If you're a big fan of chocolate (believe it or not, some people aren't), the first reports that your beloved candy might actually be good for you were probably music to your ears. You probably didn't suddenly start thinking that chocolate binges were beneficial, though.
Knowing that news outlets have a tendency to oversimplify and exaggerate scientific studies at times, you were probably just a little bit skeptical. After all, these are the same people who claimed that the egg was practically guaranteed to raise your cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease -- only to say later that moderate consumption in healthy adults was fine. So what's the truth? Is chocolate really good for you?
The short answer is: maybe. Researchers have conducted numerous studies about the possible benefits of eating chocolate, but we don't seem much closer to actually suggesting that chocolate become classified as a health food.
The research focuses on a group of chemical compounds known as flavonoids. These compounds are found in numerous plants and plant-based foods (like tea and wine) that many of us eat every day and are already known to have antioxidant properties. Cocoa contains numerous flavonoids, but most of the focus is specifically on catechins, epicatechins and flavanols. These chemicals are getting the credit for everything from lowering the risk of developing diseases such as diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and cancer to improving brain function and slowing the effects of aging.
If your favorite kind of chocolate is milk chocolate or some kind of yummy, filled chocolate candy, you're probably out of luck.
Find out why only certain types of chocolate, in very small amounts, could have the ability to improve your health -- and why some of those well-publicized studies may be just a bit suspect.
The Darkest Hour
Here's some bad news for you if you're a chocoholic who isn't a fan of dark chocolate. The highest concentrations of flavonoids are found in chocolate with the highest amounts of cacao -- the solid part of the cocoa bean that gives chocolate its characteristic color and flavor. This means either very dark chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder.
When you buy high-quality dark chocolate, its cacao content is listed on the wrapper as a percentage, which typically ranges between 35 and 100 percent. A 100-percent-cacao chocolate bar is simply processed cocoa beans, no added fat or sugar. Fans of dark chocolate rave over its deep, complex flavor. But if milk chocolate, white chocolate or some kind of filled or flavored chocolate is your love, there just aren't enough flavonoids in them to reap the potential health benefits. White chocolate doesn't contain any cocoa solids at all, in fact. Milk and white chocolate are higher in calories and sugar, too. A 1.5-ounce (43-gram) serving of milk chocolate may contain 230 calories and 25 grams of sugar, while the same sized-serving of 60 percent cacao dark chocolate has 180 calories and 15 grams of sugar. Finally, some studies have shown that dairy interferes with the body's absorption of flavanols.
If you want the greatest benefit, it may not be enough to just eat very dark chocolate. The amount of flavanols can vary widely depending on the cocoa bean, and the high temperatures that some chocolate manufacturers use during processing may also remove some or all of the flavanols. It's not common practice to list the amount of flavanols on the wrapper, but chocolate companies are increasingly choosing to process chocolate differently so as to preserve the flavanols. Some also sell bars made from raw cacao.
We just have a few more caveats before we delve into chocolate's -- dark chocolate's, that is -- potential health benefits. Many of the flavanol studies that you've seen cited in the media were funded by Mars, Incorporated -- the company behind Mars bars, M&Ms, Milky Way and Dove chocolates. Obviously, the company has an interest in being able to promote chocolate as healthy. In addition, Mars supplied scientists with a special blend of flavanol-rich cocoa -- something not found on the consumer market.
Still with us? Learn about the focus of chocolate health studies next.
Heart of Darkness
Now you can see why the answer to our question is a bit more complex than it seems. Even with all of the disclaimers, though, research into the health benefits of chocolate is promising. Most studies focus on its potential to fight off diseases that many doctors refer to as "the big four": diabetes, cancer, strokes and heart disease. In 2007, a Harvard researcher named Norman Hollenberg and his colleagues published a study in the International Journal of Medical Studies about a group of indigenous people who live in Panama called the Kuna.
Hollenberg had been studying the Kuna for over a decade, initially because it appeared that they never developed high blood pressure. He also found that they developed the "big four" diseases at a rate of less than 10 percent. If the Kuna moved to the mainland, however, their blood pressure and disease rates were more consistent with the general population of Panamanians.
In their native homes, the Kuna drink as many as 40 cups of cocoa per week. Hollenberg theorized that a type of flavanol called epicatechin, which is typically processed out of commercial cocoas because it makes them bitter, may be the reason. Epicatechin may improve circulation and relax constricted blood vessels by raising levels of nitric oxide in the blood.
The Kuna study is just one of numerous studies that have been conducted over the past decade about the disease-fighting properties of dark chocolate, especially its effects on conditions that lead to heart disease. The majority of them (including the Kuna study) have had a connection to Mars, Inc., but not all.
Drs. Mary and Marguerite Engler have been researching connections between cardiovascular health and nutrition for many years, and they published an independent study on the benefits of dark chocolate. It showed that people who ate a 1.6-ounce bar of high-flavanol chocolate a day for two weeks had greatly improved arterial function and flexibility.
An April 2001 review of recent studies indicates that high dark chocolate consumption can decrease your risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke by as much as 30 percent. However, there's still a long way to go. The methods for actually measuring flavanols are imprecise. Mars claims to have perfected a process for preserving them in consistent amounts, known as CocoaPro, and it's not sharing. The company sold a special type of high-flavanol chocolate called CocoaVia but discontinued it in the United States in 2009 (it does still sell a cocoa powder by the same name). So for now, keep in mind that dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao may be good for you, but moderation is still the name of the game.
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