Question of the Week

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 also true.

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 powder."

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 varieties.

"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 arteries."

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 says."

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 fat.

"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 cholesterol levels."

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 cholesterol.
  • 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 consume.

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 is key.

"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 consuming 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

Request Question of the Week by email 
QoW Archives: 9/2002 - 8/2003 9/2003 - 8/2004 9/2004 - 8/2005 9/2005 - 8/2006 9/2006 - present

Custom Search on the AE Site