February 2008

Biting into Chocolate Health

It’s a giddy time for chocolate lovers. Valentine’s Day chocolates are on sale. And they may even be healthy.

Chocs In Box

Headline-grabbing studies have linked chocolate to improving blood function, preventing cancer, and fighting off heart disease. It has transformed a once-guilty indulgence into a guilt-free power food. Our renewed chocolate gusto has helped spawn chocolate cereals, tortilla chips, and even toothpaste (yes, it fights cavities).

But do chocolate’s health benefits live up to the hype?

To the Dark Side

Most of the health benefits touted in the news relate to dark chocolate. Dark chocolate can provide a rich supply of flavonoids, a group of phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. A convincing body of research links flavonoids with health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease and some cancers. Flavonoids are also packed inside many fruits and vegetables, along with red wine and tea.

The Chocolate Insides

Cocao Beans

All those chocolate treats begin with the cacao bean. First, the cacao been is roasted and ground into a thick chocolate liquor (non-alcoholic). This liquor, hardened, is unsweetened chocolate. When pressure is added to the liquor, it pushes out the bean’s fat, called cocoa butter. Cocoa powder is made by drying and sifting the remainder material from the liquor.

Mix up some chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, sugar, and milk, and the commercial chocolate treat is born. In general, the higher the percentage of cacao, the “darker” the chocolate. And as cacao content goes up, there’s less room for sugar. (White chocolate contains cocoa butter but not any cocoa bean solids -- and so is not a source of flavonoids.)

Chocolate Comparison

What It Contains
Dark Chocolate*
Milk Chocolate*
Cocoa Solids
50-85% cocoa solids
(can be bittersweet or semi-sweet)
Wide range: up to 50% cocoa solids
Calories, (1 serving)
Calories from fat
Fat (grams)
Sugars (grams)
Also Inside…
relatively more flavonoids
than its milk chocolate counterpart

*1 bar (about 1 ounce) of the same brand

A few examples of the healthful chocolate findings include:

  • An article in JAMA linked small amounts of dark chocolate with lower blood pressure. The researchers followed two groups of people with high blood pressure. One group ate dark chocolate every day while the other group ate white chocolate, which contains no flavonoids. After 18 weeks, the blood pressure of the dark-chocolate munching group was lower while the other group’s did not change.
  • Last November, a study showed that dark chocolate may help treat atherosclerosis. Eleven heart transplant patients enjoyed dark chocolate while 11 ate cocoa-free control chocolate, void of flavonoids. After two hours the patients who ate dark chocolate showed improved blood flow, compared with the other patients.
  • In a lab study examining cocoa compounds, French researchers treated the cells with cocoa extracts on prostate cancer and normal cells. The researchers found that at the highest concentrations, cocoa extracts reduced the growth of prostate cancer cells but not normal cells.

The Fine Print

Here come the caveats. Many of the studies are small. A number of them are funded by the chocolate industry. And scientists typically use only pure, flavonoid-rich dark chocolate – not the confections most commonly available. The darker the chocolate, the higher the percent cocoa and the more flavonoids it contains. The heart transplant patients, for example, savored 70% cocoa.

But the percentage on the package might even be misleading, according to an editorial in The Lancet, a British medical journal. The December editorial stated that many chocolate makers may remove the flavonoids in the manufacturing process due to their bitter taste. That leaves “the devil in the dark chocolate” – the fat, sugar and calories.

Even so, that doesn’t mean we need shun chocolate. If you like chocolate, enjoy those V-day bon-bons. A serving of dark chocolate does contain some nutritional plusses over many of its caloric counterparts. Aim for plain chocolate that contains at least 65% cocoa, as opposed to the kind of chocolate commonly used in cakes and cookies, which contain more calories, sugar and unhealthy fats. Just make sure to look at the calories and serving size. If you incorporate a serving of dark chocolate into a diet filled with fruits and vegetables, you’ll be savoring a wide variety of delicious treats – and plenty of health promoting phytochemicals.


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