February 5, 2008
While Valentine's Day can represent different things to
different people, one thing that we almost always see lots
of this time of year is chocolate.
While some studies have recently labeled chocolate as a
health food, others warn of high levels of fat and
calories. Chocolate companies (and anyone who wants to
justify their chocolate habit), tend to like the studies
that stress the former, but the truth is that the later is
To put it all in perspective, let's start at the beginning:
"Chocolate is made using beans harvested from the cocoa
tree, Theobroma cacao. The beans are removed from their
pod, fermented, dried, roasted and then ground to produce a
cocoa mass or cocoa liquor. This is then pressed to yield
cocoa butter and cocoa cake which is ground up into cocoa
That chocolate, in it's purest form, is what's good for
you. That's the "dark chocolate" that s used in studies to
document the health benefits that can come from chocolate.
Unfortunately, not all forms of chocolate have these
benefits, as was documented in an experiment that compared
the purer forms of dark chocolate with the more processed
"One group got a [1.6 oz.] Dove Dark Chocolate bar every
day for two weeks. Like other dark chocolate bars with
high-cocoa content, this one is loaded with something
called epicatechin. Epicatechin is a particularly active
member of a group of compounds called plant flavoniods.
Flavoniods keep cholesterol from gathering in blood
vessels, reduce the risk of blood clots, and slow down the
immune responses that lead to clogged arteries. The second
group that didn't get Dove bars wasn't totally left out.
They, too, got dark chocolate bars. But their treats had
the flavoniods taken out. All subjects underwent high-tech
evaluation of how well the blood vessels dilate and relax
-- an indictor of healthy blood vessel function. Blood
vessel stiffness indicates diseased vessels and possible
atherosclerosis. Those who got the full-flavonoid chocolate
did significantly better. Why? Blood tests showed that high
levels of epicatechin were coursing through their
Scientifically speaking, what kind of chocolate it is, and
how much processing that chocolate has been through, really
makes a difference. How does it work?
" 'It is likely that the elevated blood levels of
epicatechin triggered the release of active substances that
... increase blood flow in the artery. Better blood flow is
good for your heart.' ... Not all chocolate is created
equal. Dark chocolate contains a lot more cocoa than other
forms of chocolate. And standard chocolate manufacturing
destroys up to half of the flavoniods. But chocolate
companies have now learned to make dark chocolate that
keeps up to 95% of its flavoniods. ... 'Many people don't
realize that chocolate is plant-derived, as are the fruits
and vegetables recommended for a healthy heart,' Engler
Yes, chocolate is plant derived and has some of the same
health benefits as those fruits and vegetables we are told
to eat so much. Chocolate, however, does have its
drawbacks: unlike broccoli, chocolate is high in saturated
"Chocolate contains cocoa butter, which is high in
saturated fat, yet one-third of chocolate's fat comes from
stearic acid. Although it's a saturated fat, stearic acid
does not raise LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) as do
most other saturated fats. Stearic acid is converted in the
liver to oleic acid, a heart-healthy, monounsaturated fat.
Another one-third of chocolate's total fat comes from oleic
acid itself. In a recent study, volunteers followed a diet
with the majority of their fat calories coming from either
chocolate or from butter. The volunteers who consumed
chocolate fat did not show an increase in their cholesterol
levels, but those who ate butterfat developed elevated LDL
So, chocolate is high in saturated fat, and too much
saturated fat is bad, but the saturated fat in chocolate
isn't as bad as most other saturated fats.
Additionally, minimally processed chocolate is better, and
we need to watch the fat and calories we are getting by
eating it (because any added calories can cause weight gain
if a person is not eating less in other areas).
Beyond just choosing dark chocolate because it has less
processing, it is also important to limit what is added to
the chocolate. Even milk (as in "milk chocolate") can
negate the positive affects found in dark chocolate.
"Dark chocolate--but not milk chocolate or dark chocolate
eaten with milk--is a potent antioxidant, report Mauro
Serafini, PhD, of Italy's National Institute for Food and
Nutrition Research in Rome, and colleagues. ... 'Our
findings indicate that milk may interfere with the
absorption of antioxidants from chocolate ... and may
therefore negate the potential health benefits that can be
derived from eating moderate amounts of dark chocolate.' "
Aside from looking for "dark" vs. "milk" chocolate (and
checking the ingredients because some dark chocolates will
still have milk added), what else other qualities make for
a healthier chocolate.
"What qualities should you look for in dark chocolate?
- 70% cocoa or more
- Made from cocoa butter instead of fats such as palm and
coconut oils. Although cocoa butter does contain
significant amounts of saturated fat, it has been shown to
have a neutral (or even a beneficial) effect on cholesterol
unlike the saturated fat in both palm and coconut oils.
- Made without the use of 'hydrogenated' or 'partially
hydrogenated' oils which are known to negatively impact
- Darker is better: plant chemicals like flavonoids
contribute to pigment. So, more flavonoids means darker
chocolate and potentially greater health benefits."
So, chocolate (as close to it's pure form as possible) does
provide health benefits when those extra chocolate calories
you consume replace other calories you would normally
As much as this might sound like a justification for a side
of dark chocolate instead of peas or carrots, it is
important to remember that peas and carrots are not as
calorie dense as chocolate, so it takes less chocolate to
equal the same calorie count.
Additionally, it doesn't take that much chocolate to make a
difference. Once again, as with so many things, moderation
"Researchers at Harvard University have carried out
experiments that suggest that if you eat chocolate three
times a month you will live almost a year longer than those
who forego such sweet temptation. But it's not all good
news - the Harvard research also suggested that people who
eat too much chocolate have a lower life expectancy.
Chocolate's high fat content means that excess indulgence
can contribute to obesity, leading to an increased risk of
heart disease. It looks like the old adage of 'everything
in moderation' holds. But if you can't resist chocolate, at
least stick to dark. It's higher in cocoa than milk
chocolate and helps to increase levels of HDL, a type of
cholesterol that helps prevent fat clogging up arteries."
Questions of the Week:
In what ways can some types of chocolate be considered
"health food"? How can viewing chocolate as a "health food"
without knowing about what it is that makes it beneficial
(or negates its benefits) be an unhealthy trap? If you had
to explain to someone how to incorporate chocolate into
their diet in a way that would have the potential to
benefit their health, what would you say? What main
components are added to (or taken away from) chocolate that
can negate its health benefits? How can you tell if the
chocolate you want to consume has the potential to help
improve your health? Why do you think the concept of
chocolate as a healthy part of a balanced diet is so
confusing for many people? Why is moderation important when
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