21 January 2012: In case you needed another reason....chocolate

In celebration of the fact that it is a weekend, the sun is shining and life seems pretty good, I thought it a good time to expand a bit more on a subject dear to my heart - and I suspect many another heart - chocolate. In fact this follows on from a short piece I wrote that appeared recently in Triathlete Magazine on the health benefits of chocolate. But that really only scratched the surface and in case anyone needed some extra convincing, I am happy to provide some more compelling evidence....chocolate really is a health food. Chocolate:

Much has been made recently over chocolate milk as an ideal recovery drink after strenuous exercise. And true it does contain plenty of sugar to replace glycogen levels and protein to aid in the recovery of muscle rebuilding and repair. Plus the fact that it is readily available, accessible and tastes pretty good all go in its favor. Of course for optimal nutritional recovery there may still be better options - such as ‘real’, whole foods containing both carbohydrate and protein (salmon pumpkin salad perhaps or a banana paired with almond butter) or even some of the specially formulated recovery drinks. But what about chocolate itself? Are there any benefits for athletes in consuming the real deal? OK time for some honesty – I am a chocolate fan so delving into this topic is really about justification for indulging. Thankfully there are plenty of researchers out there who have done the work and the results certainly are encouraging.

For anyone who views chocolate not only as a treat but a necessary part of life, here are some things you should know:

Chocolate is a health food:

- Chocolate is made from the cocoa bean. This ‘fruit’ containing pod is grown on cocoa tress which thrive in the hot tropics. Once harvested the fruit undergoes a fermentation and drying process before being cleaned and roasted. Next they are finely ground to produce a cocoa mass which is then separated by high pressure into cocoa butter and cocoa powder. These provide the basis for chocolate production although it is important to realize that all chocolate contains additional ingredients (including sugar) and most of the chocolate consumed contains LOTS of sugar, other oils and fats, artificial flavors and preservatives. Hence cocoa, and its potential health benefits need to be distinguished from the very different food chocolate and most certainly from the almost unrecognizable and distant relative the candy bar.

- The cocoa bean is one of the richest sources of phytochemicals with their powerful antioxidant properties. Antioxidant content of food is measured in ORACs (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity Units). According to the USDA, dark chocolate has 13,120 ORACs, per 100g while blueberries have only 2,400.

- Cocoa is rich in flavonoids – a phytochemical that is also found in healthful foods such as apples, onions, tea, the skin of grapes (and hence red wine). Flavonoids have been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease but also of particular relevance for athletes, have shown potential at reducing muscle soreness after intense workouts. Importantly too, studies have shown that flavonols increase blood flow to certain areas of the brain – boosting performance at specific mental tasks as well as increasing alertness. These effects are important discoveries not only for general health and well being, bit for the athlete, optimal functioning of all body systems ultimately leads to optimal results in training and come race day.

- Cocoa is also high in nitrates. Recently beetroot juice has been touted as a potential performance enhancer due to its nitrate content. Nitrate is converted to nitric oxide which increases blood flow, lowers blood pressure and is involved with muscular contraction and cellular respiration. Research has shown a reduction in the oxygen deficit for endurance athletes when nitrates were ingested, thus potentially boosting performance.

- Chocolate can be a powerful mood booster: it stimulates the release of endorphins, and raises serotonin, the combination of which act as an antidepressant and general mood enhancer. (Perhaps useful knowledge for friends and family or tired, hungry and somewhat ‘emotional’ athletes) Even the smell of chocolate might help relax you by stimulating certain areas of the brain.

- Cocoa beans are rich in a number of essential minerals, including magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium and manganese plus Vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, E. Cocoa also contains natural antibacterial agents.

Off to the candy store? Not so fast. The same flavanoids that confer most of the healthful benefits of chocolate, are also naturally bitter tasting. This means that much of the chocolate that is produced and consumed is processed to remove most of these compounds, and then plenty of additional sugar and other ingredients are added to make it more appealing for our sweetened palates. What this means is that the average candy bar is realistically going to offer no or extremely limited health benefits and instead pack a high fat, high sugar and high caloric punch – hardly the health food of the original cocoa bean. The best choices, health wise, are natural unsweetened cocoa powder (which is actually low in fat and calories yet contains all the beneficial flavanoids) or dark chocolate. The higher the cocoa percentage of the dark chocolate the better – bear in mind that this will also increase the bitterness of the chocolate. For most people 70% is an easy balance with enough sweetness to still be a treat and yet infinitely more healthful than a milk chocolate based candy bar. (Incidentally white chocolate is not technically a chocolate at all and has no healthful reason for being eaten.)

 

How to eat it: Often but in small quantities. Choose the best quality dark chocolate you can afford and stick to one or two squares per day. You can also purchase natural unsweetened cocoa powder.