Chocolate is one of the most popular foods in the world – in the UK alone, we eat an average of 11kg each per year. But as well as being a sweet treat, chocolate is claimed to have lots of health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, relieving stress and fighting heart disease.

Chocolate is made from cocoa beans – the seeds of the cocoa tree. It was the Mayans of Central America who first discovered the beans could be eaten; making drinks from cocoa powder mixed with water, flavoured with vanilla or chilli. The Spanish brought chocolate back to Europe in the 1500s, and by the middle of the 17th century, hot chocolate was being drunk in fashionable ‘chocolate houses’ across the continent. But it wasn’t until the 1800s when cocoa was used to make the chocolate bars we know and love today.

Recently, chocolate – especially dark chocolate – has been claimed to be a ‘superfood’ with all sorts of energy-giving and disease-fighting powers. Here, we take a look at why.

Heavenly delight

Cocoa’s Latin name, Theobroma cacao, means ‘food of the gods’ – reflecting the high regard it was held in because of its delicious taste and special health benefits. For example, the Aztecs thought drinking chocolate gave them spiritual power, while the Spanish soldiers found it helped them march for a whole day without food.

Today, scientific studies have found that cocoa is packed with antioxidants that can help fight health issues such as heart disease and cancer. In fact, a cup of hot chocolate made with pure cocoa has twice the antioxidants of a cup of green tea. Cocoa also contains dopamine, which is a natural painkiller. Even the smell of chocolate can help you relax, as it stops the brain producing stress hormones.

Is chocolate really good for you?

We can be fairly sure that cocoa can boost our health and mood. Which is why chocolate that contains a high percentage of cocoa – such as dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 80% or more – is considered a healthier choice than milk chocolate. Why not enjoy a couple of squares a few times a week – just as you might a glass of red wine.

A little bit of what you fancy

Most of the chocolate bars you’ll see in your local corner shop or supermarket are milk chocolate, which has more milk and sugar – and less cocoa – than dark chocolate. Chocolate desserts, such as cakes, usually include cocoa powder in their recipes, mixed with other ingredients.

While the cocoa content in these sweet treats is too low to have many of the health benefits of dark chocolate, the good news is they can still be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. And even if milk chocolate can’t match pure cocoa for antioxidants, it can help us feel better in other ways.

A taste of happiness

Sinking your teeth into a delicious chocolate bar or gooey brownie can lift your spirits – particularly if you’re feeling down. This could partly be because chocolate contains small amounts of tryptophan, an amino acid used by the brain to make serotonin, which makes you happy. And it could also simply be because eating chocolate is something we know we shouldn’t do too often – making it seem a little bit special.

If you feel like indulging after dinner, we have a great selection of chocolate delights in our range of home delivered desserts. Our new hot Chocolate Fudge Brownie with Caramel Sauce is sure to be a hit this season. Or you could savour a warming Chocolate Pudding with lashings of custard – just right for this time of year. There’s also deliciously smooth and chewy Chocolate Fudge Ice Cream and chilled Chocolate Mousse to try. You’re sure to enjoy every spoonful.