There is nothing like chocolate. When it comes to the hedonistic appeal of chocolate, the taste, texture, aroma and packaging are hard to beat.
Australians eat an average of five to six kilograms of chocolate per person every year. We guzzle down our Easter eggs, rabbits and bilbies and then there’s Mother’s Day…
Not surprisingly, Australia’s chocolate industry is worth $2.5 billion each year.
We eat too much of everything! But what makes chocolate so special?
For millennia, products made from cocoa have been considered an exclusive item. The Incas thought it was their gods’ drink of choice.
In fact, the scientific name of the cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, comes from the Greek words theo (god) and broma (drink) – (the Gods drink cocoa?).
But more than simply an indulgent attempt to rise above your station, or the naughty thrill of doing something bad, cocoa has also been widely considered to have health-enhancing properties.
Cocoa products, such as dark chocolate and cocoa beverages, have high content of plant-derived flavanols (about 6% to 8% polyphenols by dry weight) that contributes to their unique flavour and aroma.
Many of these compounds are biologically active and exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities.
Such findings, along with the historical mystique of chocolate, have launched any number of scientific studies in search of the health-giving properties in each and every bar.
Of course, cocoa is not the only source of plant-derived flavonoids. In fact, much richer sources may be available, in tea, grape juice, wine, various berries and gingko.
Moreover, conventional chocolate manufacturing processing from fresh cocoa seeds to the final product markedly decreases the concentration of flavanols.
Cocoa powder and dark chocolate have the highest flavanoid content, and white chocolate has the lowest.
Many of the studies showing how wonderful cocoa-derived flavanoids are have used very large doses of these chemicals that could never be garnered by regular chocolate eaters (at least without significant detriment to their waistlines), making the applicability of such science problematic.
However, dark chocolate has been studied in a number of randomised clinical trials. And the good news is that when put together there seems to be a modest but significant benefit on things like blood pressure and the function of blood vessels.
For example, a regular dose of dark chocolate can reduce your systolic blood pressure by about 4 to 5 mmHg. This would equate, on average to an 8% to 10% reduction in your risk of heart attack and stroke.
It’s also been suggested that chocolate can lower cholesterol. Cocoa butter, a fat derived from cocoa plants and found predominantly in dark chocolate, contains large amounts of monounsaturated fat.
This kind of fat has been associated with some of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet of olives and nuts that can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
However, the saturated animal fat and palm oil added to modern chocolates easily offset this benefit.
Chocolate flavonoids do have an effect on mood and wellbeing. Some of this is clearly psychological - our brain feels good after a little bit of luxury. Doing anything good for yourself, even buying clothes or shoes, can lift your mood.
But some of this is also chemical, as these chemicals have effects on the blood supply to the brain and its signalling apparatus.
Chocolate is widely thought of as an aphrodisiac, largely because of its connotation with luxury. But by opening up blood vessels, it can accentuate flushing and, potentially, erections.
But most of its effects are connotational. A little bit of luxury, a little slice of indulgence and yes, you’re in the mood.
Of course, the downside of chocolate is obvious.
On average, two out of three Australian women will put on a dress size (two centimetres) every five years. On top of a diet of already eating too much, it’s not surprising that we feel a little worried about chocolate.
In excess, it will induce weight gain. It will induce obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and an early demise. But then again, so will any overindulgence.
Before you clasp your next Easter egg in the belief it might do you some good, let’s look at the other question that often comes up – will I become addicted?
Chocolate is certainly our national comfort food and seems to be uniformly eaten by office workers to get them through their three o'clock slump.
There are certainly some addictive chemicals in chocolate, including caffeine and theobromine that induce dependence in much the same way that coffee does.
But part of the addiction, as with coffee, is psychological, with the expectation of feeling good (or not feeling bad anymore), driving the need for a fix.
It’s easy to argue that it can’t be an addiction if it doesn’t have negative consequences to the person’s health, mental state or social life.
At least that’s what I’m sticking to this Easter.