Plant rich diets may be beneficial because of the phytochemical nutrients they contain. Flavonoids are a group of phytochemicals that includes the flavonols, flavan-3-ols (also called catechins), flavones, flavanones, anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins. Flavonoids have been shown to possess health benefits and this may relate to their gene regulatory and antioxidant functions in animal tissues. The health benefits of the catechins are perhaps the most well established, and this relates to their presence in tea, the health effects of which have been well studied. Polymerisation of the catechins creates the proanthocyanidins, the largest molecular weight flavonoid group. Proanthocyanidins are present in a number of foods and may confer similar health effects as their monomer subunits. Chocolate is a particularly rich source of proanthocyanidins, as the compounds are found in high concentrations in cocoa powder. Consuming chocolate regularly may therefore have particular health benefits.
Studies have investigated possible health effects of chocolate and found positive associations between those who consume chocolate and health. For example, in one study1, researchers investigated the association between chocolate consumption and type 2 diabetes using data taken from the Physicians’ Health Study, a large scale survey of the health and dietary habits of a large cohort of medical doctors from the United States of America. Prospective analysis of data from this survey showed that as the chocolate consumption of the subjects increased from zero, to 1-3 servings per month to 1 serving per week to more than 2 servings per week, the risk of type 2 diabetes decreased significantly. The inverse association between chocolate consumption and type 2 diabetes was stronger in those subjects without a prior history of cardiovascular disease or heart failure. Therefore in otherwise healthy individuals, increased chocolate consumption may be protective of type 2 diabetes.
Dr Robert Barrington’s Nutritional Comments: Evidence suggests that chocolate is a healthy food. However it is worth mentioning that not all chocolate is the same. Nutritionally the composition of chocolate can vary considerably and should be considered a heterogeneous group of confectionery that is difficult to define. To date the evidence suggests that all chocolate may be protective, including white, dark and milk chocolate varieties. However, of these the dark chocolate may possess the greatest health benefits because it contains the highest concentrations of proanthocyanidins and the lowest concentration of sugar. While the phytochemical content of chocolate may be protective of health, sugar has been shown to have detrimental health effects. Weighing the benefits of the flavonoids with the detrimental effects of the sugar is therefore worthy of consideration. Based on this, consumption of cocoa powder may be a superior health strategy compared to chocolate, as the sugar content can be controlled by the individual.