Chocolate and Easter
It makes sense that there should be a link between eggs and the Christian holiday of Easter. Eggs are a symbol of fertility and rebirth. Therefore since 17th century, people have given eggs, dyed and decorated, to their neighbours and friends as a gift. But the question on every dieters lips is, why oh why do the eggs need to be made of chocolate? This is a tradition that started in Europe in the early 19th century, first in France and Germany, landing in the UK in 1873 courtesy of Fry’s of Bristol.
The bittersweet facts
Like any consumer-driven holiday, Easter starts becoming apparent in shops soon after the Christmas discount shelves have been cleared. It surrounds us, and although we may look forward to giving in come Easter weekend, the facts are not so easy to swallow. In the UK, a household spends an average of £75 each year on Easter eggs. 43% of children will start early and eat their first egg before Easter Sunday and 19% of them admit that they will probably make themselves ill by overeating. This may sound harmless, but with children receiving an average of 8.8 eggs each at Easter, that equates to double their calorie intake for a whole week.
Chocolate is unavoidable at this time of year, it’s true, but that shouldn’t stop us swatting up on some of the facts surrounding the sweet stuff. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to bust some myths surrounding chocolate to help answer that age old question of whether it is good for you or not. Unless otherwise stated, our nutritional facts about chocolate are based on a standard 48g bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.
“I have an addiction to chocolate…”
Are you a self-confessed chocoholic? Well, I hate to break it to you, but in scientific terms, there is no such thing as a chocolate addiction, and like most people on this planet, you probably just really, REALLY like it. But why do we find chocolate so tempting? Along with alcohol and oysters, chocolate has been considered an aphrodisiac since Aztec times, when emperor Montezuma was said to consume huge amounts in order to get him in the mood… Although chocolate contains the chemicals tryptophan (linked to sexual arousal) and phenylethylamine (released in the brain when people fall in love), studies have shown that there are so little of each present in chocolate, it is unlikely to have an effect, and no test has been able to prove a direct link between chocolate and feeling loved up. But that, however, doesn’t stop it from being very satisfying to eat. Some put it down to the sensation of physically consuming it (the melting on the tongue, for example) and when asked, many said that they would rank the texture over the taste of chocolate. If you’re trying to curb your chocolate intake, nuts could be a good alternative for getting that creamy, rich texture.
“Dark chocolate is better for you than white or milk…”
So here are the facts when comparing white, milk and dark chocolate. Technically, white chocolate isn’t even chocolate at all, as it doesn’t contain cocoa solids, just cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids. As you can see, on most counts the dark chocolate rules in terms of mineral benefits, but you will have to accept a higher amount of saturated fat, and therefore calories, in the process. To qualify as a dark chocolate, you would be looking at a product that contains 70% cocoa or more.
“It’s not cocoa that’s the problem…”
Cocoa beans are rich in the plant nutrients flavanoids, the main type of which is known as flavanols. These have positive effects on your body by lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow and making blood less susceptible to clotting. Flavanols are also what gives dark chocolate its strong taste, and the more the chocolate is processed into milk chocolate, the more flavanols are lost. Many manufacturers are working on improving processes so that the flavanols can be retained, but if you don’t like dark chocolate you can also find flavanols in apples, teas, onions and cranberries.
You may have seen the word “cacao” before and simple assumed that it was “cocoa”, spelt wrong. In fact, raw cacao (pronounced “kah-cow”) is made when the unroasted cocoa beans are cold-pressed. In this process the fatty cocoa butter is removed, just leaving the living enzymes in to cocoa. Cacao is the purest form of chocolate there is, and it can be bought in different forms including paste, powder and cacao nibs, which are the cacao beans that have been cut into edible pieces. This means that they still contain all the same fibre, fat and nutrients that the original cacao bean does. Cacao powder contains more fibre and calories than cocoa powder, but like the chocolate, this is again because of it containing many more nutrients. Booja Booja, a chocolate manufacturer that sells organic, dairy free, gluten free and soya free truffles, suggest that you may also enjoy eating the raw cacao beans whole. You’ve probably guessed it, but cacao products are more expensive than cocoa. You should be able to find them, however, in any health food store.
