Bittersweet Reality About Chocolate

Sunset at Sunshine Village Ski & Snowboard Resort in Banff National Park, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Sunset at Sunshine Village Ski & Snowboard Resort in Banff National Park, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Christmas is not a good time to give you bad news about the health benefits of chocolates. I am a chocolate lover myself and I have written about the apparent health benefits of chocolates, especially dark chocolates.

Chocolate is a food produced from the cocoa bean. It is fermented, roasted, ground to form a paste of cocoa liquid that is extracted fat called cocoa butter. A mixture of cocoa paste, of cocoa butter and sugar, constitutes chocolate. Chocolate has been with us since 1700.

In general, cocoa is considered to be a rich source of antioxidants such as procyanidins and flavanoids, which may impart antiaging properties. Cocoa is also a stimulant containing theobromide and caffeine.

Panama’s Kuna people are heavy consumers of cocoa. It is reported that the Kuna people living on the islands had significantly lower rates of heart disease and cancer compared to those on the mainland who do not drink cocoa as on the islands. Is this true or just a myth? A myth, according to a report in CBC News Health (Jan 5, 2015).

Health benefits of chocolates are promoted based on antioxidants present in the chocolates. An antioxidant is a disease-fighting molecule.

Cocoa beans are rich in antioxidants. But the process to turn them into chocolate bars diminishes those disease-fighting compounds. Milk chocolate has lower levels of antioxidants than dark chocolates because the percentage of cocoa beans is lower when milk and other additives are added.

Scientists who are interested in knowing the health benefits of chocolates are not sure if increasing antioxidants levels in chocolates really has any clinical benefit.

“The whole concept behind antioxidants and whether increasing antioxidants levels in something like chocolate really has any measurable clinical benefit I think is an open question. And it’s almost like it’s being used as marketing strategy,” says Timothy Caulfield, a professor at the University of Alberta’s faculty of law and school of public health speaking to CBC News.

Caulfield says he is a chocolate lover and would be glad to see some scientific evidence supporting health benefits of chocolates.

What about cocoa flavanols?

Research suggests flavanols can relax blood vessels, improve blood flow and, increase activity in a part of the brain involved with age related memory loss. But those flavanols largely disappear once the cocoa bean is heated, fermented and processed into chocolate. In other words, making chocolate destroys the very ingredient that is supposed to make us healthy.

Mars Inc. is about to join forces with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the U.S. National Institutes of Health in a public-private partnership to discover whether cocoa flavanols reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and death. In a randomized controlled clinical trial, 18,000 men and women will take a high-flavanols cocoa capsule, supplied by Mars Inc., for five years. We will see if that proves anything.

In the meantime have a wonderful Christmas and Holiday Season and enjoy chocolates but in moderation.

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One Reply to “Bittersweet Reality About Chocolate”

  1. For me – high quality dark chocolate with minimal ingredients is not an issue. That said, I’ve spent years dialing in on what activities, conditions or foods are tied to this – and within almost a 100% certainty, it’s tied to something that is used in “cheap” chocolates (for me) – especially the chocolates that need to solidify quickly in the candy-making process, i.e. the chocolate coats the outside of some other candy, fruit, treat, etc.

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