The Harold Leever Regional Cancer Center

Chocolate: Health or Hype?

Posted on

OPEN MOUTH. INSERT CHOCOLATE. CLOSE EYES. SAVOR. SMILE. 

Chocolate is one of America’s favorite foods and is often associated with love, comfort, and well-being. In fact, every year, Americans consume about eight billion pounds (11 pounds per person) and spend over $22 billion on chocolate. Halloween and Valentine’s Day are all about chocolate.

Chocolate:  Health or Hype?Chocolate comes from the cacao plant, and its seed, cocoa bean, is rich in flavanols, a type of flavonoid phytochemical which is a potent antioxidant. Antioxidants help to prevent cell damage and reduce inflammation.

There are many health claims attributed to consuming chocolate, but are they legitimate? Let’s take a look.

POTENTIAL HEALTH BENEFITS OF FLAVANOLS IN CHOCOLATE

Heart attack risk reduction: Flavanols appear to make platelets in the blood less sticky and less able to clot, therefore reducing the risk of a heart attack. They also have the potential to reduce plaque formation, lower blood pressure and improve blood flow to the heart.

Cholesterol: Dark chocolate has been shown to raise HDL (good cholesterol) and lower LDL (bad cholesterol).

Diabetes: Studies have found that  eating a small amount of dark  chocolate every day lowered insulin resistance (inability of insulin to do its job), which improves the metabolism of glucose and lowers overall risk of  diabetes as well as heart disease.

Brain function: Cocoa or dark  chocolate may improve brain and cognitive function by increasing blood flow to the brain.

Skin protection: Some studies have indicated that the flavanols in dark chocolate can protect against sun damage, improve blood flow to the skin, and increase skin density and hydration.

Athletic performance: A little dark chocolate might boost oxygen availability during fitness training.  This same effect was noted with  competitive cyclists doing time trials.

CHOOSING YOUR CHOCOLATE:

Before you start gobbling up  mountains of chocolate in the hopes of living a longer, healthier life, you need to know that not all chocolate is created equal.

In its purest form, cocoa is strong and pungent, due to its high content of flavanols. The more it is processed, the lower the flavanol content becomes. The fat in cocoa beans, also known as cocoa butter, can be healthy, but during processing, other less healthy fats can be added (milk fat, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, coconut or palm oil), as well as lots of sugar, both of which make the chocolate less healthy and higher in calories, and potentially negating the benefits.

TOP CHOCOLATE PICKS

  • Look for 70% - 85% cocoa on  the label.
  • Unprocessed cocoa powder (avoid Dutch-processed) and unsweetened baking chocolate rank first and second, have the most flavonoids, and are lowest in fat, sugar, and calories.
  • Dark chocolate and semisweet  chocolate chips rank third.
  • Milk chocolate and chocolate syrup are at the bottom of the list.
  • White chocolate tastes good, but isn’t technically chocolate. 

HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?

Keep your portions small and high quality. One ounce of very dark chocolate with greater than 70% cocoa (approximately 150 calories) may provide some health benefits. And remember to open mouth, insert chocolate, close eyes, savor, and smile.

Questions about nutrition? Contact nutritionist Karen Sabbath, MS, RD, CSO, at ksabbath@leevercancercenter.org or 203-575-5510.