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In Depth

Health

Chocolate

The bittersweet treat

Updated July 4, 2007

Dipping strawberries into a bowl of chocolate at Ethel's Chocolate Lounge, in Chicago's swanky Lincoln Park neighborhood. Chocolate caf�s or lounges have been springing up all over, presenting themselves as a sweet and cozy alternative to coffee shops and bars.
(Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

Wondering whether you can indulge in that chocolate treat staring at you from the store counter without compromising your healthy diet?

Well, if you're a lover of chocolate, you may be in luck. There is increasing evidence that chocolate can be part of a healthy diet - and that it may even offer some specific health benefits.

However, not all chocolate is created equal. Read on to find out how to incorporate this treat into your diet and get the most of what it has to offer.

Chocolate � a health food?

While recent headlines might have you thinking chocolate is the next big health food, don�t be fooled. You have to do a bit of homework to separate the types of chocolate that can contribute to better health from the ones that simply contribute to an expanded waistline.

The most important thing to realize is that the health benefits provided by chocolate are a result of the flavonoid content found in the cocoa bean. Flavonoids are natural compounds with antioxidant properties - the same compounds that give berries, red wine and green tea their health benefits.

However, the more chocolate is processed, the fewer flavonoids it retains - therefore reducing its antioxidant abilities and its potential health benefits. Dark chocolate has the most flavonoids, almost four times as many as milk chocolate, while white chocolate has none.

To maximize the protective effect chocolate has to offer, your best bet is to reach for dark chocolate when the craving hits. To make sure you are getting the highest concentration of flavonoids, read the list of ingredients and choose bars that list cocoa solids or cocoa mass first, not sugar.

Alternatively, choose a bar with a high percentage of cocoa � 70 per cent or more.

Beware of highly processed, sugar-coated chocolate bars - these are nothing more than empty calories and contain little in the way of cocoa or flavonoids.

The science behind the sweetness

Here�s a rundown on some of the latest research in support of chocolate�s health benefits: Heart Disease - A study published in the March 2007 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that of more than 34,000 post-menopausal women who consumed the most flavonoid-rich food, 22 per cent had a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease. Chocolate was ranked as one of the top flavonoid-rich foods associated with a protective effect, along with bran, red wine, grapefruit and strawberries.

These findings support previous research published in 2006 in the Archive of Internal Medicine, which found men who consumed high amounts of cocoa products (2.3 grams or more per day) had a 50 per cent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, compared with men with the lowest consumption.

Blood pressure and cholesterol - In a study published in the July 4, 2007, edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that a little bit of dark chocolate may help lower your blood pressure. German researchers followed two groups of people with untreated high blood pressure for 18 weeks. Half got a bit of dark chocolate every day while the other half received white chocolate. In the end, those eating the dark chocolate saw a drop in their blood pressure and there was no change for group that ate white chocolate. The bad news is, it only took about six grams of chocolate to do the trick.

A study two years earlier, published in the journal Hypertension, uncovered similar findings using more chocolate. Researchers randomly assigned 20 subjects with high blood pressure to receive either 100 grams a day of flavonoid-rich dark chocolate or 90 grams per day of flavonoid-free white chocolate. The group receiving dark chocolate experienced a drop in blood pressure. Researchers also found that levels of low density lipoprotein (or "bad") cholesterol dropped by 10 per cent in the dark chocolate group.

Psychological well-being - Heart health isn�t the only thing with a link to chocolate. A 2007 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that men who preferred chocolate to other types of candy had a lower body mass index and waist circumference than men who did not eat chocolate. Chocolate lovers also experienced more feelings of happiness and better psychological well-being.

How much is too much?

The optimal amount of chocolate to consume for health benefits remains unclear. Despite encouraging findings in some studies, one thing is certain: Dark chocolate is still a source of calories, fat and sugar, and therefore, like all foods high in fat and calories, should be enjoyed in moderation.

Limiting yourself to a few small pieces of dark chocolate a week is a reasonable way to enjoy the pleasures of chocolate without overdoing it. Excessive consumption could lead to weight gain, which in turn could cancel any potential health benefits it has to offer.

Dark chocolate versus milk chocolate Easter candy

Here�s a look at the nutrient content of 40 grams of 70-per-cent-cocoa dark chocolate:

  • Calories 213
  • Fat (grams) 16
  • Saturated fat (grams) 11
  • Sugar (grams) 12

Unfortunately, many commercial Easter products are not made with pure dark chocolate - instead they are usually milk chocolate with lots of added sugar. Here�s a look at the nutrient content of 2 Kinder Surprise milk chocolate eggs (40 grams):

  • Calories 230
  • Fat (grams) 15
  • Saturated fat (grams) 9
  • Sugar (grams) 20

While dark chocolate tends to be lower in calories and sugar than milk or white chocolate, there are still plenty of other foods rich in antioxidants that are nutrient-dense and high in fibre, such as blueberries, oranges, broccoli and spinach. These foods are rich sources of vitamins and minerals, and are smart foods to add to a healthy diet high in antioxidants.

Other considerations

Belgian chocolate maker Lieven Burie puts the finishing touches on chocolate Easter bunnies in his atelier in Antwerp, Belgium.
(Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press)

Not only are specialty chocolates available from around the world in a variety of flavours, fortunately you can now use your chocolate purchases to benefit the well-being of others and the environment.

There are also an increasing number of high-quality chocolate bars available that are organic and "fair-trade" (fair trade products such as coffee or chocolate offer farmers in developing countries higher prices for their goods than they would typically receive on the world commodity markets, and money is directed to social and environmental development as well as fair labour wages). Consider choosing these to make your next indulgence guilt-free.

The bottom line

While there is increasing evidence that chocolate may have health benefits, the latest research doesn�t warrant excessive consumption of all things chocolate. There is no reason why chocolate can�t fit into a healthy eating plan, but if you are going to indulge, opt for dark chocolate for optimum health benefits.

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