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.

Start reading the preview of my book A Doctor's Journey for free on Amazon. Available on Kindle for $2.99!

Love, Diamonds and Chocolates on Valentine’s Day

"Lovers walking" along the waterfront near Belem Tower, Lisbon, Portugal. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
"Lovers walking" along the waterfront near Belem Tower, Lisbon, Portugal. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Christmas is over. New year’s celebrations are over. Business has slowed down. Now comes Valentine’s Day. That should energize people again. It’s time to buy chocolates, diamonds and go out for a romantic dinner. What happens after that is anybody’s guess.

Saint Valentine’s Day, also known as Valentine’s Day or the Feast of Saint Valentine, is observed on February 14 each year.

St. Valentine’s Day began as a celebration after the names of early Christian saints named Valentinus. According to Wikipedia, the day was first associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished.

Now we are into 21st century. The tradition goes on. The association of Valentine’s Day with love and affection is immense. We need that in this troubled world. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”, says Ryan O’Neal’s character at the end of the movie “Love Story.”

That brings me to the association of chocolate and diamonds with Valentine’s Day. I don’t know how that happened. But we know one thing – chocolates and diamonds are a woman’s best friends. Is that healthy? Well, diamonds don’t hurt anybody. But chocolates – depends what kind of chocolate you eat.

We have been eating chocolates for a long time. The earliest evidence of use traces to the Mokaya (Mexico and Guatemala), with evidence of chocolate beverages dating back to 1900 BC.

An average North American consumes about five to six kilograms of chocolate a year. Did you know 40 per cent of world’s almonds, 20 per cent of world’s peanuts and eight per cent of world’s sugar is used by chocolate manufacturers? No wonder too much chocolate is fattening.

There are three varieties of chocolates: dark, milk and white chocolate. Chocolate liquor is the main ingredient in dark and milk chocolate and white chocolate has no chocolate liquor.

Many studies have suggested moderate intake of chocolate (especially dark chocolate) is good for our heart and vascular system. This is surprising because chocolate contains about 30 per cent saturated fat. Saturated fat is known to raise bad cholesterol level. But chocolate has saturated fat, which is poorly absorbed in the intestine. That is good news for chocolate lovers. Chocolate can also improve blood flow and reduces blood pressure.

Besides being fattening, chocolate can cause dental caries. What about chocolate addiction, chocolate acne and chocolate migraine? There isn’t much scientific evidence to prove any of that. So once in awhile you can enjoy your chocolate.

Remember, there are two food groups: chocolate and fruit. If it is fruit, it should be dipped in chocolate. Have a wonderful Valentine’s Day. Make love, not war.

Start reading the preview of my book A Doctor's Journey for free on Amazon. Available on Kindle for $2.99!

Valentine’s Day for Love, Roses, Chocolates and…may be Diamonds

Valentines gifts with chocolates. (Hemera)
Valentines gifts with chocolates. (Hemera)

Make love, not war.

If there is love, there is peace.

When you think about love, you think about peace, happiness and tranquility. But, as we all know, love is not as simple as we think. Turn on the news and there isn’t much love out there.

Sometime ago, I saw a movie called “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” It is a 2011 romantic comedy-drama film with Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore and others. It is a pretty complicated story involving many characters. In the end, you wonder what was it all about. It must have been about crazy, stupid, love. Yes, it was about crazy, stupid, love.

Next movie which comes to my mind is “Love Story.” It is a 1970 romantic drama starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. I remember the movie as real tearjerker. The film, well known as a tragedy, is considered one of the most romantic of all time by the American Film Institute. How can a love story be a tearjerker, a tragedy and most romantic? The word “oxymoron” comes to my mind. Yes, the movie was about love and sacrifice.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry”, says Ryan O’Neal’s character at the end of the movie. What does that really mean? Well, true love is unconditional. True love is transparent. True love means we accept and understand and allow our loved one to make mistakes, falter and stumble. True love means we offer them genuine compassion when they are trying their best. Although, we may think their best has to be even “better.”

