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."

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