Question: Please set the record straight: is chocolate really a healthy food to eat?
Pros, cons of
Answer: Chocolate is derived from the cocoa bean, which contains a substance called flavonoids. Flavonoids belong to a family of phytochemicals which are touted as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Because it is now known that chocolate contains these plant chemicals, chocolate manufacturers are trying to promote their products as heart-healthy snacks instead of as junk food.
It comes as no surprise that Mars Inc. and the American Cocoa Research Institute are responsible for financing the research that suggests that chocolate is good for the heart. Since a candy company is footing the bill, I would automatically question their conclusions.
Independent studies (nonindustry-funded research) might draw different, less subjective conclusions. And independents, those who have no vested interest in the product they're studying, may be less likely to manipulate the research, or to skew the results in their favor.
Before we look at the negatives, let's focus on the positives of chocolate (other than its heavenly taste).
Flavonoids are a phytochemical found in the cocoa bean. Research indicates that flavonoids play a roll in limiting the oxidation of LDL cholesterol circulating around in our blood streams. That oxidation creates artery-clogging plaque, so by interfering with the oxidation, flavonoids may help avoid the build-up of arterial plaque. Also, flavonoids have been found to slow down the physical process that weakens a blood vessel wall.
Stronger blood-vessel walls, in turn, help prevent plaque from breaking off of the blood vessel walls and causing potential clots. So in several ways, flavonoids are good for our circulatory system.
But do these benefits offset the potential risks of eating chocolate?
I don't think so.
My biggest problem with chocolate being promoted as a heart-healthy snack food is the unhealthy fats and sugars that most chocolate products contain. Saturated fat, cocoa butter, tropical oils and hydrogenated fat are anything but heart-healthy. In fact, all these fats are considered dietary risk factors in heart disease. Chocolate products are also loaded with lots of empty calories.
Ounce for ounce, the amount of cocoa, which contains the flavonoids, is usually a lot less than the amounts of high calorie milk fat, cocoa butter, and sugar that a chocolate product contains. Read your labels; ingredients are listed in order of their amount. So, if cocoa is listed after sugar and milk fat, you can bet there's more sugar and fat in the product than there is cocoa. Americans need to be eating less nutrient-void, calorie-dense foods, not more.
We, as a nation, are getting fatter and fatter. It's a fact that as obesity increases, so does the incidence of adult-onset diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and some cancers. What's the cause of America's overweight problem? Too many calories, too little exercise.
Taking these facts into consideration, I believe it's very irresponsible for chocolate manufacturers to promote their products as healthy.
So should we stop eating chocolate altogether?
Certainly not, but let's call a spade a spade. When it's flavonoids you're after, eat flavonoid-rich fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, if it's the ultimate taste treat you desire, then please indulge yourself in a piece of chocolate now and then.
Stephenie Karony is a certified health
and fitness instructor, a personal trainer and the author of
"Body Shaping with Free Weights." Send questions to her at
P.O. Box 262, Wailuku Hi. Her column appears on Wednesdays.