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People today may be surprised to learn that until early in the 20th century, chocolate was considered to be a health food, with a range of potential health benefits. It was used thousands of years ago by the ancient Mayans and Aztecs, and much later by Europeans between the 16th and 19th centuries, as an ingredient in cures for many illnesses, including fevers, liver disease, and kidney disorders, dysentery, and constipation, and to foster needed weight gain. Perhaps underlying its current role on St. Valentine’s day, the original chocolate drink was used by the Aztecs as an aphrodisiac, and some European doctors in the 1700 and 1800’s said chocolate made people amiable and “incited consumers to… lovemaking.

Chocolate Squares

As discussed in What’s New? there is some scientific evidence that a little bit of chocolate each day may do you good. But all chocolates were not created equal…

Chocolate nutrition
It is relatively simple to compare your favourite kind of chocolate by looking at the Nutrition Facts / Information Panel which is found on most foods. The table lists the nutrient composition of the more common varieties in a 10 g (1/3 Ounce) serve, which is equivalent to 2 squares/pieces of an average bar/block.

Chcolate Table

As can be seen, all chocolates are relatively high in kilojoules/Calories, mainly because of their fat content. Most are also a good source of carbohydrates, mainly because of added sugars that help mask chocolates naturally bitter flavour. The exception is the stevia-based chocolate bars which use sugar alcohols and inulin instead of added sugars to provide bulk and texture.

Body weight 
Most chocolates are what we call energy dense – you get a lot of kilojoules/Calories in a relatively small volume. This is good if you are trying to gain wait, 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 fat, carbohydrate and energy. But it is obviously not good if you are trying to lose weight.

Blood fats 
Chocolate is high in total and saturated fats. In high quality chocolates, cocoa butter is the main source of fat. This is important, because cocoa butter is high in a particular kind of saturated fat called stearic acid. Stearic acid raises the “bad” LDL cholesterol the least of the saturated fats but does not lower the “good” HDL cholesterol, so the net effect on your total blood cholesterol levels is not so bad. However, the amount of cocoa butter used in chocolate does vary, and along with it the amount of the stearic acid, but this information is usually not provided in any simple form on the chocolate wrapper. As a rough guide, the better quality, and as a result, more expensive varieties generally have more cocoa butter, and as such are usually a better choice.

Blood glucose 
Despite most chocolates relatively high carbohydrate (primarily added sugars) content, they don’t have as large an impact on blood glucose levels as some imagine – unless you overindulge, of course. This is because all contain around 5 g of carbohydrate per 10 g serve (with the exception of the new stevia based chocolate bars which have less than 1 g per serve). Also, the glycemic index of chocolate is low with values less than 45 for most common varieties (see Your GI shopping guide, below). This is because of the high fat content, which slows the rate that the sugars are released from the stomach into the small intestine, and absorbed into the blood. So overall, the glycemic load is less than 10 (low) for a typical serve of most common varieties.

For this reason, as long as they don’t overindulge, people with diabetes do not have to eat low, or reduced-sugar chocolates to avoid high blood glucose levels. It’s important to note that while the low carbohydrate stevia varieties will have the least effect on blood glucose levels they are relatively high in fat and consequently have nearly the same amount of kilojoules as regular varieties so they are not much better if you are trying to lose weight. Also, alternatively sweetened chocolate is usually more expensive and often not as tasty as sugar-sweetened chocolate.

There is a good argument that you should have a little bit of what you enjoy…as a colleague once said “If you really like chocolate and don’t wish to over consume the product, always choose your favourite!

As discussed in What’s New? chocolate is one of natures richest sources of a powerful group of antioxidants known as flavanols, along with green and black tea, red wine, certain fruits (e.g. berries, black grapes, plums, apples) and vegetables (e.g. artichoke, asparagus, cabbage, russet and sweet potatoes). These antioxidants are thought to possess a number of properties that may benefit health, including helping to prevent cholesterol sticking to the walls of blood vessels, relaxing major blood vessels and thereby decreasing blood pressure, and maybe even reducing the ability of the blood to form too many clots. Half a row of dark chocolate (25 g / 0.9 Ounces) provides about the same amount of these antioxidants as half a cup of black tea or a glass of red wine. It’s important to remember that milk chocolate contains only one third as much antioxidants as dark chocolate, and white chocolate contains none at all.

Bottom line 
While not a health food, if eaten in moderation, most people can enjoy chocolate as part of a well-balanced diet. Dark chocolate may have some cardio-vascular benefits. Those who are overweight should only buy their favourite, high quality chocolate, and take care not to eat too much, too often.

Read more:

  • Cardiovascular disease risk of dietary stearic acid compared with trans, other saturated, and unsaturated fatty acids: a systematic review 
  • Effects of stearic acid on plasma lipid and lipoproteins in humans 

Dr Alan Barclay
Alan Barclay, PhD is a consultant dietitian and chef (Cert III). He worked for Diabetes Australia (NSW) from 1998–2014 . He is author/co-author of more than 30 scientific publications, and author/co-author of  The good Carbs Cookbook (Murdoch Books), Reversing Diabetes (Murdoch Books), The Low GI Diet: Managing Type 2 Diabetes (Hachette Australia) and The Ultimate Guide to Sugars and Sweeteners (The Experiment, New York).
Contact: You can follow him on Twitter or check out his website.