“Sweets are better for your health than chocolate is…”
In terms of the argument as to whether sweets or chocolate are better for you, it depends what you are trying to avoid. Whether you’re looking at high end products or something to grab off the shelf by the checkout, on the whole sweets will have significantly less fat and calories, but a lot more sugar.
“Chocolate boosts my energy…”
There’s only a small amount of caffeine in a chocolate bar (just 24mg compared to 100mg in an espresso, or 60mg in a cup of tea), so although you may think it is giving you energy, it’s actually probably just a quick sugar rush that you are experiencing. Like with any peak in your sugar levels, the danger is that it will not be sustained, and you will just as quickly feel deflated again. For a real boost in energy, try reaching for a food product that has less sugar and fat, but more fibre, for example wholegrain bread or oats.
“I get headaches when I eat chocolate…”
It’s not quite as simple as saying that chocolate causes headaches. One theory is that chocolate contains the migraine trigger chemicals of amino acid tyramine, but another suggests that although there is not a direct link, people (especially women) tend to crave chocolate when stressed or hormonal, and both of these states tend to cause headaches. On the whole, people with diets that are higher in fat are more likely to get headaches, and some studies have shown that you may not get a headache for several hours or even days after eating a trigger food. This therefore makes it very hard to pin the blame down specifically onto chocolate.
“Chocolate gives me spots…”
Although tests have proven that chocolate does aggravate the skin, the results relate to chocolate with a very high percentage of cocoa (in some cases, 100%). It isn’t exactly clear why cocoa would cause an outbreak, but one researcher suggests it may be a link to gut health, as cocoa powder contains moderately high levels of FODMAPs (types of carbohydrates), and not only can this cause problems with the gut, but also people with acne suffer from gut issues too. So, unless you’re binging on neat cocoa, it’s unlikely that chocolate will be having an effect on your skin. Like with headaches, a diet generally lower in fat and sugar is likely to help clear up your skin.
“Chocolate has antioxidant qualities…”
Antioxidants are chemicals that neutralize free radicals in the body. Free radicals are necessary for keeping your cells functioning properly, but too high a concentration can lead to cell damage, and potential harm to your DNA and cell membranes. Many of the positive health facts that you are likely to hear about chocolate relate to the fact that there are natural antioxidants found in cocoa. In the UK, chocolate must contain at least 20% cocoa solids, and a bar of Dairy Milk contains 23%. This is relatively low and therefore low in antioxidants too. It has also been made aware in certain studies that drinking milk with your chocolate interferes with the absorption of the antioxidants. However if it’s high levels of antioxidants that you’re looking for, stick to fruits and vegetables like pomegranates, carrots and berries.
“Diabetic chocolate isn’t as bad for you as regular chocolate…”
You may think that it would be a good idea to eat diabetic chocolate instead of the regular kinds, as a way of avoiding sugar, but diabetic chocolate actually has incredibly high levels of fat – in fact, this fat level is likely to worsen the long-terms symptoms of diabetes. There are also issues relating to the high levels of artificial sweeteners in diabetic chocolate too. If you are a diabetic with a sweet tooth, it is better to include a small amount of chocolate as part of a balanced diet, or look for sugar-free chocolates that are made with Maltiol, a natural sugar that comes from malt and doesn’t need insulin to metabolize it.
“But chocolate makes me happy!”
Finally, this fact is absolutely true, and not just because it’s so delicious – there’s science to back it up as well! One of the antioxidants in chocolate is resveratrol, which has been proven to boost levels of endorphins in your brain as well as serotonin, a form of chemical anti-depressant. With all the various health benefits that chocolate provides, we’re sure you’ll be happy to hear that you can still enjoy it, but remember to think about what kind of chocolate you’re eating, and the amount too – the recommended amount for dark chocolate is just one ounce per day (that’s about one mini Green and Black’s bar).
Get on a de-chox
We can’t deny that chocolate consumed in excess is likely to have an effect on your health and your waistline. If you feel like chocolate has got in the way of your healthy eating plans, you might like to consider a DECHOX. British Heart Foundation is running a month-long sponsored fast from chocolate for the whole of March, in aid of their fantastic research into heart health. So if you think you’re hard enough, sign up here.