Chocolate: Can your favourite treat actually be good for you?

Chocolate often ranks on top as many people’s treat of preference. So, how much is too much and which types are better for us?

The rich, sweet taste of chocolate is not only associated with pleasure but also a complete calorie overload if we are not careful.

Our love affair with this cocoa-based food dates back to the Mayans in Central America, who drank it as a fermented drink with spices or wine more than 4000 years ago.

Here, dietitian Susie Burrell explores whether it is possible to eat or drink chocolate and not overdo the fat and sugar, and if chocolate can ever really be healthy.

Why chocolate portion control is key

Chocolate – specifically, milk chocolate – is a mix of cocoa, cocoa butter, milk and sugar, which gives us the creamy, sweet food used to make popular chocolate blocks and bars found in supermarkets.

Milk chocolate is a high-fat and high-sugar food, with more than 50g of sugars and 30g of fat per 100g block.

A 100g serve of milk chocolate contains more than 2090kJ, or the equivalent of a meal.

As milk chocolate is so easy to overeat, thanks to its rich mouthfeel and high sugar content, the issue for many of us is that it can be challenging to keep our portions controlled.

Dark chocolate, especially varieties with upwards of 70 per cent cocoa, are often considered a much healthier option.

While dark chocolate does have a higher proportion of antioxidant compounds than milk chocolate, a closer look will reveal that nutritionally it is not that much different to regular chocolate, with even higher proportions of fat, and only slightly less sugar the higher the percentage of cocoa you choose.

Rather, the benefit that comes from choosing a dark chocolate rather than a milk variety may be due to the fact that some would say it is harder to overeat dark chocolate thanks to its more bitter flavour.

Could chocolate have health benefits?

While chocolate is frequently considered a treat or discretionary food of which intake should be limited, a recent study that investigated the physiological impact of regular chocolate consumption in post-menopausal women has called into question the need to actively restrict chocolate consumption.

Here, 19 post-menopausal women were required to enjoy 100g of milk chocolate within an hour of waking each day, or in the hour before they went to bed at night.

During the study the women had their appetite, blood glucose levels, sleep quality, gut microbiota and weight assessed.

Surprisingly, not only did consuming this much chocolate fail to result in any weight gain during the study period, but there was evidence to suggest that consuming this high-calorie food may have supported an increase in fat metabolism while also reducing blood glucose levels.

Timing is everything when eating chocolate

Researchers concluded that the time of day at which we consume high-calorie foods is important, and when foods such as chocolate – that contain nutrients such as polyphenols – are consumed there may be some extra fat-burning benefits.

For chocolate lovers, such findings are indeed promising.

But before you start eating a chocolate bar for breakfast, the study also noted that when participants ate this much chocolate, they naturally consumed fewer calories throughout the day, and/or did more physical activity, suggesting that they automatically compensated for the intake of extra calories.

This is opposed to a pattern of eating that many of us follow, which sees us snack and graze throughout the day while also overindulging in high-fat foods including chocolate at night, an eating pattern associated with weight gain over time.

So where does this leave you and your chocolate intake?

First, yes dark chocolate is slightly better, especially if it means you eat less overall.

Next, portion control is the key, and if you do indulge in larger portions regularly, you will need to do more activity and cut back on other treats.

And finally, what we know from our consumption of treat-style foods is that we eat the portions we have readily available to us.

This means if you buy a block of chocolate, you will eat a block, so if you are trying to keep your weight controlled, keep portion-controlled serves of your favourite chocolate at home to help prevent overconsumption.

Written by Susie Burrell.