13 February 2018Does anyone need an excuse to eat chocolate?

Quiz! True or False?

  1. February is "Chocolate Celebration Month"
  2. Chocolate is one of the 4 food groups
  3. Chocolate is ALL FOUR of the food groups
  4. Chocolate is an aphrodisiac and mood enhancer
  5. Chocolate is a health food

We love chocolate so much we give it its own food group. Kidding aside, in fact February is Chocolate Celebration Month, but if you miss February, don't worry. According to FarmFlavor, there are some 30 official chocolate-focused days in the year. As if we needed more excuses to love chocolate.

Chocolate has always enjoyed a reputation as an elixir or curative. The Aztecs developed a bitter chocolate beverage and called it Food of the Gods. Europeans believed chocolate was a general purpose curative. Modern science has uncovered evidence for health benefits, such as:

  • Improved blood vessel health
  • Higher HDL cholesterol levels
  • Lower fasting blood glucose
  • Decreased insulin resistance
  • Improve memory and cognition

It isn't often that delicious treats are linked to so many health benefits, so it's no wonder chocolate sales are booming. Statista reports that in the US alone, chocolate sales reached $22.4 billion and are predicted to reach $25 billion in 2019. Of course, if you've shopped for chocolate bars recently, you might suspect that some of that increase is due to much higher prices rather than increased consumption of chocolate. And in fact, sales of actual cocoa ingredients have fallen recently. One culprit: sugar. As people try to reduce sugar intake, chocolate candy purchases decrease. So we're spending more but eating less. One strategy to combat this sales problem is to position chocolate as a health food. Big chocolate companies like Hershey fund research that inevitably shows some health benefit for some component found in chocolate, specifically flavanols. These are antioxidant compounds, and research links flavanol intake to many of the health benefits listed above. Great! Break out the truffles, right? Not quite. The source of cocoa flavanols in these studies varies from dark chocolate bars to high flavanol cocoa beverages to capsules of cocoa extracts. You'd have to eat a lot of truffles (and calories) to get the flavanol dose used in some of the studies. And any benefits from flavanols depend on constant daily intake. The minimum intake associated with any benefits was 200 mg/day. Consuming this daily dose from truffles can add up a lot of calories, meaning less room for other perhaps more nutritious foods in your daily diet.

ConsumerLab (subscription required) recently analyzed numerous cocoa/chocolate products, from candy bars to powdered drinks to supplements, for flavanol content. The analyses found that some chocolate products had very little flavanol content; others had meaningful doses. In general, as expected, dark chocolate, cocoa powders and extracts had the highest flavanol concentrations, but not all such products were good sources.

Many of the products contained traces of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal. Some also contained lead. Strangely organic chocolates were more likely to have this contamination, although not all did. Cocoa supplements were least likely to be contaminated, likely because the flavanols are purified during the extraction process, which removes heavy metals. In late 2017, the FDA reported similar cadmium results from tests of dozens of chocolate products.

Should you be alarmed? Cadmium is found in many other foods, as well as in water and tobacco smoke, so chocolate is not a unique source. Cadmium absorption from food is low, in any event. The proposed daily limit on exposure from food is 25 micrograms (1/1000th of a milligram), which doesn't sound like much. In the case of one dark chocolate bar, a one ounce serving would have 21 micrograms of cadmium, right at the upper limit, while other dark chocolates had zero. The US has not set a limit for cadmium in chocolate, although the European Union has proposed limits for cocoa powder and milk and dark chocolate.

How to get the best dose of flavanols?

Dark chocolate has the health halo, because more of it is chocolate; less is milk or sugar. Conclusion: dark chocolate must have more flavanols and therefore provides health benefits. But not necessarily. Why? When you read "% cocoa" on a label, you might think all of that percent is actual flavanol-rich cocoa. But in fact that percentage can include cocoa butter, which is just fat and has no flavanols. So while dark chocolate generally would have more flavanols than milk chocolate, a high percentage of cocoa (or cacao) is no guarantee.

No surprise, the ConsumerLab study found the most flavanol bang for the calorie buck in unsweetened baking chocolate and other very dark chocolate. For example, you could get that suggested 200 mg dose of flavanols in a 1/2 ounce serving of unsweetened baking chocolate. The catch is that few people actually eat unsweetened baking chocolate - it's extremely bitter. But some dark chocolate bars with a high percentage of cocoa (75% +) are also good sources flavanols, although with a few more calories from sugar. Other good sources of cocoa flavanols include some brands of concentrated extracts, powders and capsules.

Take Away on Chocolate

  • The idea that chocolate provides health benefits is very attractive. Who doesn't want an excuse to eat treats? But keep in mind, many of the measured benefits were minor, short-term or in some cases absent. Chocolate may be helpful, but is a daily dose of chocolate better than a balanced plant-based diet, full of a wide range of beneficial substances? Chocolate will not fix a poor diet.
  • Much of the research that shows health benefits is funded by companies that produce and sell chocolate.
  • Some chocolate contains levels of heavy metals like cadmium that might be cause for concern with daily long-term consumption.
  • Health benefits of chocolate are not an excuse to eat high calorie foods with minor chocolate content such as chocolate ice cream, chocolate cake, chocolate chip cookies and inexpensive chocolate-coated bars. White chocolate has no flavanols.
  • If a small piece of rich dark chocolate satisfies your appetite for a sweet treat, and helps you resist eating a big dessert or munching your way through a bag of chips, then chocolate has a clear health benefit for you. It helps you control intake of empty calories. If it also provides any of the claimed health benefits, so much the better.

About that Aphrodisiac Effect

Back in the late 1700's, the famous Italian playboy Casanova proclaimed chocolate an aphrodisiac. He reportedly used hot chocolate as a kind of natural Viagra. There is also a belief that chocolate contains mood-enhancing substances, such as theobromine, phenylethylamine and tyramine. Surprisingly, no one has officially studied these purported effects of chocolate, perhaps because any such study would obviously be extremely difficult to arrange. Exactly how would you measure the aphrodisiac effect?

Back to the Quiz

Yes #1 is True. As for the other questions, we can safely say that someone, somewhere at some time believed each of them to be true. We don't really need the excuse of health benefits to enjoy chocolate, but if it puts you in a romantic, happy mood while improving heart health, so much the better.

Donna P Feldman MS RDN

is author of "Feed Your Vegetarian Teen", writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast series.

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