Question of the Week

May 3, 2004


This week: some good news.

"The good news is that most of the bad effects of eating chocolate are either overstated or entirely false.... Chocolate also has not been proven to cause cavities or tooth decay. In fact, there are indications that the cocoa butter in the chocolate coats the teeth and may help protect them by preventing plaque from forming. The sugar in chocolate does contribute to cavities, but no more than the sugar in any other food."

While eating chocolate should not be substituted for good dental hygiene, there are parts of the chocolate plant that are actually good for your teeth.

"Chocolate can protect against tooth decay, researchers have found. It is so successful in combating decay that scientists believe some of its components may one day be added to mouthwash or toothpaste. A study carried out by researchers at Osaka University in Japan found that parts of the cocoa bean, the main ingredient of chocolate, thwart mouth bacteria and tooth decay. They discovered that the cocoa bean husk - the outer part of the bean which usually goes to waste in chocolate production - has an anti-bacterial effect on the mouth and can fight effectively against plaque and other damaging agents.... The Japanese scientists found that chocolate is less harmful than many other sweet foods because the antibacterial agents in cocoa beans offset its high sugar levels."

To say that something is "less harmful," does not really say that it is healthful--and this is just dental health, what about the rest of the body?

"Myth #2: Chocolate and greasy foods cause acne.
Fact: Though eating too many sugary, high-fat foods is never a good idea, studies show that there is no link between diet and acne."

Again, this is just an example of a way in which it isn't as bad for you as was once thought. Does that mean it's good for you?

"Chocolate contains the same type of disease-fighting 'phenolic' chemicals as red wine and fruits and vegetables, says Andrew Waterhouse of the University of California at Davis.... These antioxidant phenolics combat cell damage leading to chronic disease such as cancer and heart disease. New Japanese tests show that phenolics extracted from chocolate suppressed cell-damaging chemicals and boosted immune functioning in human blood samples."

Is this really saying that a candy bar should be considered health food?

Not exactly...
"[F]or chocolate lovers, we don't know yet if chocolate is 'good' for you, but there is hope that chocolate may have some health benefits. However, it is clear that chocolate is high in calories and contains few other established nutrients, so it will never be a 'health food.'"

So, what does this mean? Is chocolate good to eat, or not?

"Over the last decade or so researchers have come to see a relationship between consuming more flavonoids and lowering the death rate from heart disease, said Dr. Helmut Sies, chairman of the department of biochemistry at the University of Duesseldorf, Germany. Dr. Norman K. Hollenberg of Harvard Medical School said he found cocoa was effective in lowering the blood pressure in his study of the isolated Kuna Indians who live on islands off the coast of Panama. Despite a high salt diet, the Kuna have normal blood pressure, he explained, and they consume large quantities of locally grown cocoa which is high in flavonoids. When Kuna moved to a city and switched to commercial cocoas with fewer of the chemicals their blood pressure tended to rise, he noted. Normal processing of cocoa reduces the amount of the flavonoids, Hollenberg noted. Versions are being produced with the chemicals retained and, served at the conference, tasted slightly stronger than normal cocoa but still were enjoyable.


Hollenberg said flavonoids are protective antioxidants, and early research also indicates that cocoa with flavonoids can help increase blood flow in the brain and the extremities, which could prove beneficial to the elderly and diabetics. That research is in its early stages, he cautioned."

While chocolate may begin it's journey from the cocoa plant with beneficial properties, some of these are removed through processing, and others are canceled out by the ingredients that are added to create the product that you find on the shelf. Sugar is added (which cancels out some of the benefits to teeth) and milk is added (which seems to reduce the effects of chocolate as an antioxidant).

"Dark chocolate may be healthier than milk chocolate, according to a team of scientists. Researchers in Scotland and Italy say dark chocolate has much better antioxidant properties. This means that it can protect the heart and arteries from oxidative damage, similar to the rust that develops on metal over time. Writing in the journal Nature, they said adding milk to chocolate may cancel out these health benefits.... Dark chocolate was found to boost blood antioxidant levels by nearly 20%. However, there was no such effect when volunteers ate milk chocolate or drank milk with dark chocolate. 'What this tells us, is that probably the proteins in milk bind with the antioxidants in chocolate,' Professor Alan Crozier of Glasgow University told BBC News Online. 'As a consequence, they are not being absorbed to the same extent as they would be with dark chocolate. Any potential protective effects are lost.' ... While lovers of dark chocolates may seize on the study findings, Professor Crozier warned against over indulging. 'Milk and dark chocolate contains high levels of saturated fats, which get into the blood stream and increase levels of
cholesterol, increasing the risks of heart disease.' ... 'It is a useful supplement to a balanced diet but it should not be a substitute for five pieces of fruit and vegetables each day.'"

So, what does this all mean?

Chocolate may not be the perfect food, but it can have value.

*Before we get to the questions, a side note for those of you who are wondering about white chocolate:

"White chocolate originates from the cocoa (cacao) plant, but it is not 'chocolate.'  According to the FDA, to be called 'chocolate' a product must contain chocolate liquor, which is what gives it the biter intense chocolate flavor (and color) to dark and milk chocolates. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, milk solids, sugar, lecithin and flavorings (usually including vanilla). Cocoa butter is the fat from cocoa beans, extracted from the cocoa beans during the process of making chocolate and cocoa powder. Cocoa butter has very little 'chocolate' flavor. Cocoa butter is one of the ingredients used to make real chocolate, it gives chocolate the ability to remain solid at room temperature, yet melt easily in the mouth. Cocoa butter is one of the most stable fats known, containing natural antioxidants that prevent rancidity and give it a storage life of 2 to 5 years.  It is used for its smooth texture in foods (including chocolate) and in cosmetics and soaps."

Questions of the Week:
Aside from just sticking with, "Everything in moderation," how can chocolate be incorporated into a healthful diet? What does this mean with regards to candy bars? Chocolate chips? Hot cocoa? If you want a chocolate fix, but still want (or need) to watch your cholesterol, what can you do? What are the differences between the different types of chocolate? If you are truly looking to eat the chocolate that is "best" for you, what should you look for? Now that the manufacturers of chocolate products have this information, how could (should) they use it? How would you use it if you were in their position? As a consumer, how can (should? will?) you use this information about the different attributes of chocolate?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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