Is Chocolate A Health Food?
By: Dr. Skip Hellen ND, CNC (Health Doctor)
engenders a great deal of pleasure and is thought to be so good that it is
addictive to humans. Many use the term love when they describe their
feelings for chocolate. The following is some good solid information related
to the health properties of chocolate.
The possible health benefits of chocolate stem from the antioxidant flavonoids.
Chocolate comes from the cacao plant, and cacao is extraordinarily rich in flavanols,
a type of flavonoid phytochemical. Other plants rich in flavanols include
tea, grapes, grapefruit, and wine. It’s important to note that some forms of
chocolate have much more flavonoids than others.
HEALTH PROPERTIES OF CHOCOLATE
Chocolate contains over 300 chemicals, and has been the subject of a number of
studies by many scientific organizations over the years. Below is a synopsis of
• Cacao, the source of chocolate, contains antibacterial agents that fight tooth
decay although this is counteracted by the high sugar content of milk chocolate.
• The smell of chocolate seems to increase theta brain waves, resulting in relaxation.
• Chocolate contains phenyl ethylamine, a mild mood elevator.
• Cocoa butter in chocolate contains oleic acid, a mono-unsaturated fat which may raise
• Drinking a cup of hot chocolate before meals may actually diminish appetite.
• Men who eat chocolate on average live a year longer than those who don't.
• The flavanoids in chocolate may help keep blood vessels elastic.
• Chocolate increases antioxidant levels in the blood.
• Mexican healers use chocolate to treat bronchitis and insect bites.
• Carbohydrates in chocolate raise brain serotonin levels, resulting in a
sense of well-being.
What chocolate won't do
- Studies show that chocolate is not a causative factor in acne.
- Cacao contains the stimulants caffeine and bromine, but in such small quantities
that they don't cause nervous excitability.
- Chocolate is not addictive.
- Chocolate contains stearic acid, a neutral fat which doesn't raise bad cholesterol.
- Chocolate doesn't make you 'high,' you'd need to eat a huge quantity (about 25lbs at
one sitting) to feel any noticeable effect.
On the negative side
- Chocolate may trigger headaches in migraine sufferers.
- Milk chocolate is high in calories, saturated fat and sugar.
What about chocolate and your pets?
- Chocolate is considered dangerous to animals because it contains a stimulant called
theobromine, which they can't digest.
- Dark chocolate and baking chocolate are even more dangerous because they contain
higher concentrations of the substance. This applies whether chocolate is in
candy bar form, or an ingredient in cake, cookies, puddings or ice cream.
- If a pet becomes ill after eating chocolate, take it to the vet immediately.
Dark chocolate versus milk chocolate
- Dark chocolate contains more cacao and less sugar than milk chocolate. It follows
that any health benefits would be more pronounced in dark chocolate.
- Dark chocolate is allowed on the popular Montaignac diet while milk chocolate is not.
Health, chocolate rules of thumb;
1. The more nonfat cocoa solids a chocolate product contains, the more antioxidants it
tends to contribute. What about the fat found in the cacao bean? It's true
that cacao contains some saturated fat. But most of it is stearic acid --
which studies have suggested doesn't elevate blood
cholesterol levels as much as other saturated fatty acids. The other fatty acids in cocoa butter are
monounsaturated fat (considered a desirable fat) plus another saturated fat
called palmitic fatty acid. But here's where it gets confusing: chocolate
products can have other types of fat added, like "milk fat" or "partially
hydrogenated vegetable oil" or even coconut or palm oil (both naturally
saturated oils), in addition to "cocoa butter."
2. If a chocolate contains fat ingredients other than cocoa butter, it might contain the more
harmful saturated fats and trans fats, rather than stearic acid.
The possible health benefits of chocolate
More research needs to be done, but recent studies suggest four possible health benefits
of dark chocolate and cocoa.
1. Chocolate may reduce the risk of heart attack
A few squares of dark chocolate a day can reduce the risk of death from
heart attack by almost 50% in some cases, says Diane Becker, MPH, ScD, a
researcher with the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. Becker's research found that blood platelets
clotted more slowly in people who had eaten chocolate than in those who had
not. This is significant because when platelets clump, a clot can form, and
when the clot blocks a blood vessel, it can lead to a heart attack.
"The flavanols in cocoa beans have a biochemical effect of reducing platelet clumping,
similar to but much less than aspirin," Becker says in an email interview.
