As Valentine's Day approaches, many of us will be venturing into speciality chocolate shops in search of an edible token of affection for that special someone in our lives. Part of chocolate's allure, I think, is its reputation as an indulgent treat. It is, we are led to believe, something to be enjoyed only in the strictest moderation on account of its insalubrious characteristics. However, recent evidence suggests that chocolate's naughty-but-nice reputation might be an undeserved one: nutritional science has revealed that some cocoa confectionery is chock-full of substances that actually promote health in the body. It seems a little bit of what we fancy not only may do us no harm, but actually might do us some good, too.
The essential ingredient in all chocolate is the cocoa bean, which is comprised of two basic components: a protein-rich part (cocoa) that gives chocolate its colour and taste; and a fatty part known as cocoa butter. Laboratory analysis reveals that the cocoa in chocolate is loaded in minerals such as potassium, magnesium and copper. These nutrients play a multitude of roles in the body, but seem to be particularly important in maintaining a healthy circulation and protecting against conditions like heart disease and stroke.
Apart from some key minerals, cocoa is also rich in a class of plant substances called polyphenols. Also found in foodstuffs such as red wine, tea, apples and onions, polyphenols are known to have the capacity to combat ageing and disease - promoting substances called free radicals. The ability of a food to neutralise free radicals can be measured and expressed as its oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC). Generally speaking, the higher a food's ORAC, the better. Amazingly, weight for weight, cocoa-rich chocolate has an ORAC 10 times that of spinach, and about 15 times that of either broccoli or orange.
Many dieticians cite chocolate's high fat content as a good reason to moderate its intake. Actually, the two most prominent types of fat in cocoa butter, oleic acid (the predominant fat in olive oil) and stearic acid, have both been noted to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. Chocolate's third most plentiful fat, palmitic acid, appears to have no effect on cholesterol either way. It appears that, if anything, the overall effect of cocoa butter on the heart and circulation is a beneficial one.
The varying amounts of cocoa, cocoa butter, milk and sugar used to make chocolate has a bearing on the nutritional properties of the final product. From a health perspective, the best type of chocolate to go for is plain. One benefit of plain chocolate is that it is lower in sugar than milk and white chocolate varieties. Plus, the darker the chocolate, the more cocoa there is, and the more it provides in the way of heart-healthy minerals and polyphenols. Brands that boast 60 or 70 per cent cocoa solid content are a good bet. Buy your lover some for Valentine's Day, and eat it to your heart's content.
Despite breakthroughs in detection and treatment of many cancers, prostate cancer is one of the strains of the disease that appears to be growing in the West. Increasing evidence suggests that prostate cancer risk can be related to diet. Recent studies have suggested that lycopene, an antioxidant nutrient found mainly in tomatoes, has the ability to help keep prostate cancer at bay. Chinese researchers are suggesting that vegetables of the allium class - garlic, spring onions, leeks and chives - might also have a protective role. In a study published recently in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute , men who ate the most allium vegetables were found to have half the risk of developing prostate cancer compared to those men consuming the least of this type of vegetables. Of all the allium vegetables, it was garlic and spring onions that seemed to confer the most benefit. Including plenty of these foodstuffs can add flavour to the diet, and just might help to preserve the health of the prostate, too.
In a previous column you recommended the herb Gotu kola for skin regeneration. My skin is very dry, particularly on my face and hands. Would Gotu kola help to moisten it?
Laura Ruelas, by email
Skin dryness is often a symptom of nutritional deficiency, in particular certain fats that have a beneficial effect in the body known as the essential fatty acids (EFAs). While Gotu kola may possibly improve the condition of your skin, you'll almost certainly do better to correct the likely underlying deficiency. Upping your intake of EFAs can literally 'oil' the skin from the inside, and is likely to restore moisture and softness to the skin. Foods rich in EFAs to emphasise in your diet include extra virgin olive oil, raw (unroasted) nuts and seeds, avocado and oily fish such as salmon, trout, herring and mackerel.
In addition, it might help you to take an EFA supplement. One oil that contains a blend of fats that feed the skin is hemp seed oil, which you should find in your local health food store. Take 1 tablespoon per day. With this, I recommend 200-400 IU of vitamin E each day. Vitamin E can protect the fats in hemp seed oil and other essential fats from changes (oxidation) in the body that can reduce their beneficial effects.