Chocolate and the Elite Athlete

How to be a chocolate snob

Elite athletes need to optimise their diet and with Easter just around the corner many of us will happily yield to chocolate temptations justified by the idea that chocolate has underlying health benefits, but is this really the case or is this another example of marketing driving consumer demand?  Can athletes include chocolate in their diet and should they be fussy about their chocolate choices, in other words a chocolate snob? 

Reputable publications suggested that among other things cocoa (an ingredient in chocolate) has benefits for cardiovascular health, lowering blood pressure and the reduction in age related muscle mass loss (1, 2, 3).  So whilst chocolate has been associated with health benefits, it is specifically the cocoa that these benefits are attributed to and not chocolate per se.

What is the difference between cocoa and chocolate?

Cocoa is derived from the cacao plant. The beans inside the cacao pods are processed into cocoa butter (which is actually an oil and accounts for the silky, melt in the mouth texture of chocolate) and cocoa solids (which is dark and bitter and contributes to chocolate’s taste).   Most of the health benefits of chocolate come from the cocoa solids, so choosing chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa solids will impart greater health benefits.

As with many foods, branding, packaging and price influence sales of chocolates, but these are not indicators of a products quality.  The nutrient value, amount of cocoa butter and cocoa solids vary considerably between products, and manufacturers often substitute (or top up these ingredients) with cheaper alternatives such as vegetable oils and/or flavour substitutes. For example, white chocolate is typically made using cocoa butter with added sweeteners (and contains no cocoa solids), whilst chocolate syrups and cheaper chocolates (or chocolate flavoured confectionary) can be made with very little (or without) these key ingredients.       

Other ingredients commonly added to chocolate products are milk (hence ‘milk chocolate’), flavourings and sugar in various quantities.  Contrary to popular belief (and taste) cocoa is very bitter and large amounts of sugar can be added to improve palatability (cheaper for the manufacturer but without the purported benefits of cocoa). The difference between dark and light coloured chocolate is typically the amount of additives which dilutes the colour of the cocoa.  As a general rule, the lighter the chocolate, the less cocoa.


Selecting your chocolate: how to be a chocolate snob

Some brands clearly label the percentage of cocoa in their product, however reading the ingredients list on the food label will provide you with additional information.  Ingredients are listed in descending order of quantity (by weight); the first listed ingredient is the main ingredient in your product and the last listed ingredient is the least.  

Choosing chocolate products with a higher percentage of cocoa, or products that list cocoa as the first listed ingredient are more likely to be better for you.  As with everything portion control is important as too much of a good thing is an unfortunate reality.  

So yes, there may be some benefits to athletes including the right chocolate in their diet.  This Easter read the label, choose chocolate with 70%+ cocoa and exercise portion control to be the ultimate chocolate snob 


References

1.Gutierrez-Salmean, et al.  2014 (attached)

2.Hooper, et al. 2012 (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/95/3/740.full)

3.Yang, et al.  (2016) (attached)