Easter might naturally result in the indulgence of a chocolate egg or two, but don't assume that the sweet treats are entirely bad for your gut health.
Dr Naila Arebi, consultant gastroenterologist at St Mark's Hospital, explained to NetDoctor that chocolate can have some surprising health benefits...
The power of the humble cocoa bean
Arebi says that, far from being totally unhealthy, chocolate can provide some benefits to our bodies thanks to the cocoa beans used to make it.
"Fermentation in the bean and subsequent extraction generates cocoa butter and releases a variety of vitamins and minerals such as potassium and anti-oxidants," she explains.
"Cocoa beans also contain dopamine, phenylethylamine and serotonin, chemicals with powerful antidepressant properties that also promote wellbeing. In addition, theobromine is another component of the cocoa bean and has caffeine like properties."
And, she says that many more healthy chemicals are released when chocolate is fermented in our intestines by our gut bacteria, citing research that showed the anti-oxidants released are similar to those found in green tea.
Which chocolate is best?
But as with many foods, certain types are better for us than others. The health benefits of milk chocolate are (sadly) few and far between. It's because, Dr Arebi says, milk chocolate is very processed and therefore won't be received so favourably by our gut bacteria. That means your Cadbury's Creme Egg might not be the best choice...
"Pure chocolate or dark chocolate is good and is the type that has the benefits listed above. It's when chocolate is processed that it becomes bad for us. Processing involves the addition of sugars and different forms of dairy products including cream and condensed milk."
And of course, sugar and dairy can have an impact on the gut – particularly if you suffer from digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Dr Arebi says both can contribute to bloating and excess wind for those with sensitive stomachs.
"Both sugar and dairy can have an impact on the gut. Sugars cause excess fermentation in the gut and contribute to bloating and excess wind. Dairy products can also contribute to these symptoms as lactose breaks down to the sugars glucose and galactose which can then lead to fermentation. People who are lactose intolerant should be able to tolerate most dark chocolates but should always read the ingredients in case there are flavours containing lactose."
So there's your answer. If you're trying to be healthy then purer, darker chocolate is your best bet (that'll be chocolate with the highest cocoa content). But otherwise, we say, everything in moderation.
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