Patience, is a great virtue, when you love someone. To me, that really sums it up. Love means never having to say you’re sorry.

Valentine’s Day is a good day to reassure our loved ones that what counts most in the world is love and without that there is no happiness. Diamonds, roses and chocolates may provide some competition but love trumps them all.

That brings me to “chocolate theory of love.” You have to be a chemist to understand that. I will try to simplify it. I confess, I am not a chemist but I do love my dark chocolates.

In the early 1980s, researcher Michael Liebowitz, author of the popular 1983 book The Chemistry of Love, remarked to reporters that “chocolate is loaded with PEA.” This became the focus for an article in The New York Times, many magazines and wire services. It came to be known as “chocolate theory of love.”

PEA stands for phenylethylamine or phenethylamine. It is also the name of a class of chemicals with many members well known for psychoactive drug and stimulant effects.

Aside from PEA, there are many other ingredients in chocolates which cause chocolate craving, fight depression and anxiety, and increase energy and stamina among high performance athletes. PEA like amphetamine, is responsible for releasing the hormones dopamine and nor-epinephrine in the brain, making a person feel elated and uplifted.

Is it an aphrodisiac? You will have to find that out for yourself. See if the “chocolate theory of love” is true. But, remember, it is good for your heart and brain. Enjoy.

Have a wonderful Valentine’s Day.

Start reading the preview of my book A Doctor's Journey for free on Amazon. Available on Kindle for $2.99!

Concept of a Perfect Meal

In the last few columns, I have been discussing various aspects of healthy diet. Diet which can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer, diabetes type 2 and other chronic illnesses. This reminded me of an article I wrote in 2004 discussing the concept of polymeal.

My column was based on a study from Netherlands, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ DEC 18, 2004) titled “The Polymeal: a more natural, safer, and probably tastier (than the Polypill) strategy to reduce cardiovascular disease by more than 75 percent.” The Polypill was meant to be one pill containing six pharmacological components of commonly used drugs to prevent CVD.

The authors of the article say that pharmacological interventions are not the only option for preventing heart disease. A healthy diet and an active lifestyle can reduce cardiovascular disease. Certainly, they have a point. Many experts feel that the side-effects and cost of Polypill may be prohibitive. Polymeal may be a safer and tastier alternative.

They looked at the scientific literature and felt that the evidence based recipe for polymeal should include wine, fish, dark chocolate, fruits, vegetables, garlic, and almonds. This variety of food has been enjoyed by humankind for centuries.

They calculated that a daily consumption of 150 ml of wine, 114 grams fish four times a week, 100 grams of dark chocolate daily, 400 grams of fruit and vegetables daily, 2.7 grams of fresh garlic daily, and 68 grams of almonds daily could reduce CVD by more than 75 percent.

The authors’ review of literature showed that daily consumption of 150 ml of wine reduces CVD by 32 per cent.

Fish (114 gm) consumed four times a week reduces CVD by 14 per cent.

Dark chocolates (100 mg) reduce blood pressure and thus there is a reduction in CVD by 21 per cent.

A total of 400 gm of fruit and vegetables consumed daily produced a reduction in blood pressure similar to that observed with chocolate so it was assumed that this would produce reduction in CVD by 21 per cent.

The authors also found evidence to suggest beneficial effects of almonds and garlic on CVD. The authors believe that there are no serious side effects to polymeal except adverse odour related to garlic consumption. The beneficial effects of almonds have been discussed in my previous columns.

Studies of walnuts, almonds, pecans, peanuts, macadamias and pistachios show modest changes in blood lipid levels. Similar to other foods rich in unsaturated fat, nuts help maintain HDL (good cholesterol) levels.

Now you have a recipe for polymeal. It may be worth trying. The only thing you have to be careful about is garlic. If you want to make friends and influence people then make sure your garlic consumption is timed well.

Start reading the preview of my book A Doctor's Journey for free on Amazon. Available on Kindle for $2.99!