With a new year, comes a renewed drive to trim the waist line and shed the extra pounds gained during the excesses of the festive break. After scoffing the last of the chocolate Celebrations and the kid’s selection box, along with those Valentine’s Day sweet treats, we embrace wholeheartedly our new healthy eating plan. We might even consider setting foot in the gym – after all we are paying a hefty monthly membership fee and our lack of effort in attending any sessions over the darker months certainly isn’t resulting in value for money.

“Step away from the sweet treats and tatties smothered in butter”, we warn ourselves. Overnight, our packed lunches look like something a ballet dancer might survive on, but carrot and red pepper sticks with cottage cheese just doesn’t cut it, when all we really want during a miserable January is to get stuck into macaroni laden with cheese, followed by a nice bar of Galaxy and a cuppa.

But do we really have to refrain from indulging in some of our favourite things?

Well, according to researchers at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh (QMU) we no longer need to think of chocolate as an unhealthy indulgence. Chocolate is good for you. You just need to buy the right type. With a range of impressive Scottish companies like IQ Chocolate and The Chocolate Tree producing a variety of high quality chocolate bars, we can indeed enjoy a little bit of what we fancy without the guilt.

QMU’s nutrition experts have found that high levels of polyphenols in certain premium chocolate, if eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet, can offer significant health benefits.

Research conducted by QMU’s Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation has shown the ethical bean to bar range produced by the East Lothian chocolatier The Chocolate Tree, has naturally occurring polyphenols which can offer health benefits.

Previous research carried out by QMU indicates that consumption of small amounts of chocolate containing high polyphenol levels can lower the risk factors for heart disease.  Dr Mary Warnock, Senior Lecturer in Dietetics, Nutrition, and Biological Sciences at QMU, explains: “Polyphenols actively work in the body to prevent certain disease mechanisms occurring. Polyphenols are antioxidants from plant foods and it is generally believed that they may reduce the risk factors of cardiovascular disease and can help protect the body from chronic disease.”

Dr Warnock also suggests that the great care taken by The Chocolate Tree to apply minimal processing methods in the creation of its high end chocolate ensures the preservation of naturally occurring polyphenols with antioxidant activity.

Keeping processing to a minimum also affects the final taste. Anyone who has ever eaten Chocolate Tree products will know that the primary taste is of cocoa, rather than the sugary hit often associated with consuming mainstream chocolate sweets.

In the last few years, IQ Chocolate, based in Stirling, has achieved phenomenal success. Rather than trying to penetrate the existing chocolate industry which is saturated with cheap sugary confectionary or high end chocolate gifts, IQ has developed in new niche in the health and beauty industry. It wanted to create chocolate bars which would appeal to the health conscious as well as serious athletes. To help them establish the facts, the entrepreneurs enlisted the specialist services of academics from QMU. The scientific team from the University’s Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation tested the chocolate on Scotland’s rugby sevens quad. The results of a cognitive function study confirmed that the rugby squad displayed a trend towards faster reaction times after eating the iQ brand! The research also showed that iQ Chocolate has a greater antioxidant level compared to other leading chocolate brands assessed during the study.

Dr Grace Farhat, a nutrition researcher from QMU, also identified that dark chocolate could be useful in weight loss. Having run a demonstration test with two groups, she discovered that people who consumed dark chocolate with a high cocoa content felt more satisfied than the group who ate the milk chocolate. Those who ate the dark chocolate consumed smaller quantities of chocolate and were less likely to go on to eat as much of the other foods offered on the demo (in this case pizza) than the group that ate the milk chocolate. Dr Farhat is keen to see more research in this specific area but, at the moment, the results do highlight the need for potential studies highlighting the implication of cocoa and dark chocolate in weight management.

In conclusion, the good news is that the right type of dark chocolate can indeed pack a healthy punch and we no longer need to be racked with guilt when indulging in one of life’s greatest pleasures.

So, ditch the high fat sugary cheap stuff. Spend a little bit more on a high cocoa content dark chocolate and give your loved one the gift of health.

Originally posted in Interface on February 18, 2016.

Lynne Russell

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