After reviewing 136 scientific publications on chocolate and its components and
heart disease, researchers from Harvard University School of Public Health
concluded that short-term studies suggest cocoa and chocolate may reduce the
risk of cardiovascular disease by:
- Lowering blood pressure
- Decreasing LDL oxidation
- Anti-inflammation action
2. Chocolate may decrease blood pressure and increase insulin sensitivity
Researchers in Italy recently fed 15 healthy people either 3 ounces of dark chocolate or
the same amount of white chocolate -- which contains no flavanol
phytochemicals -- for 15 days. They found that
insulin resistance (a risk factor for diabetes) was significantly lowered in
those who ate the dark chocolate. Systolic blood pressure (the first number in a blood pressure reading), measured daily, was also lower in
the group eating dark chocolate.
3. Chocolate may improve arterial blood flow
Healthy men who consume flavanol-rich cocoa may see improvements in the flow of blood
through their arteries, according to recent research. The researchers found
that when healthy men consumed the flavanol-rich cocoa, the ability of their
blood vessels to relax improved significantly. And arterial blood flow is
important for cardiovascular health.
4. Chocolate may help people with chronic fatigue syndrome
In a small study in England, 1 1/2 ounces of 85% cocoa dark chocolate was given to a
group of adults with
fatigue syndrome every day for eight weeks. In the study, which has been submitted for publication,
the participants reported feeling less fatigued after eating the chocolate.
Surprisingly, no weight gain was reported in the chocolate-eating group, according to researcher Steve Atkin, PhD.
How might it work? The researchers believe that chocolate enhances the action of
neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which help regulate mood and
sleep. More research needs to be done to confirm a benefit in this area.
Not all chocolate is created equal
While the amount of the healthy antioxidant flavonoids varies from one type of
chocolate to another, there's one guideline you can take to the bank: The
more nonfat cocoa solids in a chocolate product, the more antioxidants it
So which type of chocolate has the most flavonoids? The highest levels are in natural
cocoa powder (not Dutch cocoa, though, because it is alkalized cocoa). The
type second highest in flavonoids is unsweetened baking chocolate. Dark
chocolate and semisweet chocolate chips rank third, with milk chocolate and
chocolate syrup at the bottom of the list.
Keep in mind, though, that flavanol levels in types of chocolate can vary based on:
- The cocoa beans selected.
- The processing of the beans and chocolate.
- Storage and handling conditions.
Perhaps in the near future, labels on chocolate products will list amounts of flavanols.
Which type of chocolate has the most calories and fat?
By far the lowest-calorie, lowest-fat form of chocolate is cocoa (the unsweetened
type). A serving of 3 tablespoons has about:
- 60 calories
- 1.5 grams fat
- 0 grams saturated fat
- 3 grams fiber
The equivalent in unsweetened baking chocolate is 1 square (1 ounce), which contributes:
- 140 calories
- 14 grams fat
- 9 grams saturated fat
- 4 grams fiber
By comparison, a typical 2-ounce serving of semisweet or milk chocolate (with sweetener and other ingredients added) contains:
- 270 calories
- 17 grams of fat
- 10 grams of saturated fat
Semisweet chocolate adds around 3 grams of fiber per 2 ounces, while milk chocolate
typically contributes zero. The mostly insoluble fiber in cocoa comes from
the seed coat on the unprocessed cocoa bean.
All of this brings us to Health, Chocolate Rule of Thumb #3: For a
better flavonoid-to-calorie ratio, choose cocoa powder whenever possible for
baking and making hot chocolate.
Don't forget the calories
One thing most chocolate bars have in common is calories. An ounce of sweetened chocolate
will cost you about 150 calories -- that's about six to seven chocolate
kisses. Here's my take on it as a chocolate lover: Those six kisses are
worth every calorie.
But here's a word of caution: The health benefits of chocolate may disappear if you are
adding the calories above and beyond your regular intake. This could mean
you're adding pounds along with the flavonoids.
Researchers from the University of California at Davis said it best in a scientific
review on cocoa and chocolate flavonoids published in the Journal of the
American Dietetic Association. They concluded that people may benefit
from including a variety of flavonoid-rich foods as part of a healthful diet
-- and dark chocolate, in moderate amounts, can be part of this plan.
New and improved chocolate products
Now that the word is out that chocolate may have health benefits, special chocolate
products are hitting the shelves. Two examples are CocoaVia and Hershey's
Cocoa 'Vitamin' Health Benefits Could Outshine Penicillin
In an article published in, Science Daily, “The health benefits of epicatechin, a compound found in
cocoa, are so striking that it may rival penicillin and anaesthesia in terms
of importance to public health, reports Marina Murphy in Chemistry &
Industry, the magazine of the SCI. Norman Hollenberg, professor of medicine
at Harvard Medical School, told C&I that epicatechin is so important that it
should be considered a vitamin.”
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