It’s Valentine's Day and many of us will see a crescendo-like increase of our spending on boxes of chocolates. The goal of the purchase: to entice the palette of our amourous prey with a fleeting romantic gesture. Perhaps, you will even whisper in your beloved's ear its ‘heart-health’ benefits, as you share the pleasure of its consumption. But, is it really that healthy? Perhaps we underestimate how much we should eat to ‘benefit” from its so-called nutritious properties. Let’s examine this story a little closer.
Allegation no.1: Chocolate makes you feel ‘in love’
False! This association was made due to a chemical compound by the name ‘Phenylethylamine’ or PEA. When we feel the first signs of a budding romantic attraction, PEA is produced in larger quantities in the brain, which then leads to the production of norepinephrine and dopamine. The result: the tingling feeling of love! Though chocolate is a source of PEA, its form is dietary which is quickly metabolized and never reaches the brain. This does not, however, eliminate the pleasure associated with eating it, which explains the feeling of happiness, especially if it is shared!
Allegation 2: Chocolate has ‘heart and brain’ health properties.
True! Chocolate contains antioxidants derived from cocoa by the name ‘flavonoids’. This compound has been associated, in the scientific literature, with modest effects on arterial pressure as-well-as having positive effects on the brain and the cognitive memory. However, we also find these compounds in other dietary sources such as fruits and vegetables, namely onions, celery, grapes (…and yes, red wine), apples, oranges as-well-as tea and tomato juice.
Allegation 3: Since chocolate has antioxidants that are good for the heart and the brain, I should, therefore, eat more to benefit from its positive health properties.
False! Though chocolate has flavonoids, vegetables and fruits are an excellent source. In a research, published in August 2016 by Neshatdoust et al., concludes that the positive effects of cocoa-derived-flavonoids, on cognition, are equal to those of fruits and vegetables when examining the brain-derived neurotrophic factors. Also, in another research, published in January 2016 by Bertoia et al. concludes that the content of flavonoids present in fruits and vegetables can contribute to weight maintenance and even in the prevention of obesity by mechanisms other than those associated with its fiber content. How many portions are needed to gain the health benefits? Five portions of fruits and vegetables, in particular, those with a high flavonoid content, such as apples, pears, berries (ex: strawberries and blueberries) and bell peppers. This intake represents 300 calories or less in comparison with 1000 calories or more if the consumed flavonoid sources were excluded from a daily serving of 200g of dark chocolate (70% cocoa or more)! Therefore, fruits and vegetables are less caloric than chocolate, gram-per-gram, and they contain a plethora of non-negligible nutrients associated with positive health benefits.
What do we need to keep in mind? ‘Moderation is in good taste’ as much for alcoholic drinks as for sweets such as chocolate. When eating them, don’t do it for the health benefits but for the pleasure. If you are looking for antioxidants and other nutritional benefits, look for a healthy and varied diet which includes, of course, a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. If you are looking for a romantic gesture, maybe a diner generously accentuated by fruits and vegetables and to conclude with one (...or maybe two) chocolates from that heart-shaped box you offered (or received) affectionately.
Happy Valentines day!
Dietary flavonoid intake and weight maintenance: three prospective cohorts of 124 086 US men and women followed for up to 24 years, Bertoia et al, BMJ 2016;352:i17
Dina Kudasheva, Chemistry of Love,Tomsk State University, https://asdn.net/asdn/chemistry/chemistry_of_love.php , retrieved 14 February 2017
Flavanol-rich chocolate acutely improves arterial function and working memory performance counteracting the effects of sleep deprivation in healthy individuals, Grassi et al,J Hypertens. 2016 Jul;34(7):1298-308.
Effect of cocoa on blood pressure, Ried et al, Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Aug 15;(8):CD008893. doi: 10.1002/14651858.
Flavanols and methylxanthines in commercially available dark chocolate: a study of the correlation with nonfat cocoa solids, Langer et al, J Agric Food Chem. 2011 Aug 10;59(15):8435-41. doi: 10.1021/jf201398t.
High-flavonoid intake induces cognitive improvements linked to changes in serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor: Two randomised, controlled trials, Neshatdoust et al, Nutr Healthy Aging. 2016; 4(1): 81–93.
Does chocolate reduce blood pressure? A meta-analysis, Ried et al, BMC Med. 2010; 8: 39.