The Dark Side of Chocolate

by Charles Platkin, PhD

After examining current research more closely, I discovered that while some studies have shown chocolate has certain health benefits, many of these claims just aren’t all they’re cracked up to be:

“Chocolate is a great source of antioxidants.”
An antioxidant is the material that helps to slow down the aging process and helps to prevent heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. It does this by blocking the cellular and arterial damage caused by oxidation reactions that constantly go on in your body. The antioxidants in chocolate are polyphenol flavonoids, potent plant-based compounds that are also found in tea, red wine, and in some fruits and vegetables. In fact, a 1999 analysis of chocolate’s polyphenol antioxidant levels showed that dark chocolate has more than double the antioxidant power of prunes (the highest of the fruits and vegetables).

In spite of this, experts believe that you shouldn’t eat extra chocolate just because of its antioxidant benefits. “We continue to find important nutrients that are unique to each food, so variety is key. The reality is that you could get many of the same benefits from drinking green tea or eating fruits and vegetables — without the calories and fat of chocolate,” says Mara Vitolins, DrPH, MPH, RD, Professor of Nutrition at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. “When looking at any of these studies, it’s important to keep in mind that almost all were done on dark chocolate and cocoa powder, not on milk or white chocolate (which has no cocoa powder at all),” adds Vitolins.

“Chocolate is heart healthy.”
A diet supplemented with the kind of antioxidants found in chocolate or red wine can slow oxidation of LDL or “bad” cholesterol and increase the level of HDL or “good” cholesterol.

Another heart-healthy chocolate benefit is that it contains stearic acid, a saturated vegetable fat that, when ingested, acts like monounsaturated fats found in olive and canola oils. Unlike the saturated fat in butterfat, which raises cholesterol, monounsaturated fat has a neutral effect, or may even help lower blood cholesterol. But keep in mind that chocolate contains other types of fats. In fact, when it comes to raising cholesterol, some experts argue that chocolate is comparable to lard.

“Chocolate is a mood enhancer.”
Let’s face it: eating chocolate makes most of us feel better. In fact, chocolate contains a number of chemicals that impact brain activity, including tryptophan, the building block of serotonin, a relaxation-inducing neurotransmitter, which causes elated or ecstatic feelings in large doses.

Scientists have also isolated an anadamide, a substance that stimulates the same brain cell receptors that respond to THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, which induces feelings of euphoria. Additionally, chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a brain chemical known for promoting feelings of attraction, excitement, giddiness, and apprehension.

But don’t run to the candy store yet! Many of these claims have not been substantiated, and experts say that even if they were, it could mean having to eat several pounds of chocolate at one time to get the desired effects.

“I’m addicted to chocolate — it’s the only thing that satisfies my cravings.”
Many people say they crave chocolate, but most experts agree you can’t get addicted to chocolate as you can to alcohol or drugs. If that’s the case, then why are we so attracted to it?

“Being hunter gatherers is in our genes and the taste of something sweet, more often than not, meant that food was safe to eat,” offers William Hart, PhD, Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at Saint Louis University.

One study of chocolate cravers showed that subjects were not satisfied by straight cocoa powder, and only white or milk chocolate satisfied their cravings. These findings suggest that the aroma, taste, and texture (and maybe the sugar and fat) are what satisfied those cravings.

Still not convinced? Go grab a bar of unsweetened baker’s chocolate — that should set you straight. Cocoa, from which chocolate is made, is naturally quite bitter. In order to cover up its bitterness, large amounts of sugar and fat (including milk and cream) are added.

This is where chocolate’s problems begin. “Considering that candy consumption has grown 50 percent since 1980, chocolate is certainly contributing to obesity,” says Bonnie Liebman, Director of Nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “The [chocolate] industry would have us believe that chocolate candy is right up there with fruits and vegetables. But chocolate is not a health food. If people are eating chocolate candy for their health rather than for pleasure, they’re fooling themselves.”

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