This Tuesday 7 July 2020 is World Chocolate Day, and as Health Check is focused on providing advice on studying health and living a healthy life, we thought it would be remiss of us to let this annual day pass by without some advice on how to indulge in a sweet treat! Because whether it’s milk, dark, or white, baked into muffins or melted on top of strawberries, there is a favourite for everyone. 

To get the inside scoop on how to have a healthy relationship with chocolate, we reached out to two Griffith Experts, dietician and PhD candidate Roshan Rigby and School of Applied Psychology HDR Convenor and food psychologist Stefano Occhipinti.  

Roshan, tell us a little bit about chocolate and any health benefits it might contain 

RR: Chocolate has received a lot of criticism over the years, due to its saturated fat content and added sugar, which are both used to mask the bitter taste of cocoa. However, chocolate is also known to have antioxidant potential due to the presence of flavonoids*, so it’s not all bad news! Firstly, antioxidants (such as vitamins C and E) are great for our body in that they help protect our cells from damage. Secondly, flavonoids have been suggested to have beneficial effects to our cardiovascular system*

So, what does this mean? I’m not suggesting that you eat unlimited amounts of chocolate but I’m also not suggesting that you completely avoid it. You need to be mindful of your total energy needs and those foods we try to keep to a minimum. However, adding small amounts of chocolate to an overall healthy and well-balanced food intake might not be so bad. 

What about raw chocolate?  

RR: There is little evidence that there are clinical benefits of raw cacao or raw chocolate. However, this is due to the limited amount of research that exists around it. Based on this limited research scope, it’s not quite possible to provide an exact amount that you ‘should’ eat, so be mindful of products and marketing that claim health benefits that seem too good to be true. 

Do you have any tips for adding chocolate to your diet? 

RR: Firstly, search for chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa – the darker the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain. Secondly, be mindful of your eating and overall food intake throughout the day. And finally, if you do overindulge, don’t beat yourself up – everyone loves chocolate!  

If you find yourself continually going for the same treat that always makes you feel guilty, then have a go at these easy recipes for an alternative. This way you can enjoy the chocolate, still have a snack, and overall, not feel too guilty about your choice. It’s a win-win! 

Stefano, can you tell us a little bit about the psychological benefits of eating chocolate?  

SO: At a minimum, eating reasonable amounts of dark chocolate may have a powerful effect on positive mood. Many forms of dark chocolate, especially those with 70% cocoa and higher are also accidentally vegan. This means dark chocolate is a food that can be eaten by many different social and dietary groups. Being able to share similar foods is known to affect the strength of social bonds, so eating a yummy, sweet food while in good company makes things feel even better.  

But doesn’t eating chocolate also create negative feelings, like guilt? 

SO: Social psychologists, anthropologists and many others have studied morality for many years, and in many cultures, people associate good tasting but unhealthy foods with guilt. An intriguing study from a few years ago by Dutch psychologists showed us that when people were randomly allocated to groups who were either treated fairly or unfairly, the group who felt the moral injury tended to choose chocolate over another equally attractive reward. This presented a big question about how we “treat ourselves” when we feel like we’ve been wronged: if we have been morally harmed, we can justify the otherwise guilt-inducing dose of chocolate.  

So, from a psychological perspective, does that make chocolate good or bad?  

SO: Chocolate is almost universally perceived as a good food. It is highly craved by people who crave things. Dark chocolate is perceived by many of us as being more natural than other forms of more sweetened chocolate. The companies that create dark chocolate products tells us they are less processed and more connected to nature. These are powerful attributes that link to our beliefs about health. If we refer to cacao instead of chocolate, we can make chocolate seem even more natural! From a psychological perspective, this is belief about naturalness is really intriguing, and it’s something our lab has been examining. 

If you’re interested in finding out more about the nutritional or psychological benefits of chocolate, a degree in nutrition and dietetics or psychology might be for you. If you’re interested in furthering your career with research, find out more about Griffith’s Higher Degree by Research