Saturday, October 15, 2011

truth about chocolate

Brain booster
Feeling run down? Prone to forgetfulness? Chocolate might just be the answer. "At the beginning of the 19th century, chocolate was sold in chemists as an energy booster for a weak immune system and cocoa has long been linked to all kinds of health benefits due to its unique composition," points out Kim Sauer at luxury chocolatiers Demarquette. "Cocoa and chocolate can also increase serotonin levels and thus, in theory, can improve memory, attention span, reaction time and problem-solving skills by increasing blood flow to the brain. This is particularly beneficial for people suffering from depression or experiencing PMS symptoms, whose serotonin levels are often decreased. In a nutshell, people who eat good chocolate are happier!"
Percentage power
"To enjoy the benefits of chocolate, you should look for bars with higher percentages of cocoa mass," suggests Kristina Currie, UK manager at luxury chocolatiers Coco Chocolate. "For example, a 70 or 80% bar would deliver the endorphins and serotonin that chocolate is famous for. Although it can help to relax blood pressure and encourage the body to have a healthy heart (through the flavonoids which act as antioxidants) this occurs only in a minor way, as obviously you have the calorie content to think about as well."
Balancing act
Indeed, while it's common knowledge chocolate has certain benefits, those benefits are often outweighed by excessive use of sugar and vegetable fats. "People should pay attention to the ingredients, as so many chocolate bars are full of vegetable fat and far too much sugar," warns Kristina Currie. "Real, high-quality chocolate contains only cocoa butter as the fat and has a high percentage of cocoa mass. For example, our milk chocolate bar contains 37% cocoa mass and only cocoa butter as the fat. Leading high street brands typically use 20% cocoa mass for their milk chocolate, 70% of the fat as vegetable fat and far more sugar."
Added extras
"It's not chocolate itself that is unhealthy," agrees Pam Williams, head instructor at Ecole Chocolat Professional School of Chocolate Arts. "Where chocolate becomes unhealthy is in the additional ingredients such as sugar, hydrogenated fats and dairy products which are added to chocolate products, as well as the size of your serving. My philosophy is 'have a little bit of something wonderful' and you will be totally satisfied!'"
Check your chocolate
According to Kristina Currie, there are certain things to look for when it comes to checking a chocolate's quality and avoiding undesirable added extras. "Look at the chocolate - is it shiny? It should be, as that's what cocoa butter looks like when it's been tempered. A vegetable fat chocolate will have a dull finish. Smell the chocolate - does it smell fresh? The higher the cocoa mass and cocoa butter content, the more the chocolate will smell like chocolate! Test the snap - break the chocolate into two pieces. It should have a nice snap to it. This is what we call a cocoa butter snap. Vegetable fat will not have a crispy snap, but a dull break. Taste it - does it leave a sticky film in your mouth? It shouldn't. Cocoa butter melts at body temperature, which leaves the mouth feeling fresh, but vegetable fat will leave a film in your mouth."
Price points
When it comes to choosing the right chocolate, Pam at Ecole Chocolat believes flavour and price are also crucial indicators. "Cocoa percentage, organic or free trade labels do not denote quality alone. They only indicate information about the ingredients used in the chocolate. Use your own taste buds to find a good quality chocolate. Price is a good place to start. High-quality flavour cocoa beans are rare (only approximately 5% of the total world crop of cocoa beans) and processing them will be expensive."
The drinking dilemma
While the good news is that the benefits of chocolate can also be enjoyed in a drink, drinking chocolate is more likely to contain added extras such as cream. "Using chocolate in a drink doesn't take away the health benefits, but you should be aware of what else is being added to it," warns Kristina Currie. "Beware of added butter, cream or excess sugar. It isn't necessary to add lots of sugar or use a milk chocolate base for drinking chocolate if the base is high quality. The end result is a rich, delicious and naturally sweet (and healthier) drinking chocolate."
Rex Features
The cocoa conundrum
It's important to remember that the cocoa content isn't the be all and end all - it's also worth looking at the quality of the cocoa used. "Although it's true that a higher percentage means a greater cocoa content and lower sugar content, if the cocoa is of poor quality to start with, or the cocoa butter has been substituted with palm oil or other fats, then a lower percentage chocolate made with high quality cocoa and pure ingredients could actually be better," warns Kim Sauer. "Always read the label!"
Healthy hearts
Although wolfing down a king-sized chocolate bar while sitting on the sofa might not be the quickest route to fitness, there's no denying that some of the ingredients in chocolate can promote a healthy heart. "There are many studies linking cocoa and dark chocolate with health benefits," says Iain Reitze, a personal trainer at the Prestige Boot Camp. "Cocoa and chocolate contain large amounts of antioxidants, which can help to reduce high blood pressure as well as the blood's tendency to clot. This in turn could reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks."
Quantity and quality
However, if you're planning on convincing your other half that the box of chocolates you're about to consume is actually going to help ward off heart disease, you're in for a shock. "Research suggests that a small square (20g) of dark (bittersweet) chocolate every three days is enough to provide the cardiovascular benefits," says Iain Reitze. "Consuming more won't provide any additional benefits."

Cocoa misconceptions
It's often thought that chocolate can ward off tiredness, but in reality, it's more likely to be the added sugar that's responsible for any temporary energy boost. "A common misconception is that chocolate is high in caffeine," explains Ruth Hinks, founder of Edinburgh-based chocolate school Cocoa Black. "While eating chocolate may perk you up, it's actually not very high in caffeine. A 1.4-ounce chocolate bar or an 8-ounce glass of chocolate milk both contain 6mg of caffeine. This is the same amount found in a cup of decaffeinated coffee - regular coffee contains about 65-135mg of caffeine."

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