Chocolate is seemingly everywhere and the temptation to indulge is high. After all, when a craving hits, who can resist that melt-in-your-mouth richness and smooth, creamy texture of a good piece of chocolate? Whether you need a mood boost, have something to celebrate, or are simply saying, "I love you," a box of chocolates is just right. Now, new studies suggest that the health benefits of chocolate might make it more than just a satisfying treat. Researchers have isolated powerful disease-fighting substances in chocolate, with some early studies showing that certain kinds of chocolate may help lower blood pressure and stave off heart disease. Before you call chocolate a health food, however, learn more about this research and what it may mean for your sweet tooth.
Chocolate comes from the cacao (or cocoa) bean, and since the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortés penned a letter about the frothy cacao beverages of the New World to the emperor of Spain in 1520, chocolate has had a place in our diet. It was first used as medicine to treat everything from tuberculosis to gout to low virility, but by the end of the 18th century, the plant dubbed Theobroma cacao, or "food of the gods," began creeping into our culinary vernacular. Eaten in slabs, sorbets, desserts, and even soups and pastas, chocolate was so common by World War I that it was used as a ration for the troops. Today chocolate is an ingredient in cooking worldwide, from the savory sauces and moles of Mexico to the sweet, smooth French chocolate éclair.
Yet, the pendulum could be swinging back. With some intriguing health news now emerging about chocolate, this tasty treat may once again be elevated to medicinal status. It started when scientists began to wonder about the historical uses of chocolate as medicine. "It's not so unusual when you consider the beans of the cocoa plant are extremely rich in flavonoids," says Carl Keen, Ph.D., a nutrition professor at the University of California at Davis who has done extensive research on chocolate. Flavonoids are potent plant antioxidants, and for years scientists have said that antioxidants can exert a positive influence on health by neutralizing damaging free radicals, substances believed to advance aging and promote disease. Many fruits, vegetables, red wine, and teas also contain flavonoids. Now researchers are zeroing in on flavonoids in chocolate and identifying a different subclass: flavonols. It's these compounds that appear to pack the most health benefits.
One German study, for example, found that eating dark chocolate high in flavonoids may reduce blood pressure. In the same study, however, flavonoid-free white chocolate yielded no change in blood pressure. As part of the study protocol, 13 volunteers with high blood pressure munched on a custom-made, 3.5-ounce dark chocolate bar for two weeks and then switched to eating the same amount of white chocolate over the next two weeks. During the dark chocolate phase, systolic blood pressure (the maximum pressure created when the heart muscle contracts) dropped an average of five points. Diastolic pressure, the pressure in the arteries when the heart muscle relaxes between beats, dropped about two points. (A reduction in both is optimal for those with high blood pressure.)
However, there is one stumbling block in the case for the health benefits of chocolate: Not all of them are created equal when it comes to flavonoid content. Most reports, like the German study mentioned above, suggest dark chocolate may harbor the highest amounts of these compounds. But some experts say that chocolate's flavonoid content has nothing to do with color and everything to do with how it's processed. two rules of thumb when looking for chocolate rich in flavonoids: First, dark chocolate in general has two to three times the amount of flavonoids found in milk chocolate. If you're looking for the highest amount of flavonoids, it's best to choose a brand that has a high cocoa content, 70 percent or greater. On that list are gourmet chocolates such as Lindt, El Rey, Scharffen Berger, Lake Champlain, and Ghirardelli. As for other brands of chocolate with lower cocoa contents, it's hard to predict the health benefits they may deliver. And, more importantly, any benefits chocolate may provide need to be weighed against its nutritional downside-mainly, its high fat content.
If you look strictly at the numbers, a 1.5-ounce bar of chocolate has around 235 calories and between 13 and 14 grams of fat, six to nine grams of it the artery-clogging, saturated kind. That's a lot of calories and fat for such a small amount of chocolate. Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol levels, and high cholesterol levels can clog arteries. However, some of the saturated fat in chocolate is in the form of stearic acid, which doesn't raise cholesterol. Stearic acid is in cocoa butter, which is the main fat in chocolate. The liver converts stearic acid to oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, which isn't damaging to the heart. Some researchers argue, however, that, regardless of stearic acid, chocolate is still a high-fat, high-calorie food. Small amounts can be worked into a healthy diet, but large quantities aren't a recipe for good health, particularly when you consider how many Americans are overweight, says Penn State University nutritionist Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D. She suggests a leaner way to get that chocolate fix: Opt for cocoa, the powder formed when cocoa beans are ground and stripped of cocoa butter.
Trick or Treat?
As comforting as it is to think your next chocolate fix may be good for you, think twice. The reason is simple: "Eating any food in excess of caloric needs, including chocolate, will cause weight gain," Kris-Etherton says.
In the meantime, Richard Mattes, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Purdue University, says there's nothing wrong with enjoying the comfort food status of chocolate in moderate amounts. "It's how often and how much that's the issue," he says. Adds Kris-Etherton: "Instead, incorporate it into an already healthy diet that meets-doesn't exceed-energy needs." Until there are more controlled clinical trials examining the health benefits of chocolate, and the magnitude of those effects, and until flavonoid-rich chocolates become more common, it may be wise to dip into that bucket of trick-or-treat chocolate with discretion.
Maureen Callahan, a chocolate lover, is a frequent contributor to Cooking Light.