Secret no.20 Chocolate

Blogger Penny Walford recently wrote a touching piece about her great aunt Marie, who had died aged 106. Marie sounds a remarkable woman, who travelled the world in her youth by hitching rides on cargo ships. Penny first met her later in life, when she would follow her favourite ice hockey team, the Ottowa Senators on TV and, when her eyesight failed, on the radio.

Penny describes how Marie was a strong and active woman who swam every day when she was younger and walked every day as she got older. Even at 106 she was still taking a turn around her nursing home. So surely this explains her long life?

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Well not according to Marie. She and Penny had a shared love – chocolate. And it is to this that Marie gave credit for her long life. Penny describes how Marie ate it every day, with half-hidden stashes of it near her bed and usually a couple of bar wrappers in or around the wastepaper bin. (In the interests of accuracy, I should also say that Penny thinks Marie’s love of chatting and storytelling also helped her live longer and we’ll return to this theme in a later post).

So is this possible? Could Cadbury and Hershey be manufacturing the key to a longer life?

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10. While at first the idea of chocolate as a superfood seems outlandish, it turns out Marie is not the only centenarian to give it credence. Bernard LaPallo is 110 and he too says, chocolate (along with four other ‘superfoods’) is the reason while 105-year-old Edna Sandys also thought it had played a part. And perhaps we were wrong to focus on the two raw eggs that Emma Morano eats (No. 12 of our 101 ways) and should instead have followed the evidence of the chocolate that goes missing in the night.

So what about the science part? Well, there is some reported evidence to support chocolate’s credentials. It is high in polyphenols, which may protect against heart disease (along with lots of other, healthier-sounding, foods like blueberries, cereal bran and green tea). It may also help lower blood pressure and some studies suggest a reduction in heart attack, stroke and diabetes. Certainly the internet is full of articles with titles like ‘the 9 health benefits of chocolate’ and ‘7 reasons why chocolate is healthy’.

However, on closer examination the benefits of chocolate do tend to dissolve, a little like cocoa powder in hot milk. Many of the studies are small and still need confirmation. And they tend to focus on either cocoa or strong dark chocolate, not the mass-produced stuff that most of us eat and which is made up mainly of milk fat and sugar. Alison Hornby of the British Dietetic Association brings us down to earth: “Chocolate is an energy-dense food that could contribute to weight gain and a higher risk of disease. As an occasional treat, chocolate can be part of a healthy diet. Eaten too frequently, it is an unhealthy choice.”

I fear this is good, sensible advice  – even if Marie, Bernard, Edna and Emma were all able to ignore it and still make their way to 100. Kit Kat, anyone?

photo credit: Geknöppel via photopin (license)

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