World Chocolate Day on July 7th was established in 2009 to mark the anniversary of the day that cacao was first brought to Europe in 1550. Of course, the people of Central and South America had been enjoying the taste of chocolate for centuries before that. Cacao is another name for the cocoa bean. Nowadays it tends to refer to raw chocolate products.
Before we look at some of the health benefits eating chocolate may bring let’s look at the history of chocolate.
A Brief History of Chocolate
Cacao has long been recognised as having exceptional properties. Archaeological evidence shows that the Mayans and Aztec people of meso-America had a history of cacao use spanning more than 34 centuries (1). These civilisations believed that cacao beans were discovered by their Gods. This is reflected in the Latin name Theobroma cacao which means “Food of the Gods”. These ancient civilisations brewed ground cacao beans with chillies in rituals to honour and give thanks to the Gods. Cacao beans were also used as currency.
When cacao arrived in Spain in the mid 16th century it was not an immediate hit. However, the addition of sugar led to its growth in popularity and soon chocolate became a luxury food that was available from chocolate houses in many European cities. There was much debate about its medicinal value and aphrodisiac qualities.
In recent decades there has been extensive research into the benefits of cacao since the realisation that the negative consequences previously attributed to eating chocolate, such as tooth decay, weight gain and diabetes, are caused by the added ingredients such as refined fats, sugar, sweeteners and fillers. Cacao beans themselves are packed full of beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals.
Chocolate and Weight Loss
Not many diet plans aimed at weight loss recommend eating chocolate but a new study of postmenopausal women may change that. The researchers divided the women into 3 groups:
Group 1: Eating 100g of chocolate within one hour of waking
Group 2: Eating 100g of chocolate within one hour of going to bed
Group 3: Eating no chocolate
All groups could eat what they wanted for the rest of the day.
The researchers found that among the women studied:
- Neither morning or evening chocolate consumption led to weight gain.
- Both morning and evening chocolate consumption decreased hunger and the desire for sweets as well as altering the gut microbial profile.
- Morning chocolate consumption reduced fasting glucose and waist circumference.
- Evening chocolate consumption increased physical activity and heat dissipation after meals and induced more regular timing of sleep episodes (2).
Here are some other reasons to celebrate chocolate on World Chocolate Day:
Protective antioxidants – it is widely known that fruit contains antioxidants which are beneficial to health. Recent research has confirmed that chocolate contains more polyphenols and flavanols than fruit juice! That's as long as you have dark chocolate. Processed chocolate does not confer the same benefits. The reason that antioxidants are so important is that they play a significant role in protecting us against oxidative stress and inflammation, which are at the root of many serious diseases. The antioxidants in cacao have been found to exhibit anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, cardio-protective, antimicrobial, anti-viral, and neuro-protective effects (3,4,5,6,7).
Blood sugar and obesity - whilst standard sugar laden chocolate bars are not recommended for blood sugar control the antioxidants in cocoa beans may be beneficial for blood sugar control and insulin resistance thus reducing the risk of diabetes and obesity (8,9).
Heart health - the consumption of chocolate is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Studies show a 50% reduction in mortality in those who eat dark chocolate. The flavanols in cacao have a positive influence on cholesterol levels, blood pressure and insulin resistance (10,11,12,13).
Stress reduction - stress is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. Research on medical students found that eating 40g of chocolate daily for 2 weeks reduced perceived stress, particularly in women (14). Another study found that men who consumed dark chocolate had significantly lower cortisol and adrenaline compared to control subjects after a psychological stress test (15).
Exercise recovery – drinking chocolate milk after intensive exercise has been shown to enhance recovery compared to drinking water, without affecting weight loss. Other benefits include improved performance, reduced levels of cortisol and raised testosterone relative to cortisol in men (16).
Digestive health - cacao has prebiotic effects meaning it may encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine. These beneficial bacteria play a vital role in digestion, immunity and overall health (17).
Magnesium – eating chocolate is also a good way to raise magnesium levels (18). Magnesium is needed for nerve and muscle function, female hormone balance, bone health and cardiovascular function. It is commonly deficient in the western diet.
The joy of chocolate - anthropological evidence shows that for centuries humans around the world have consumed plants for their effect on how they feel as well as for their calories and nutrients. Research has found that eating chocolate appears to elevate mood, increase activity and stimulate feelings of joy (19). This may be down to the chemicals found in cacao including dopamine, tryptophan and tyrosine (20,21). Dopamine is a brain chemical involved in motor control and motivation. Tryptophan is an amino acid involved in serotonin production, which may explain the uplifting effects of eating cacao. Tyrosine is a precursor to the thyroid hormones which play an important role in metabolism.
Brain function – flavanols in chocolate appear to improve cognitive performance. This is thought to be due to their beneficial effects on endothelial function and blood flow (22).
Smoother skin - research on women with sun-aged skin found that after 24 weeks the participants who drank a daily cocoa beverage had smoother skin, fewer wrinkles and improved skin elasticity (23).
Chocolate for Health
In short, chocolate is good for your heart, your hormones, your brain, your skin and your emotional health! If you want to experience the joy of chocolate without the blood sugar roller coaster try adding Tom Oliver’s protein powders to smoothies, porridge or baked goods; a perfect start to the day or after a work out. Tom Oliver’s vegan high protein snack bars also come in a range of chocolatey flavours. Carry one with you for a snack or treat any time of day.Tom