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Observational studies suggest that the flavonoids in cocoa can help lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, prevent blood clots, and fight cell damage. Cocoa, which is made from cacao beans (the seeds of the cacao tree), is one of nature’s richest sources of flavonoids. Others sources include green and black tea, red wine, certain fruits (berries, black grapes, plums, apples) and vegetables (artichokes, asparagus, cabbage, russet and sweet potatoes).

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Vincenza Gianfredi and colleagues suggest flavanol intake from chocolate may be useful in preventing heart disease and stroke (cardio-cerebrovascular diseases) in their systematic review and meta-analysis published in Nutrition. Future studies should focus on the type of chocolate responsible for the beneficial effect they say and remind us in their conclusion that: “These results do not exclude that overconsumption of chocolate/cocoa can have harmful effects. Further studies are required to confirm these data before any recommendations about chocolate intake can be made.” We have reported on the upside and downside of chocolate on a number of occasions. Here’s a summary of some key points.

CHOCOLATE AND BLOOD GLUCOSE Although most chocolates have a relatively high added sugars content, they don’t have a big impact on your blood glucose levels. The average GI is around 45 because their high fat content slows the rate that the sugars are released from the stomach into the intestine and absorbed into the blood.

CHOCOLATE AND WEIGHT Most chocolates are energy dense – you get a lot of kilojoules (calories) in a little piece. This is good if you are trying to gain weight, travel long-distances with limited storage space, or participate in an endurance sport where it is an advantage to be able to carry around a concentrated and highly palatable source of carbohydrate and energy. But it is obviously not good if you are trying to lose weight. Sugar-free chocolate provides a modest saving in calories (see Product Review).

CHOCOLATE AND FATIGUE A nice cup of hot chocolate could be a safe, easy way to reduce fatigue symptoms associated with inflammation in people with multiple sclerosis (MS), according to international researchers reporting on a randomised controlled feasibility trial in Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. The research team asked 40 people with MS to drink high- or low-flavonoid cocoa every day for six weeks. They found those who drank high-flavonoid cocoa rated their fatigue as lower, and were also able to cover more distance in 6-minute walking tests. If these results can be confirmed in larger studies, dark chocolate and cocoa could be an easy (and tasty) way to reduce fatigue symptoms, the researchers say.

THE FATS IN CHOCOLATE In good quality chocolate, cocoa butter is the main source of fat. It is rich in a particular kind of saturated fat called stearic acid, which raises the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol the least of the saturated fats, but raises the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol more. The net effect on your total blood cholesterol levels is not bad at all. The amount of cocoa butter in chocolate varies. As a rough guide, better quality chocolate generally will have more cocoa butter.

HOW MUCH CHOCOLATE? “Keep your portions small,” says dietitian Nicole Senior, “because it’s the transition from cocoa to chocolate that adds the fat, sugar and kilojoules. Luckily, the intensity of flavour helps keep small amounts deeply satisfying. If I could borrow and modify an often-used phrase from Michael Pollan, I’d say this: Eat good honest chocolate; mostly dark; not too much.”

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