Chocolate: healthy or just hedonistic?
For a while, it seemed that chocolate was fast becoming the panacea for all ills. Heart problems, eat chocolate. High cholesterol, 30 grams a day will do. Feeling sluggish, down-and-out? Chocolate to the rescue.
OK, so I am exaggerating slightly. But you can’t deny that hardly a week goes by without some news report detailing research on chocolate’s positive health benefits. I know because we’ve published many of those items.
But as we all realize, or should realize, research is, well, just that – research. It’s not fact, nor documented science. And that’s just the point that Catherine Kwik-Uribe, human health and nutrition director at Mars, Inc., wanted to clarify last Monday.
In a press release that bore the headline, “Is Chocolate Good for You?” Kwik-Uribe sought to celebrate the upcoming Chocolate Day holiday (it was yesterday), by “dispelling common chocolate-y myths once and for all.”
Acknowledging that chocolate is one of the most beloved foods in the world, with an estimated 7.2 million tons consumed each year, Kwik-Uribe felt compelled to set the record straight on chocolate’s perceived health benefits.
There are many common misconceptions about chocolate, especially when it comes to the stories on its health benefits, says Kwik-Uribe. "While there are countless reports on the benefits of chocolate, what many people do not realize is that chocolate is a source of a group of potent bioactives found naturally in cacao, cocoa flavanols.
“However, not all chocolate is created equal,” she continues. “In fact, the amount of cocoa flavanols in chocolate varies dramatically as traditional processing methods destroy the cocoa flavanols naturally present.”
To make her point, Kwik-Uribe cited several myths, which I’ve excerpted below:
1. MYTH: Chocolate contains powerful antioxidants.
FACT:Chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, contains cocoa flavanols, phytonutrients which science supports have a proven positive impact on health. However, contrary to popular belief, cocoa flavanols are not antioxidants. Based on work done in test tubes, early research suggested the flavanols may act as antioxidants in the body. Today we know that this is not true – that in fact, the benefits of cocoa flavanols to human health are due to their ability to directly influence the function and overall health of blood vessels.
2. MYTH: Chocolate is good for your heart.
FACT: Chocolate can be part of a healthy diet, but it is not a health food. Even if a chocolate is high in cocoa flavanols, the calories, fat, and sugar in chocolate make chocolate an occasional indulgence. A significant body of published scientific research has proven that cocoa flavanols support a healthy heart by promoting healthy blood flow*. Consumption of cocoa supports the body's production of nitric oxide, a compound produced naturally within the body that triggers blood vessels to relax, enabling the smooth flow of blood. This ability of blood vessels to relax is scientifically recognized as a marker of the health of the cardiovascular system.
3. MYTH: Chocolate containing 70% cacao or greater is good for you.
FACT: While a percentage of cacao as high as seventy percent is likely to contain more cocoa flavanols than a traditional dark chocolate bar, the percentage of cacao is not a reliable indicator of a product's cocoa flavanol content. Further, chocolate as an energy-dense food with fat and sugar should be enjoyed in moderation as an occasional treat. Unless the packaging indicates the cocoa flavanol content, there is no way to determine if you are receiving the benefits of this powerful plant-based bioactive.
4. MYTH: Chocolate is high in caffeine.
FACT: Chocolate does contain caffeine, but an average 1-oz. serving of dark chocolate contains less than half the amount of caffeine found in an average cup of black tea. The amount of caffeine in chocolate is in proportion to the percentage of cacao in the product, thus milk chocolate contains less caffeine than a semi-sweet or dark chocolate.
According to Kwik-Uribe, "It's important to remember that despite the chocolate-y rumors, chocolate is a wonderful, but occasional treat that can be part of a balanced, healthy diet. Cocoa flavanols are found in chocolate, but the amount of chocolate that has to be consumed to achieve the level of intake shown to exert benefits will generally be far above a 'healthy' amount of chocolate.”
Kudos to Kwik-Uribe for setting the record straight. At the same time, chocolate’s scientific name, theobroma, does mean food of the gods. And, as a toddler growing up in France, I recall consuming chocolate and butter baguette sandwiches. It was both a treat and food.
In other words, I still actually believe that dark chocolate that’s low in sugar is good for you. Moreover, I remain confident that future research will uncover real health benefits associated with consuming chocolate. And I like to think that continued research involving the cocoa genome, of which Mars has helped pioneer and continues to invest in, will help us pinpoint other wonderful properties involving chocolate.
In the interim, it’s important to keep a level head about what chocolate is and isn’t. So thanks, Catherine.
*This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.