With Easter just around the corner, it's hard to avoid the subject of chocolate, but don't feel guilty — modern science has come up with many excellent reasons why you can indulge.
Up the ante: The cacao beans used to make chocolate actually contain the same disease-fighting phenolic antioxidants which are found in red wine, green tea, and many fruits and vegetables. These neutralise the free radicals which damage cells and cause inflammation and health problems. Dark chocolate is also a good source of iron, copper, potassium, and magnesium.
Love your heart: According to a report published in the research journal Circulation, cocoa exerts beneficial cardiovascular effects. There are several reasons why. One, chocolate's high concentration of polyphenols may help to support heart health and circulation. Two, dark chocolate has been shown to delay the body's absorption of LDL ('bad') cholesterol and raise HDL ('good') cholesterol, and its rich concentration of flavonoids is thought to improve the functioning of the endothelial cells in the arteries. And three, a small Italian research study showed that eating dark chocolate regularly resulted in reductions in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
Get gorgeous: Chocolate has long been demonised as a cause of pimples, but it is important to note that most of it is high in refined sugar and saturated and trans fats which are, in fact, more likely to be linked to inflammation and poor regulation of sebum (oil) production. High quality dark chocolate and cocoa, on the other hand, are an excellent source of flavonoids, the powerful antioxidants which actually protect against the free radical damage which causes wrinkles and premature ageing, and may also increase blood flow to surface skin cells, possibly improving skin hydration and texture. You can even try 'feeding your face' with a skin-softening, sweet-smelling chocolate scrub — combine 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar with an egg and a teaspoon of jojoba oil to make a gooey mixture. Pick up pinches of the scrub and massage into damp skin, then rinse off with warm water and tone and moisturise as usual.
A sweet aphrodisiac: It's no accident that chocolate and romantic encounters go hand in hand — it contains phenylethylamine, one of the mood-boosting chemicals released in the brain when you're in love.
Ease your mind: People — especially women — reach for chocolate when they are miserable, and Swiss research has found that it does actually help. Study participants experiencing high levels of anxiety were given 20 grams of dark chocolate daily for two weeks. At the end of that period they were tested, and it was discovered that they had significantly lower levels of stress hormones.
Come to the dark side: Dark chocolate contains more flavonoids, so skip the milk or white varieties and look for a high-quality brand of semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate containing a high proportion — at least 60-75 percent — of cocoa. Check for an organic certification, to ensure the cacao beans were grown without pesticides or fungicides, and a Fairtrade logo, which means that they were grown sustainably. Dark chocolate also usually contains less sugar, giving it that characteristic bitter taste, and it will not contain the saturated milk fat that is used in milk chocolate. White chocolate contains no cocoa, and so it has no health benefits.
Think small: If you're going to treat yourself, settle for 25-30 grams of dark chocolate a day — too much of a good thing, and you risk packing on the kilos.
Your say: What is your favourite chocolate?
Video: The chocolate diet