Just how bad - or good - is chocolate for you really? We sorted through the data to answer that

Just how bad - or good - is chocolate for you really? We sorted through the data to answer that

Lamat R Hasan @LamatAyub

All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt, said cartoonist Charles M Schulz.

The problem, as urban eaters have discovered, is he didn't specify how much, and just how frequent is now and then.

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In the past decade, we've been treated to a revolving door of research that says yayyy, chocolate is antioxidant nirvana in a bar - and before the smile can even settle on our faces, others show up to warn us this is the enemy from hell.

It's impossible to make sense of the conflicting data. Can chocolate lower the risk of heart disease? Prevent diabetes? Arrest ageing? Help women fight mood swings? Will the sugar in it kill us before the antioxidants in it can save us? Are we fooling ourselves that it will do us good?

First, the disclaimer.

You already know this: too much will hurt you. Not just of chocolate, but of absolutely anything - including things that are good for you. So even an outcome that says chocolate receives the health all-clear is not carte blanche to dig into a 500 gm bar.

Now here's a breakdown of where research stands on the good, the bad and the - gasp - ugly of chocolate.

The Good - and there's a lot of it

1) Higher chocolate intake is definitely associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease in the future (this does not apply if you aleady have heart disease).

Dark chocolate is packed with minerals such as potassium, zinc and selenium, and a 100gm bar of dark chocolate provides 67% of your recommended daily iron intake.

In addition, dark chocolate helps restore flexibility to arteries while also preventing white blood cells from sticking to the walls of blood vessels - both common causes of artery clogging. That's right - it can actually give your arteries a boost. It also reduces bad cholesterol (LDL) and raises levels of good cholesterol, which is how it reduces risk of cardiovascular disease.

The problem with eating chocolate is not chocolate - it's sugar

Till recently only dark chocolate, with a minimum cocoa percentage of 70% or more was considered good for you - but research is now certain that white chocolate does your heart good, too.

A 12-year study on the snacking habits of people showed that regularly eating chocolate can cut the risk of heart attack and stroke, and this includes white chocolate even though it doesn't contain cocoa solids; instead, it's made of cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids.

2) Chocolate has anti-inflammatory properties, and this remains firmly established. It contains flavonoids, a type of antioxidant also found in tea and red wine, that can help stimulate blood flow by demolishing free radicals which cause disease.

3) It boosts brain function. Chocolate is one of the richest natural sources of magnesium, a mineral essential for brain health. It also contains caffeine.

Eating just a small amount - one or two squares a day - can help boost concentration and alertness. A key chemical compound in chocolate, theobromine, has a stimulant effect on the brain similar to that of caffeine.

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The words to remember here? One or two squares.

4) Contrary to what we believe, it is good for the skin. The flavonols in dark chocolate can protect the skin against sun damage and also give your hair a boost.

5) It can help lose weight. This isn't counterintuitive - it's fundamental to how chocolate works in our bodies.

Neuroscientist Will Clower says that a small square of good chocolate melted on the tongue 20 minutes before a meal triggers the hormones in the brain that say "I'm full". That helps cut the amount of food you subsequently consume.

Eating a square post your meal could help avoid subsequent snacking.

6) No ambiguity here: it demonstrably reduces stress in expectant mothers. 7) Chocolate makes you feel better, and not just because the flavours explode on your tongue like magic. It contains phenylethylamine (PEA), the same chemical that your brain creates when you feel like you're falling in love.

PEA encourages your brain to release feel-good endorphins - which is why chocolate has come to acquire its legendary reputation as an aphrodisiac.

The Bad - and there is some of that too

1) The problem with eating chocolate is not chocolate - it's sugar. A sugar-laden diet could raise the risk of dying of heart disease even if one isn't overweight - and depending on how much of it you're eating, can offset any benefit your heart might have seen from it.

There's less sugar in dark chocolate than in milk or white chocolate though.

2) Dark chocolate contains more caffeine than white, and both contain theobromine, which is closely related to caffeine.

An excess of caffeine can lead to a fast heart rate, anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping, nausea, restlessness, tremors, frequent urination, vomiting. Large amounts of caffeine may prevent the absorption of calcium and lead to thinning of bones or fibrocycsts. Typically, though, unless you're bingeing on the stuff, it's unlikely the caffeine levels of chocolate can cause you serious health issues. 3) Phenylethylamine is produced by the body when we are in love - but when we start to get the fix from a chemical replacement, the body stops producing it naturally. The only way to get your 'fix', then, is through more chocolate.

Eating chocolate can trigger the release of serotonin in your brain, which contributes to how fabulous it makes you feel. Some people argue that this can cause people to feel 'addicted' to chocolate.

4) Chocolate is relatively high in stearic acid that by itself doesn't raise cholesterol levels - but is still fat. Consuming too much fat or saturated fat increases your risk for obesity and ups your cholesterol, which are both triggers for heart disease.

The added sugar compounds the problem: it has no nutritional value, and can cause weight gain and heart disease.

5) Diabetes: refined carbohydrates cause spikes in your blood sugar, which can make your body resistant to insulin over time and may lead to Type 2 diabetes.

The Verdict - because what's the point if we still can't answer the question

Unfortunately, like most relationships, it's complicated.

Here's what we do know.

Research shows that high consumers of chocolate are typically younger and physically more active, hence at a stage of life where they're less prone to diabetes, obesity or heart disease.

So, to decide whether chocolate falls in yay or nay territory for you, you'll need to factor in your age.

A bit of top quality dark chocolate a day, which is low in sugar, can trigger some benefits

You also need to assess the rest of your lifestyle and diet: if your overall diet is healthy, and you're not bingeing on saturated fats, sugar and refined carbohydrates, chocolate won't do you any harm.

Can it actively do you good? No, because ironically you'd need to consume it in 'unhealthy' quantities to reap its health benefits.

Still, as research shows - even one or two squares of top quality dark chocolate a day, which is low in sugar, can trigger some benefits - and in that quantity it won't do you harm if you're otherwise healthy.

For the rest - and especially for rich chocolate-based desserts - the answer is still put down your spoon and step back.

Okay, it's Diwali and we're not spoilsports. These five chocolates will blow your mind:

The most expensive one

The world's most expensive chocolate is Chocopologie by Knipschildt, and costs $2,600 per pound/half kg.

The vegan-friendly one

Conscious Chocolate is your friend. Handmade vegan chocolate bars created from premium quality, organic, raw and primarily wild ingredients that allow you to indulge the cocoa habit without succumbing to the dairy one.

The what-flavour-was-that one

Chilli and wasabi chocolate may seem counterintuitive for a sweet treat but they give good chocolate a mild kick that adds to its complexity.

For bacon lovers, there's any number of bacon-dark chocolate combos out there. But there's also the more eyebrow-raising green tea chocolate and even, as of earlier this year, there's a potato Kit Kat that we're going out of our way to avoid.

The make-your-own-bar one

New York's Chomomize knows that your perfect combination of flavours may not actually exist out there, so they want to help you make some.

Pick from dark, milk or white chocolate as a base, then add up to five toppings from a selection of over 100 ingredients. Do the math and you'll see that gives you over 300 million combinations. We hope you have some time on your hands.

Lamat R Hasan

Lamat R Hasan @LamatAyub