The dark truth about chocolate…

In a recent episode of Coronation Street, Cathy proposed marriage to widower Roy Cropper,  who was so focused on Carla’s post-wedding problems and the need to collect her in his car, that he brushed the would-be bride’s pleas to one side. As Cathy moaned to her nephew Alex about what had happened, he tried to console her: ‘You need chocolate.’

Chocolate is a panacea to all sorts of problems: its sweet taste is an antidote to many of life’s ups-and-downs and it takes away the bitterness of a situation, sugaring over the nasty taste of disappointment. 

Whether we’ve had a hard day at work, a difficulty in a relationship or we are feeling down in the mouth, chocolate (or it’s derivatives, from sweet drinks to coated biscuits) is often perceived as a good way of lifting a mood.

Besides being delicious chocolate, and particularly dark chocolate, contains plant chemicals called flavonoids, which could lower the risk of several health conditions, including cancer and heart disease. Chocolate also contains serotonin and precursors to serotonin, so it could possibly  increase serotonin levels, which may  be beneficial in improving people’s moods. 

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or a chemical which nerves produce. It helps to move food through the intestines, constricting blood vessels and improving cheerfulness. Dark chocolate may decrease the effects of chronic fatigue syndrome, due to either the flavonoid content or the increase in serotonin levels so, the fact is, chocolate is good for us and Alex was right: it was exactly what Cathy needed when Roy failed to respond to her heart-felt proposal of marriage, because it would cheer her up.

The bad news is that chocolate is high in calories. A single package, containing three individually wrapped Ferrero Rocher Hazelnut Chocolates has a total of 220 calories. Of those 220 calories, 140 calories are from fat.A 28 gram bar of milk chocolate has 128 calories, 69 being from fat. It does, however, contain 7% calcium and 1% iron.

The average Briton eats almost 10kg of chocolate  every year.Some people suggest that craving chocolate is a female issue: such  cravings may be linked to low blood sugar, stress or changing hormonal levels prior to a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Chocolate provides a hit of sugar for quick energy. Research has even suggested that the  perception of chocolate as ‘sinful’ meant that women were somehow primed biologically to take more pleasure in it, the after-effect being to feel guilty. Of course, one simple answer is that people, men and women alike, enjoy chocolate because it tastes good. Moderation is key: an occasional nibble of chocolate won’t wreck your life. It isn’t wise, however, to stuff it down in daily shovelfuls.

Chocolate is one of many cultural habits which seem to be more delicious or appetizing because they are reprehensible. The idea that something is better because it is forbidden and therefore constitutes a guilty pleasure may also be the case for chips, burgers, stinky cheese, cigarettes and of course, that big empty-calorie vice, alcohol.

The belief that fat makes you fat has dominated our dietary advice for decades, but we now understand that dietary fat doesn’t necessarily make you fat. In fact, good fats in the right amounts are vital to a healthy body.

There’s still ongoing research on this topic, but we are now advised  that the overconsumption of sugar is often the main reason why people store extra weight.Excess sugar is working its way into much of our food unnoticed: consider the sky-high sugar content of processed meals and foods such as energy drinks, gluten-free snacks, canned sauces and canned food, ketchup, salad cream,  even bread and rice crackers. Some research suggests that sugars are actually addictive, calling sugar ‘the new nicotine’. Excess sugar  consumption can cause people to feel even more hungry, experience mood swings, store excess fat, and worse of all, lead to Type 2 diabetes. 

So processed foods hide a huge helping of sugar and are to be avoided at all costs.We need to become a nation of label readers or, even better, make our own foods and control exactly what goes in them.

So the moral of the tale is to enjoy a little of what you fancy: it may even do you a bit of good, in moderation, especially if we enjoy a healthy lifestyle with enough exercise and a balanced diet but, as Dr Robert Lustig says in his book, Fat Chance, which warns of a future obesity pandemic, ‘ sugar, not fat, is now considered the devil’s food.’



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