By Beth Klos, R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
As you walk down the street, a warm, amber smell drifts out from a small shop and circles under your nose. A soothing, velvety voice calls to you from inside a glittering foil wrapper. It's chocolate, trying to lure you into the store.
The recent flurry of media reports about chocolate ring in your mind. Is chocolate's call a siren song, leading to weight gain and health problems? Or is it calling you to a treat with health benefits?
Chocolate, and other products made with cocoa, contain antioxidants called flavonoids. Wine, tea and various fruits and berries also contain flavonoids, which occasionally has made them media darlings as well. Emerging research indicates that the flavonoids in chocolate may have some positive effects in the body.
But you may wonder why a confection like chocolate contains an antioxidant. It starts with cocoa's origins as a plant product.
From the Bean to Your World
Cocoa products are derived from a humble bean, rich in fabulous flavonoids. Tropical cocoa trees grow a football-shaped pod containing 20 to 50 precious cocoa beans.
The natural beans are bitter, and without other ingredients or processing would not be considered pleasing. First, the beans are fermented for a few days, and then dried for preservation. Dried beans are roasted to open up the flavor, similar to roasting coffee. In areas of the world where people still grow and harvest their own cocoa beans, roasting may be done at home, over an open fire.
After roasting, the beans are broken open and the insides (known as nibs) are removed and ground. For homegrown products, mixing with other ingredients is all that is left to do.
For commercial products, processing continues. The ground nibs harden into chocolate liquor, which is sold as baking chocolate. Liquor put under pressure separates into cocoa butter (the fat) and cocoa powder.
To make eating chocolate, the chocolate liquor is combined with the cocoa butter. Other ingredients may be added with additional processing.
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The Color of Chocolate
The dry cocoa powder, used in products such as hot chocolate, can be put through Dutch processing (alkalizing), which changes the appearance and flavor in a way that is preferred by many consumers.
Flavonoid antioxidants give chocolate its characteristic dark color. Processing tends to reduce the antioxidant content of the final product. Some types of processing, such as Dutch processing, make chocolate lighter in color and remove more antioxidants.
Dark chocolate has the most antioxidants even though it does go through some processing.
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What Does the Research Say?
There are several interesting lines of research about chocolate, such as how chocolate affects blood pressure, cholesterol and the tendency to form blood clots. The effect of antioxidants in chocolate can be studied because white chocolate is similar, but without the antioxidants. This provides a good comparison.
- Blood pressure — Preliminary research shows a short-term decrease in blood pressure for people who worked dark chocolate into their diets.
- Cholesterol — In controlled amounts, the specific types of fat in cocoa butter don't seem to raise blood cholesterol levels. To the contrary, the flavonoids in cocoa may reduce the dangerous plaque-making form of LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol.
- Blood clots — Flavonoid-rich cocoa and chocolate seem to have a mild tendency to make platelets less sticky. Sticky platelets are more likely to cause blood clots inside arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
The studies showing chocolate's health benefits were relatively small, because feeding large numbers of people controlled amounts of cocoa products is difficult. More extensive research with larger populations may add more strength to these conclusions.
The fears that chocolate makes skin break out or is addictive do not have any conclusive research to back them.
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So Should I or Shouldn't I Eat Chocolate?
As with all foods, the answer depends upon the quality and quantity of the cocoa product. On the positive side, studies on dark chocolate demonstrate potential health benefits. On the negative side, chocolate is calorie-rich and can be a contributor to weight gain.
If you ate 1½ chocolate bars a day above your calorie needs, you would gain about 4 pounds in one month! Gaining weight can lead to many health problems and would eliminate any benefit from having more flavonoids in your diet. Having chocolate in small portions is the key.
Here are some tips on working cocoa-containing products into your diet without adding too many calories:
- Limit yourself to a small piece of chocolate (a bite-sized piece or about one-third of a bar).
- Choose dark chocolate (if not heavily processed) and new high-flavonoid chocolate and cocoa products rather than milk chocolate or Dutch processed (alkalized) products.
- Look at the ingredients. To get the most flavonoids, make sure the first listed ingredient is cocoa solids or mass or chocolate liquor, not sugar.
- Pick a chocolate-flavored product for your calcium supplement.
- Drink a cup of hot chocolate made with low-fat milk or soymilk. Low-calorie, low-sugar hot chocolates with extra calcium are available.
- Enjoy a berry or small piece of fruit dipped in chocolate.
Remember, white chocolate has virtually no flavonoids. And some confections called "chocolates" are really just a thin shell of chocolate with sugary insides. These are best grouped with other empty-calorie snacks, as they contain little cocoa or flavonoids.
When you eat that little nip of chocolate, savor and enjoy! And if you are craving more, consider the other flavonoid-rich foods with fewer calories such as grapes, blueberries, strawberries and spinach. These are smart, colorful and flavorful ways to keep your diet balanced.
Beth Klos, R.D., L.D.N., is an outpatient senior nutritionist at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Rhode Island and her dietetic internship at Brigham and Women's Hospital.