Can chocolate make you happy, healthy and wise?

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1. Does chocolate have superpowers?

We Brits eat more chocolate than any other nationality apart from the Swiss, Germans and Irish. In fact, one in six of us eats it every day. It’s considered a comfort food, and we believe it makes us feel good.

But there's one thing we love even more than chocolate - and that's the news that it may actually be good for us. Some nutritionists say that eating dark chocolate every day can reduce blood pressure and benefit your heart. They also claim it can help prevent cancer and strokes and boost memory.

But is unwrapping a bar of your favourite chocolate really good for your health and happiness? We assess the latest evidence.

2. Does the type of chocolate you eat matter?

Eric Cornell, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001, told Reuters: "I attribute essentially all my success to the very large amount of chocolate that I consume. Personally I feel that milk chocolate makes you stupid… dark chocolate is the way to go. It's one thing if you want a medicine or chemistry Nobel Prize, OK, but if you want a physics Nobel Prize it pretty much has got to be dark chocolate." Unfortunately, your choice of chocolate probably isn’t going to make much difference when it comes to the Nobel Prize – but is there any basis for his reliance on the dark stuff?

The alleged health and brain benefits of eating chocolate are mainly attributed to the antioxidants found in cocoa, the bean-like seeds from which chocolate is made. However, because cocoa is bitter and chalky, milk and sugar are often added when chocolate is made, diluting the antioxidant content. It’s also important to balance any health claims against the proven negative effects of consuming large amounts of calories and sugar. The message is: if you eat chocolate, choose dark, ideally 85% cocoa or more, which has less fat and sugar than milk chocolate. However, there is a question over whether all these antioxidants survive the process of turning cocoa into chocolate.

3. Which drugs does chocolate mimic?

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Cocoa contains small amounts of some stimulants that are found in a number of legal and illegal drugs. Some people have had fun playing around with extracting pleasure from chocolate. In 2007 Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoone created a "chocolate shooter", which shot cocoa directly up the nose. He is said to have sold 25,000 at 45 euros apiece (the packaging warns against excessive sniffing). While this seems unlikely to mimic a drug experience, there are some chemicals that drugs and chocolate share. Click on the hand above to find out what they are.

4. Can chocolate boost your brain?

A recently published study of about 1,000 people found a link between eating chocolate - regardless of the type - at least once a week and improved memory and abstract thought. There are reasons for optimism, but it did not categorically identify whether eating chocolate was the cause of the improvement.

Chocolate and memory

In another recent study, a chemical in cocoa and chocolate has been found to reduce age-related memory loss in healthy adults aged 50-69. In the study, the antioxidant flavonols (a class of flavonoids) were discovered to increase blood flow to an area of the brain that promotes memory. Scientists are excited about this because it’s the first indicator that diet can reverse memory decline as well as reduce memory loss.

After consuming drinks enriched with these flavonols for three months, the performance of people in this age group on a memory test was found to be akin to people several decades younger.

How much chocolate do you need?

Unfortunately, just eating more chocolate won’t protect your memory, as most methods of processing chocolate removes most of the flavonols. A typical chocolate bar contains 40mg of these flavonols; the drink used in the trial contained 900mg. You would have to eat huge amounts of chocolate in order to benefit from it in this way. However, this does indicate that extracting these chemicals from chocolate might one day improve brain function. There is also no evidence that it helps people outside this age bracket.

5. Can chocolate boost your health?

The antioxidants found in cocoa seeds are credited with having anti-inflammatory effects, improving blood flow and lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. Some people also argue that cocoa protects against cancer and reduces stress.

However, there is a question over the validity of some of the studies connecting cocoa with lower blood pressure, and whether any such health benefits are still present once cocoa has been converted into chocolate. A 2012 review of the best evidence on the effects of cocoa on blood pressure concluded that some cocoa products, including dark chocolate, do slightly lower blood pressure, but found weaknesses in the research and concluded more evidence was needed.

Should we eat chocolate for health?

Independent expert Dr Tim Chico told BBC News after the 2012 study: "If you are a healthy weight, then eating chocolate in moderation does not detectably increase the risk of heart disease and may even have some benefit. I would not advise my patients to increase their chocolate intake on the basis of this research, particularly if they are overweight."

6. How to eat chocolate

Pair dark chocolate with nuts, fruits, herbs and drinks for a simple dessert or snack. Watch our 15-second video for ideas.