Chocolate: A cure for cancer?

It tastes much too good to be a health food. But can chocolate really prevent cancer, heart disease and depression? By Esther Walker

Ever since the Atkins Diet revival made sugar public enemy No 1, confectionery manufacturers have had their work cut out to sweeten up their image. It hasn't been easy: sugar doesn't just make you fat, and thus can contribute to the development of adult-onset diabetes, it also rots your teeth. Willy Wonka would be weeping into his top hat.

But recently, chocolate has been undergoing something of a rehabilitation, and the current thinking is that it may actually be good for you. So, what's going on?

In fact, the idea of chocolate as a health tonic goes back centuries. Long before goji berries, broccoli and tomatoes were hailed as "superfoods", cocoa and chocolate were celebrated as natural remedies. Cocoa and its derivatives have, historically, been prescribed for a range of ailments, including liver disease and kidney disorders, and by the 1600s, chocolate was identified as a mood enhancer.

It is only relatively recently that chocolate fell out of favour with the health lobby. Although cocoa is rich in flavonoids (which promote healthy cellular tissue), the practice of mixing it with saturated fat, cholesterol and sugar made it less friend, more foe. But now chocolate has been thrown a lifeline: antioxidants. An antioxidant is something that slows down, or prevents, the oxidation of cells; oxidation produces free radicals, which damage cells and can lead to heart disease and cancer. The flavonoids in dark chocolate (containing 70 per cent or more cocoa solids) act as antioxidants, and it contains almost five times the flavonol content of apples (though they also have fibre and vitamins). The industrial processes that turn cocoa into chocolate reduce its antioxidant properties, which is why the less-processed dark chocolate has more antioxidants.

What may come as less of a surprise to chocolate addicts is the growing evidence that chocolate is a mood enhancer. Chocolate contains as many as 400 different compounds that promote a better mood and alleviate anxiety, which helps to explain why so many people experience cravings for it. Serotonin, endorphins and phenylethylamine are all found in chocolate and can lift the mood; it also contains the stimulants caffeine and theobromine, and the amphetamine-like compounds tyramine and phenyletylamine.

However, one set of researchers found that cocoa-filled capsules were unable to satisfy the cravings of chocolate "addicts" in the same way as chocolate itself, so it seems that the sensory experience of eating chocolate, its sweetness and melting softness, contribute to its uplifting effects.

Perhaps most surprisingly, chocolate even works effectively as a cough remedy. Scientists at Imperial College London discovered that theobromine, one of the stimulants in chocolate, is a third more effective in stopping persistent coughs than codeine, the medicine most commonly used. The theobromine suppresses the nerve activity that causes coughing, and it is thought that the viscous quality of melted chocolate could help soothe tickly coughs.

The health benefits of chocolate have not gone unnoticed by its manufacturers. Prestat, for example, has come up with a new product called Choxi+, saying that two squares per day contain the recommended daily dose of antioxidants, while having fewer calories than an apple. And the Japanese company Glico makes a chocolate called GABA, marketed as an anti-stress product, and Japanese businessmen can't get enough of it. Chocolate's mood-enhancing qualities are given a turboboost by the addition of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter that occurs naturally in the brain, so GABA acts as an inhibitor and has anti-anxiety properties. People who eat GABA report reduced stress levels and an enhanced feeling of relaxation.

Clearly, chocolate also contains fat and sugar, but it is worth noting that the nation with the lowest incidence of obesity and coronary heart disease in western Europe is also the one with the highest per capita chocolate consumption: Switzerland.

Alasdair McWhirter, editor of Foods that Harm, Foods that Heal, believes there is nothing wrong with promoting chocolate as a health supplement, particularly for its antioxidant properties. "I was also interested in a study into the Kuna people of South America. They have a low incidence of cancer and heart disease and drink several cups of a cocoa drink per day."

Sue Baic, a lecturer in nutrition at Bristol University, isn't so sure about this rebranding of chocolate. "Using chocolate as a dietary supplement is fine if you can stick to a prescribed amount. And there are flavanols in other foods fruit, vegetables, wine and tea are all a better source. Not only do they have lots of vitamins and nutrients that chocolate doesn't, they don't have the fat and sugar. Choxi+, for example, has 23g of saturated fat per 100g; the RDA for a woman is 20g per day.

"Do people really need more encouragement to eat chocolate? Considering that most of the population is overweight, I'm not sure it's such a good idea."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

    £16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk