Luckily for us on world chocolate day cocoa is riding high in the functional food stakes. ‘Functional’ means simply that a food that is particularly dense in nutrients, either naturally or by processing, thus lessening the need for supplements. So, not only can chocolate be a justifiable part of your diet, you are making life simpler to boot. What is not to like?
The story of chocolate started long ago, with the native people of South America. Ancient Aztec kings would drink up to 10 cups of cocoa-water a day, hoping it would lead to virility and immortality. Whilst chocolate is sadly unable to perform such miracles a discovery on the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama, made researchers sit up and take note.
Only 49 of the 378 islands are inhabited by the fiercely independent Kuna Indians who maintain language, customs and culture, including a simple diet; in other words, ripe for comparative study. According to a study published in the American Journal of Nutrition, “obesity, diabetes, and hypertension are relatively rare among Kuna Indians, a population of Amerinds living in the San Blas Island chain off the cost of Panama, who are known to ingest large amounts of cocoa.”
However, you only need to do a web search on the islands to realize that they are, in my mind at least, a veritable paradise on earth so perhaps that has something to do with the strong constitution of the Islanders too!
For those of us stuck in less inspiring climes, chocolate can be the ultimate perk me up. Cocoa rich chocolate also has the ability to reduce blood pressure, since it contains nitric oxide, and may help with internal hormonal balance. The darker the chocolate the higher the benefit. Indeed, white chocolate (which contains no cocoa so really shouldn’t be called chocolate at all!) was shown in similar studies to have no positive effect on blood pressure or insulin sensitivity.
Dark chocolate’s primary benefit comes from flavonoids, a type of substance that falls under the umbrella of antioxidants. Blueberries (and other dark berries) are widely publicized for their anti-oxidant properties yet according to the US department of Agriculture, dark chocolate has 12 times the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) value of blueberries.
Given that many of the diseases we suffer from can be caused or aggravated by oxidant damage to our cells, it is becoming clear that those Aztec kings might well have been on to something. At the very least, swapping the expense of anti-ageing creams for a little dark chocolate would be a welcome exchange in most household budgets.
Before you go and hoover up the leftovers of a box of chocolate a word of caution. Whilst the nutrient of cocoa is high, so is the calorie content.
It takes a lot of chocolate to have a big effect, and chocolate is a calorie dense food. Studies have used about three and a half ounces of dark chocolate each day to determine its benefits. That translates into about four hundred calories.
So, even though the fat in good quality chocolate does not increase the bad HDL cholesterol the calorie content of chocolate means weight gain is almost a guarantee if you eat too much. Put it this way, if you were to attempt to justify a bar of chocolate a day for its health potential you’d soon find that an extra four hundred calories per day could result in a gain of almost a pound a week!
It all comes down to priorities; if you love your chocolate you need to sacrifice elsewhere. Increase your activity level, hit the gym or drop starchy carbs from dinnertime and you can indulge in the food of kings. You know what ladies; I think it might just be worth it!
Now may I tempt you to make this healthy chocolate torte?
Mini Chocolate Torte
- Cook the aubergines in a microwave for 8 minutes, or steam them in a steamer pan until they are soft.
- Meanwhile, break the chocolate into small pieces and place in a bowl.
- Scoop out the aubergine flesh while it is still very hot (you may need to wear gloves!) and add it to the chocolate. The heat from the aubergine will melt the chocolate.
- Place the cocoa powder, almonds and baking powder in a bowl. Make a well in the middle, and fold in the eggs, honey and alcohol. Mix together until bubbles start to form.
- Blend the aubergine and chocolate mixture, then use a metal spoon to fold it into the egg mixture.
- Divide into 20 small portions in a mini muffin tin. Bake at gas mark 4 for 12-14 minutes.
- Serve with a dollop of low-fat creme fraiche and a sprig of mint. These tortes can be frozen.