dark chocolate a day for over ten years in order to lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol enough to prevent 85 heart attacks and strokes. But we clearly need longer-term evaluation.

Most popular

In my Christmas column I asked readers to report back which chocolate varieties were least and most popular from tins of Heroes, Celebrations, Roses and Quality Street. Thanks to everyone who responded. I was especially impressed by the efforts of Gwen Duffy, a secondary school teacher who carried out research with first and second year classes, and with her own family. The results were sent to me on Excel spreadsheets.

Here are some of Ms Duffy’s observations:
– The 1st year class who received the Roses were disgusted not to get Celebrations or Heroes.
– Non-Irish students didn’t understand the importance of this research.
– Quality Street didn’t even come into the equation. I have found that only my Northern Irish friends buy Quality Street, maybe this would warrant some further research?
– The very last chocolates left in the box out of a mixture of Celebrations, Heroes and Roses at home were Fudge and Eclairs with eight apiece.”

In the column I had described Roses strawberry cream chocolates as “hideous”. Based on her original research I am happy to withdraw this erroneous conclusion and to acknowledge the popularity of strawberry creams in the study population.

Meanwhile, whatever your views on the medicinal benefits of chocolate, I hope you enjoy the Easter boost of pleasure. Any unhelpful guilt you feel can be assuaged with a brisk walk or two in the coming week.

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