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Milk chocolate shows benefits when eaten at opportune time

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Most consumers would probably agree there’s no “wrong” time for chocolate, but a recent study indicated some times may be better than others to get the most out of one’s chocolate consumption.

One may not immediately think of chocolate when conceiving a well-balanced breakfast, but a recent study published in the FASEB Journal may put a change to that; according to the researchers, a serving of chocolate within an hour of waking may have benefits throughout the day, including reduced blood glucose levels, fat burning and a decrease in waist size (2021;35:e21649). The researchers also found morning chocolate consumption resulted in lower daily cortisol levels. The study pointed to benefits resulting from pre-bedtime chocolate consumption as well.

For the study, 19 postmenopausal women ages 48-56 were selected. These subjects “took 100 g of milk chocolate for two weeks within an hour of waking up together with breakfast (MC), 100 g of milk chocolate for two weeks within the hour before bedtime (EC), and no chocolate for two weeks (N), in a randomized order. There was a week of washout between each condition in which volunteers followed their usual dietary habits but without eating any chocolate.”

Not only did the subjects not report weight gain associated with their increased chocolate consumption, some even reported a decrease in waist circumference following the morning chocolate routine. Part of this, the researchers explained, stemmed from those consuming chocolate in the morning consuming fewer relative calories the rest of the day. Researchers saw a 16% drop in total calorie consumption after morning chocolate consumption, and a 10% reduction in the group eating chocolate at night.

“Our findings highlight that not only 'what' but also 'when' we eat can impact physiological mechanisms involved in the regulation of body weight," said Frank A. J. L. Scheer, Ph.D., and one of the study’s co-authors. “Meal timing can influence circadian rhythms, and eating a high-energy and high-sugar food such as chocolate, either at night or in the morning, may have a different effect on the circadian system, the peripheral clocks of different organs and tissues, and consequently on body weight and metabolism."

The researchers also noted the lower cortisol levels found in subjects after eating chocolate could have played a role in overall lack of weight gain and decreased caloric intake. They stated, “daily cortisol levels were lower when eating chocolate in the morning than at evening/night. Lower cortisol levels have been related to a lower stress-related appetite, which may partly explain the better caloric compensation by the females when eating chocolate in the morning.”

Nighttime consumption of chocolate also showed benefits. According to the study, “Eating chocolate during the evening/night may increase endogenous carbohydrate reserves of glycogen in muscle and liver by the next morning, and carbohydrate utilization may be promoted because of the reduced capacity that the body has to store carbohydrates as compared to fat. Therefore, chocolate intake at evening/night could be advisable for next morning performance during high intensity exercises or prolonged exercises and thus avoid hepatic and muscle glycogen depletion.

“This randomized controlled trial study suggests that chocolate, in the morning or in the evening/night, in a narrow window of time (1 h), results in differential effects on hunger and appetite, substrate oxidation, fasting glucose, microbiota composition and function, and sleep and temperature rhythms,” the study concluded. “The intake of a rather high amount of chocolate (100 g) concentrated in a narrow (1 h) timing window in the morning could help to burn body fat and to decrease glucose levels in postmenopausal women.”

Food & Beverage Insider insights

Research indicated more than 90% of people consumed chocolate during the pandemic. Even as personal health moved top of mind, consumers made allowances for their favorite sweet treats.

Formulators and brands have picked up on these at-times opposing desires by making better-for-you chocolate treats—think reduced sugar, added functional ingredients and more. However, this study shows chocolate—even milk chocolate, used in the study but often considered “less healthy” than dark varieties—has plenty of benefits of its own to tout, even without adding or subtracting key ingredients.

While making chocolate healthier with those additions and subtractions can help create new and exciting products, many consumers want the original thing. With studies like this, brands have a jumping off point to attract new consumers. Of course, much more research must be done to show these results are repeatable, especially with different cohorts of test subjects. But decreased stress and increased energy, and the lower likelihood of overeating throughout the day as a result, are benefits consumers may not even know their chocolate has to offer. Even if further research indicates these results are typical only in the researched group (postmenopausal women), brands could use further studies to target that specific audience with scientifically backed claims; Statista puts the U.S. population of women over 50 at nearly 55 million.

As the study’s authors say, when we eat can often be as important as what we eat. Educating consumers on the potential benefits their favorite indulgences may offer if eaten at the appropriate time only serves to make those products even more attractive.

Today’s consumers want to know their food is doing something for them. While that often means adding more benefits to their favorite food and beverage, sometimes simply making consumers aware of the already inherent benefits their favorite foods have to offer is half the battle. 

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