Christmas feature

The sum of chocolate

Related tags Chocolate

Chocoholics rejoice: 2005 was the year it became clear chocolate
really is good for you. But before Christmas ushers in a race to
cram the candy, reflect a moment on where the benefits truly lie,
and where they don't.

The line-up of good news is surely impressive when taken alone.

One of the more intriguing claims this year was made by a German confectioner who said it had developed new chocolates that slow down the ageing process. Made with dark chocolate, mango and soya milk, one or two of the pralines at the end of the day were recommended to do everything from tighten skin to activate metabolism.

A lesser-known old wives tale of chocolate helping combat diarrhea has also been investigated in the last 12 months, and the encouraging results are bound to come in handy for some around the Christmas period.

Those out in the cold, chain smoking to avoid any festive food poisoning, may also be inclined to take some chocolate with them, after a study indicated that the impact of tobacco on smokers' blood vessels could be offset by indulging.

Along with these, other studies have indicated more general benefits, such as the antioxidants' effects on LDL 'bad' and HDL 'good' cholesterol, which are linked to a decreased risk of heart disease. Chocolate also contains a number of vitamins, in addition to calcium, potassium, sodium and iron, which all carry out vital functions in our bodies.

Unfortunately, for the chocolate lover inside us all, many of these health benefits, won't affect us at all. Why? Because we aren't eating the right chocolate.

One of the more talked about benefits of chocolate is that the antioxidant flavonoids in cocoa beans might help prevent cancer. But such claims are firmly linked to chocolate containing higher percentages of cocoa, which contains about eight times the polyphenol antioxidants of strawberries.

Let's face it, most of the chocolate you'll eat this Christmas isn't dark and probably won't be exclusively the top-of-the-line, 70-percent-or-more-cocoa-solids stuff, which is what most claims are based on. More crucially, many of the antioxidants in cocoa are lost when the chocolate is processed, so maybe our excuses for over eating are running a bit thin.

Then sugar, and plenty of it, ruins the masquerade for us all. As much as we may want to deceive ourselves into thinking we can eat all the chocolate we want this Christmas, what goes in will spread sideways. And obesity is already the scourge of our times, affecting one in five adults, according to the Royal College of Physicians.

And there are your teeth to think of too. Scientists at Japan's Osaka University did find evidence to suggest cocoa bean husks may have dental benefits, but once processed into chocolate and doused in sugar, that becomes a rearguard action.

As high density calories, chocolate really still does have a way to go yet before we could actually consider it a health option.

It also carries a stiff dose of ethical issues inside the wrapping too. More than three-quarters of cocoa originates from the world's poorest continent, Africa, with labour practices that present a far from pretty picture. This year saw human rights campaigners file, as yet unheard, lawsuits against Nestle, ADM and Cargill, some of the world's biggest cocoa processors, in relation to child labour issues.

Nonetheless, the global chocolate market continues to grow, with any reduction in seasonal sales merely the sign of consumers purchasing more all year round.

And perhaps the gloomier the news, the more we need that chocolate.

Yes, those scientists have been at it again - maybe a study into chocoholics amongst academics might be in order soon. Chocolate releases both serotonin and endorphins that make us feel better, acting as an anti-depressant.

Chocolate also contains a high level of phenylethylamine, the chemical produced by the brain when we fall in love, so maybe that explains the addiction.

In sum, chocolate really does feel good, and in some forms it may even be good.

For me, I know I'll be eating chocolate this Christmas, and lots of it. But I am going to try out these new healthy chocolates too - dark, low-sugar, organic and ethically sourced. Who knows? Maybe, for once, something that tastes good might actually be good, for all of us.

To chocolate! Happy Christmas!

Peter Stiff,

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