Chocolate, for many, is a “guilty pleasure” – something naughty to indulge in whenever we fancy a sweet treat. But how “guilty” does it have to be? How much of a crime is consuming a small bar of our favourite (ideally craft) chocolate?
It goes without saying that craft chocolate is better for you (physically), for everyone involved in its production (socioeconomically), and for – well – everyone (environmentally) than its mass produced counterpart. Craft chocolate is all pleasure and (almost) no guilt; it’s free from all that extra baggage often found in the confusing ingredients list of mass produced bars. There are no additives to get you chemically hooked; it’s the flavour of craft chocolate, not the deliberate combination of additives, that keeps you coming back for more.
But, even if it’s not ‘bad for you’ to the same extent as mass produced confectioneries, how healthy is craft chocolate? Are the click-bait rumours true? CAN chocolate make you sleep better, feel sexier, and live longer? Or is it all modern day medical quackery?
Much as we love chocolate here at Cocoa Runners, we are as committed to truth as we are to the promotion of sustainably sourced, ethically produced chocolate – so read on for some myth-busting on the dubious health claims about chocolate:
Everything in moderation
‘Everything in moderation’; this is the strapline, the crux, the mantra of our health and chocolate section. Although craft chocolate generally contains less sugar and far fewer additives than that ’emergency Mars bar’ you cart around, it still wouldn’t do you much good to eat an entire bar in one sitting.
Fortunately, we stock resealable pouches so that you don’t have to binge the entire bar in one evening. Instead, you can snap a square or two (or even three) as an after dinner treat, saving the rest for tomorrow and thereafter.
And it’s not just the chocolate you want to consume in moderation, you should also take everything you read on the matter of chocolate and health with a (generous) pinch of salt. Everything in moderation; including the health claims around chocolate.
Cocoa-Quackery: A Brief History
Since its discovery – a long long time ago – chocolate has been subject to countless health claims. Even the Aztecs and Mayans believed in its aphrodisiacal ability. Eighteenth century quacks made chocolate a pet project, instilling it with all kinds of miraculous qualities (the more far-fetched the better).
The 21st century is no exception; people have continued to ponder the magical qualities of chocolate and will conduct studies on chocolate’s favourable effects on cardiovascular health, cognitive functioning, and virility. Note, however, the sample sizes of these studies and the sources – don’t be seduced by the positive stats.
Much as we would love to believe that chocolate is some kind of cure-all, in many cases the proof actually isn’t in the pudding.
Chocolate & Sleep: Is your Hot Cocoa the “Night-Cap” you Think it is?
One example of a health claim about chocolate is that it can function as a sleep aid – particularly when consumed as a night-cap in the form of a luxurious hot chocolate (hold the marshmallows and whipped cream).
Drinking chocolate dates back thousands of years to the Latin American Mayans who used it in religious rituals; it wasn’t until the 16th century that it became popular in Europe – particularly amongst its monarchs, such as Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette, who were enthusiastic drinkers of this liquid cocoa.
However, the question is not ‘where does hot chocolate come from?’ but ‘will it help me sleep at night?’. Whilst there is some caffeine in chocolate, there isn’t enough to disturb your sleep in the same way as that 4pm coffee is likely to. And the aforementioned chemical, theobromine, though it is a stimulant, is not so stimulating that it’ll keep you awake. At a very basic level, the answer to this question is that it varies from person to person – much like the effects of caffeine, alcohol and sugar.
I, for one, can attest to the soporific effects of warming my hands on a mug of hot chocolate.
Of course, this is the short answer to a longer, more scientifically complex question. A more detailed account reveals the effects ingredients like milk, cocoa butter, and sugar can have on your sleep.
Chocolate & Dopamine: Will it Really Cheer You Up?
Chocolate contains many chemicals – 300 in fact – and it has been noted that some of these chemicals can boost your mood! Notably, chocolate contains small amounts of phenylethylamine (PEA) which stimulates the brain to release dopamine (part of the Holy Trinity of happy hormones).
But the chemical responses our brains have to chocolate are various and complex. It might be simpler to focus instead on the emotional benefits of simply enjoying chocolate as a sensory experience. Consider the anticipation you feel whilst unwrapping a bar, followed by the savouring of chocolate – it’s overall a very pleasurable experience, so is obviously going to lift your mood!
Room for More?
