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How Healthy is Chocolate?
April 18th, 2010

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Dear John,


What do you have to say about the health effects of chocolate? Does it cause acne? Is it horrible for you? Do I have to eat carob instead of chocolate? Do you eat chocolate? If so, what kind?

Affectionately,

Marie

Dear Marie,

The problem with chocolate isn’t the chocolate. It’s the fat and sugar we add to it. Actually, there is a growing body of credible scientific evidence that chocolate itself contains a host of heart-healthy and mood-enhancing phytochemicals, with benefits to both body and mind.

For one thing, chocolate is a plentiful source of antioxidants. These are substances that reduce the ongoing cellular and arterial damage caused by oxidative reactions. Chocolate is particularly rich in a type of antioxidants called polyphenols. These are protective chemicals found in many plant foods, such as red wine and tea. According to researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, the same antioxidant properties found in red wine that protect against heart disease and possibly cancer are also found in chocolate.

The oxidation of LDL cholesterol is considered a major risk factor in the promotion of coronary disease including heart attacks and strokes. When this waxy substance oxidizes, it tends to stick to artery walls, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. The polyphenols in chocolate inhibit oxidation of LDL cholesterol.

One of the causes of atherosclerosis is blood platelets clumping together, a process called aggregation. The polyphenols in chocolate inhibit this clumping, reducing the risks of atherosclerosis.

People with heart problems are sometimes told to take a baby aspirin a day. The reason is that aspirin thins the blood and reduces the likelihood of clots forming (clots play a key role in many heart attacks and strokes). Research performed at the department of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, found that chocolate also thins the blood, and performs the same anti-clotting activity as aspirin. “Our work supports the concept that the chronic consumption of cocoa may be associated with improved cardiovascular health,” said UC Davis researcher Carl Keen. “Cocoa and presumably other forms of chocolate can be part of a healthy diet.”

How much chocolate would you have to eat to obtain these benefits? Not that much. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, adding half an ounce of dark chocolate to an average American diet increases total antioxidant capacity four percent, and lessens oxidation of LDL cholesterol.

There are legitimate health problems from eating chocolate, but they do not stem from chocolate itself, but instead from the high levels of fat and sugar that we tend to include in our chocolate products. Nearly all of the calories in a typical chocolate bar, for example, are sugar and fat.

The primary fat in chocolate is stearic acid, and as far as fats go, it’s not bad. It is a saturated vegetable fat, but unlike most saturated animal fats, stearic acid acts in the body much like the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. Monounsaturates have a neutral effect on cholesterol

Watch out for milk chocolate, though, because it contains added butterfat which raises cholesterol, and it also contains cholesterol. (Cocoa butter, on the other hand is a vegetable fat, and so contains no cholesterol.) Milk chocolate has another disadvantage, too. It has less of the antioxidants and other beneficial chemicals than dark chocolate does.

Many people have long thought of carob as a more healthful substitute for chocolate. But in fact carob bars typically have more sugar than chocolate bars. One study at the University of Texas actually found carob bars to be five times more likely to cause tooth decay.

Does chocolate cause acne? There is no evidence that it does. On the other hand, there is evidence that in some people who suffer from migraines chocolate is a trigger.

And then there are chocolate’s legendary effects on the mind. Chocolate is so well known for its remarkable effects on human mood that many people consider it a psychoactive drug. Chocolate is the richest known source of a little-known substance called theobromine, a close chemical relative of caffeine. Theobromine, like caffeine, and also like the asthma drug theophylline, belong to the chemical group known as xanthine alkaloids. Chocolate products contain some caffeine, but not nearly enough to explain the attractions, fascinations, addictions, and effects of chocolate. Chocolate addiction may really be theobromine addiction.

Other substances with mood elevating effects are also found in chocolate. One is phenethylamine, which triggers the release of pleasurable endorphins and potentates the action of dopamine, a neurochemical associated with sexual arousal and pleasure. Phenethylamine is the chemical released in the brain when people become infatuated or fall in love.

Another is anandamide (from the Sanskrit word “ananda,” which means peaceful bliss). A fatty substance that is naturally produced in the brain, anandamide has been isolated from chocolate by pharmacologists at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. It binds to the same receptor sites in the brain as cannabinoids – the psychoactive constituents in marijuana, and produces feelings of euphoria.

If that weren’t enough, chocolate also boosts brain levels of serotonin. Women typically have lower serotonin levels during PMS and menstruation, which may be one reason women typically experience stronger cravings for chocolate than men. People suffering from depression so characteristically have lower serotonin levels that an entire class of anti-depressive medications called serotonin uptake inhibitors (including Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft) have been developed that raise brain levels of serotonin.

All this probably makes chocolate sound like a fabulous food, but please try to be aware of the fat and sugar in any chocolate products you might eat.

Do I eat chocolate? Yes. My level of consumption is modest, out of concern for fat and sugar levels, but I enjoy it immensely. One of my favorite desserts is a glass of organic soy milk made with organic chocolate. I also enjoy dark semi-sweet chocolate bars made by Rapunzel and other fair trade chocolate companies. After what I have learned about child slavery in the cocoa trade, I have a policy to eat only organic and/or fair trade chocolate.

I believe that anyone who eats chocolate should know about the current issue of child slavery in cocoa production. My article on this subject, titled “Is There Slavery In Your Chocolate“, can be seen at http://www.johnrobbins.info/is-there-slavery-in-your-chocolate/.

May your life be full of healthy pleasures,

John

These comments are moderated to support respectful, non-commercial, and open-minded dialogue.

One Response to “How Healthy is Chocolate?”

  1. Chelle says:

    We recently purchased some organic raw cacao nibs (from Ecuador, I believe). Adding them to smoothies is great. We get all the nutritional benefits of the chocolate flavor, but no fat or sugar from chocolate candy. I’m looking forward to finding other ways to use them.

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