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Is Chocolate a Health Food?


By Dr. David Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP
Special for eDiets
eDiets offers 23 different health and fitness programs, including The Mayo Clinic Plan -- a doctor-designed health plan.
The notion that "if it tastes good, it's bad for you; if it's good for you, it tastes bad!" is the bane of every nutrition expert. So what a delight it is to report on accumulating evidence that everyone's favorite dietary indulgence – chocolate -- may well qualify as a health food. Here's a story where nutrition police meet the Easter Bunny!

It may be surprising to learn that "chocolate" is a whole category of foods, and that the choices within this category provide for very different nutrition. The two principal varieties are milk chocolate, and dark chocolate. There are variations on these two themes, including semi-sweet, bitter-sweet, and so on.

While high in saturated fat, cocoa butter -- the fat that comes from the cocoa bean- is principally a source of an 18-carbon fatty acid called stearic acid. Unlike other saturated fats, stearic acid does not raise blood cholesterol levels, and does not contribute to the risk of heart disease. Milk chocolate contains both the fatty acids that come from the cocoa bean itself, and those that come from milk.

Milk chocolate also contains a fairy amount of stearic acid, but the milk fat it contains contributes palmitic acid, and myristic acid, which do raise cholesterol.

So far, this means that the fat in dark chocolate is harmless, while the fat in milk chocolate is a bit less so. But not doing harm is not the same as actually doing good. Dark chocolate may actually do your health good.

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Recent studies in a number of prominent medical journals have shown improvements in blood pressure, insulin levels, and the stickiness of platelets. Studies- including in my own lab- have also shown that solid dark chocolate, or liquid cocoa, improve blood flow and the ability of blood vessels to dilate. All of these are signs that dark chocolate can, and probably does, reduce heart disease risk. One large observational study suggests that higher levels of dark chocolate in the diet are indeed associated with lower rates of heart disease.

The chocolate used in these studies generally has a cocoa content of 60 percent or more. The control, or placebo, is often milk chocolate, which lacks these beneficial health effects.

Although no one knows for sure just yet, the likely "active ingredient" in dark chocolate is a class of antioxidants called flavanoids. Dark chocolate is one of the most concentrated sources of these potent antioxidants known. There are more flavanoid antioxidants in dark chocolate than in wine, green tea, or even white tea.

In addition to this, milk chocolate generally provides more sugar, and therefore may stimulate appetite more. Eating milk chocolate is thus likely to lead to more fat, more calories, and more potential harm to health than eating dark chocolate.

Dark chocolate is also a concentrated source of magnesium, fiber and arginine -- all of which probably contribute something to its beneficial health effects. Arginine is an amino acid used by the cells that line our blood vessels to make a chemical called nitric oxide, which causes blood vessels to dilate and blood flow to increase.

So, if you are a chocolate fan, have dark or bittersweet chocolate in the house, rather than milk chocolate. If you are a milk chocolate fan, you should know that taste buds are very malleable. Switch to dark chocolate, slowly working your way from semi-sweet to bitter-sweet, and landing on products that provide 60-percent cocoa or more. Your taste buds will acclimate, and you will likely come to prefer dark chocolate in short order. Some years ago, when I conducted this "experiment" on myself, it worked quite well.

When you get that irresistible chocolate urge, satisfy it with the dark chocolate. You'll get your chocolate "fix," but with better nutrition, and generally less sugar and fewer calories. It's worth noting that this same sort of substitution works in many food categories, allowing you to eat the type of food you like, while improving your nutrition at the same time.

Of course, too much of anything, even a good thing, is not a good idea. Dark chocolate is very nutritious, but it is a concentrated source of calories. Avoiding over-indulging, or weight gain will cancel out the benefits.

Assuming you make room for the calories, and your weight is under control, an ounce or two of dark chocolate daily is a fine addition to your diet. If you already eat milk chocolate, substitute dark chocolate rather than adding it.

Chocolate serves as a particularly good demonstration of the principle that eating well is best achieved by making well-informed choices within any given food category, rather than abandoning categories of foods. That even an indulgence can be health-promoting belies the oft-heard lament that "if it's good, it can't be good for you." Dark chocolate, by most accounts, is both.

 
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