Why We Can Still Eat Chocolate After We’re “Full”
We’ve all been there; groaning at the dinner table with our jeans unzipped, belts loosened, and mutters of “I couldn’t possibly eat any more”. Then a trifle appears, or someone whips out the after-eights, or even a hot crumble – surely you couldn’t possibly squeeze in a dessert as substantial as a crumble?! But you can.
This phenomena is what my parents affectionately term ‘the pudding stomach’ and it’s why we can’t help but say “oh go on then” when the waiter offers us the dessert menu, despite being allegedly “stuffed”.
And not only should you have room for craft chocolate after a meal, but it’s actually advisable that you indulge in this little sweet treat if you want to achieve true satiety.
Are You a “Chocoholic”?: Chocolate & Addiction
Chocolate – if we’re talking real chocolate (i.e. craft chocolate) – is not, in itself, addictive. Unlike nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol, the primary stimulant in chocolate, theobromine, does not quality as ‘addictive’. That said, the ingredients often added to chocolate (especially the mass produced kind) are a little more moreish than they ought to be.
And there is a particularly potent blend of additives which create The Bliss Point, a dangerous combination of salt, sugar and fat that has humans consuming beyond the point of satiety. This is what makes chocolate addictive. But you’ll be relieved to hear that craft chocolate makers aren’t interested in having you consume an entire bar before you’ve made it through the first half hour of a film. They want you to savour their carefully crafted bars.
So, rest assured you aren’t likely to become a full-blown (craft) chocoholic!
How much sugar is in chocolate, really?
High levels of sugar should be an immediate red flag on any chocolate label, primarily because of how addictive it can be – especially in large quantities. The sugar added to mass produced chocolate constitutes ’empty calories’, hence why you need to consume so much of it in order to feel sated.
There are countless studies on sugar and its ill-effects on the human body. These days, sugar is the new fat as we are constantly told: the less of it the better. Whilst it definitely isn’t advisable that the average person seek out a high-sugar diet, it’s also a rule that (like all these other health claims) should be taken fairly lightly. How a person’s body responds to sugar is highly individual. Many of the studies on physiological responses to sugar have been done on inadequate sample sizes, so it is well-worth reading these with caution.
Sugar is by no means an inherently bad thing – that is so long as it’s taken in moderation!
Dark Chocolate: A Healthy Alternative?
If sugar is what you’re worried about, then you may have already considered dark chocolate as a ‘healthy alternative’ to your evening maltesers. Dark chocolate is often perceived as a guilt-free substitute for its milk chocolate relative. In fact, when people laud chocolate’s numerous ‘health benefits’, they often cite dark chocolate specifically as an example.
However, dark chocolate does still contain a fair amount of added sugar.
Furthermore, the idea that dark chocolate has less milk in it and is therefore healthier is false. Dark milk chocolate is an excellent example of how milk can add sweetness to a bar without requiring extra sugar.
So, if sugar is what you’re worried about, then worry not and see our selection of low sugar chocolate options. But if you’re looking to eliminate it altogether, read up on our 100% Cocoa bars which contain no sugar at all!
“Chocolate is Good for You!”: Panacea or Quackery?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but: no, chocolate won’t cure your insomnia, depression, bloating, cancer, or cardiovascular woes. It won’t make you smarter. And it won’t perk your partner’s low libido up (so if that was the master-plan behind that box of chocolates, think again).
While it is possible to derive some health benefits from the theobromine, phenylethylamine, and flavonoids in chocolate, it’s unlikely to be life-changing. If you’d like to separate the discursive wheat from the chaff yourself, see our blogpost on Tim Spector and how he handles the (mis)information on chocolate and health.
This is not to say that chocolate can never be at the root of your happiness and wellbeing! Especially craft chocolate which you can buy in the knowledge that it’s not harming cocoa bean growers, bar makers, or the environment. And it’s more than that smug feeling of knowing you’re ‘doing good’ – craft chocolate also tastes better than mass produced confectionaries!
Chocolate: The Gift that Keeps on Giving
Even if it’s not going to get them out of debt or transform them into a supermodel, receiving chocolate is (almost) always guaranteed to put a smile on your friend, relative, or partner’s face. Chocolate can be code for “I love you”, “it’s going to be okay”, and “thank you!” – it communicates a message that goes beyond even the amazing flavours of craft chocolate.
So, even though it’s not a miraculous cure-all, chocolate will put a smile on your face. You may not be overcome by a rush of endorphins, but you will be overcome with the joy savouring craft chocolate can bring.
And if you’ve yet to experience this cocoa-induced joy, give some of our highest rated bars a go.