The advice to eat chocolate should be taken with a grain of salt.
Image: Leszek Kobusinski/Thinkstock
Like bees swarming a melting candy bar, the media buzz around the purported health benefits of chocolate has been hard to ignore. The possibility that such a sumptuous treat might actually be good for your heart is very sweet news, indeed.
But there’s a lot more to this story that we need to understand before going hog wild in the candy aisle, says Dr. Howard Sesso, associate professor in the division of preventive medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Simply recommending that people eat dark chocolate as a way of improving health is very misleading, since chocolate products tend to have a significant amount of fat, sugar, and calories.” Instead, he and colleague Dr. JoAnn Manson are embarking on the Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS), a four-year trial involving 18,000 participants that is designed to tease out the intricacies of chocolate’s health-promoting nutrients (www.cosmostrial.org).
Secrets of the bean
Chocolate is made from cocoa solids, cocoa fat, and other ingredients in varying proportions. But the confection’s power potentially lies in plant compounds called cocoa flavanols, which are particularly abundant in the seeds of the cacao tree. After being scraped from a tough outer shell, the cocoa beans are fermented, dried, roasted, and ground into cocoa powder that can then be used in foods and beverages.
Many short-term studies on cocoa flavanols have shown positive cardiovascular effects, including lowering blood pressure, relaxing blood vessels, increasing blood flow to the brain, improving cholesterol levels, reducing inflammation, and combating insulin resistance. However, the key question yet to be resolved is whether these compounds go the extra mile to protect against heart attack and stroke.
The right stuff
According to Dr. Sesso, the optimal intake of cocoa flavanols for vascular benefits may range from 450 to 900 milligrams a day. Since most chocolate manufacturers don’t list the flavanol content on their product labels, gauging the potential health benefits of a particular food item is not an easy task.
As a general rule, dark chocolate has more cocoa and therefore more flavanols than milk chocolate, but the darkness and percent of cocoa of the final product is not a reliable indicator of healthfulness. Flavanol concentration depends on several factors, including the genetics of the particular cacao plants harvested, the makeup of the soil in which the crop was grown, and the way the cocoa beans were processed. Commercial producers commonly use the Dutch processing method, which involves treating the beans with alkali to soften their naturally bitter flavor. Unfortunately, this step destroys nearly all of the flavanol content in the end product.
A healthy amount
The downfall of the chocolate we know and love is that the glorious natural taste of the cocoa is amplified with hefty amounts of not-so-healthy butter and sugar. Eating enough candy bars every day to yield a significant amount of cocoa flavanols would add thousands of unwanted calories to your diet and inches to your waist.
Right now, your best bet is to enjoy chocolate as a treat a few times a week and make it part of a balanced diet that samples broadly across all food groups, says Dr. Sesso. (To boost your cocoa flavanol quotient, choose products that haven’t been treated with alkali.) He also predicts that as the research continues to come in, emphasis will shift away from eating chocolate itself to finding other ways to get cocoa flavanols into the diet.
Field guide to chocolate
Cocoa solids—the nonfat part of the cocoa bean—are a rich source of flavanols, while cocoa fat (cocoa butter) has none. Here’s how chocolate products differ:
Cocoa powder. Cocoa beans that are fermented, roasted, and crushed into a paste. After the fat is removed, the remaining solids are ground into a fine powder.
Cacao nibs. Solid particles that are scraped out of the fermented, roasted cocoa beans. They have crunchy, nutlike texture and a chocolatey (but not sweet) flavor.
Dark chocolate. A solid chocolate product made from cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and usually sugar. Package labels often state the percentage of cocoa in dark chocolate.
Milk chocolate. A creamier chocolate composed of cocoa powder, cocoa butter, milk solids, and sugar. It usually has more sugar and less cocoa powder than dark chocolate.
White chocolate. Not technically chocolate, it is made from cocoa fat, milk solids, sugar, and other flavorings. It has no flavanols.