Is Chocolate Really a Health Food?

In Fun, Health and Safety, ProTrainings, Research by Elizabeth Shaw8 Comments

Is Chocolate Really a Health Food?I’m pretty certain that most of the world would love to believe that chocolate is a health food. I know I would! There have been countless articles that go back and forth on this glorious, sweet, cocoa goodness, and some say that it’s a complete junk food, while others say it has potential benefits.  Eating chocolate may have some perks in the health department, but it also has some considerable drawbacks that should make you think twice before grabbing that King size Hershey bar.

There have been studies of Kuna Indians who live on the islands of the coast of Panama. They  have a low risk of cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure given their weight and salt  intake. Researchers realized that genes weren’t protecting them, because those who moved away from the  Kuna islands developed high blood pressure and heart disease at typical rates.  Something in their island environment must have kept their blood pressure from  rising.

“What was particularly striking about their environment was the  amount of cocoa they consume, which was easily 10 times more than most of us  would get in a typical day,” says Dr. Brent M. Egan, a researcher at the Medical  University of South Carolina who studies the effect of chocolate on blood  pressure.

But Kuna cocoa is a pretty distant stretch from the chocolate that most Americans  eat. “The Kuna make a drink with dried and ground cocoa beans (the seeds of the  cocoa tree) along with a little added sweetener. The chocolate we tend to eat,  on the other hand, is made from cocoa beans that are roasted and processed in  various other ways, and then combined with ingredients like whole milk.”

“Processing can extract 2 main components from cocoa beans: cocoa  solids and cocoa butter. Powdered cocoa is made using the solids. Chocolate is  made from a combination of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The color of the  chocolate depends partly on the amount of cocoa solids and added ingredients,  such as milk. In general, though, the darker the chocolate, the more cocoa  solids it contains. Researchers think the solids are where the healthy  compounds are. White chocolate, in contrast, contains no cocoa solids at all.”

Many studies have been done on the health effects of the past decade. “We have good science on chocolate, especially about dark chocolate  on blood pressure,” says Dr. Luc Djoussé of Harvard Medical   School and Brigham and  Women’s Hospital. His research team found an overall drop in blood pressure  among people who eat more chocolate. “The results suggest that chocolate may,  in fact, lower blood pressure,” Djoussé says. “This effect was even stronger  among people with high blood pressure to begin with.”

Lab studies have uncovered several things that may explain chocolate’s heart-healthy benefits. Even so, it’s difficult to prove whether the chocolate that Americans mostly eat even has those specific effects on the human body. Besides this, controlling how much chocolate people eat and tracking them for long periods  of time is not an easy task.

“The clinical trials that have been done in people have all been  fairly short,” says Dr. Ranganath Muniyappa, an NIH staff clinician who studies  diabetes and cardiovascular health. These studies, he explains, look at cardiovascular  risk “markers”—factors related to heart health, such as blood pressure—not  long-term outcomes like heart disease and stroke.

There are studies that look into the long-term health effects of chocolate, and these have relied on people to remember how much chocolate they ate. The researchers  then compared those levels with health outcomes, and while such studies can find  associations, they can’t prove the effects of a particular food.

“People usually eat food in a pattern. A chocolate lover would eat  chocolate with something else,” Djoussé explains. “It could be not so much the  chocolate by itself, but chocolate in conjunction with, let’s say, whole grain  or exercise or not smoking—the pattern of the lifestyle habit in general. It’s  really hard to separate the effects of individual components.”

“Chocolate contains high levels of compounds thought to help  prevent cancer, too. But Dr. Joseph Su, an NIH expert in diet and cancer, says  that direct evidence here is similarly hard to come by. Since cancer can take  many years to develop, it’s difficult to prove whether eating chocolate can  affect disease. Instead, researchers look to see if factors linked to cancer  change when chocolate is consumed.”

“Right now, some studies show really a remarkable modification of  those markers,” Su says. But the evidence that chocolate can reduce cancer or  death rates in people is still weak. “There are a few studies that show some  effect,” Su says, “but the findings so far are not consistent.”

Some of the research also suggests that chocolate may help prevent  diabetes, however, the challenge comes in proving this link are similar to those of both heart disease and cancer. Besides this, they often use different chocolates, therefore making it hard to interpret these studies as the ingredients and health effects may vary.

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Chocolate / freeimages.com

“Compounds called flavanols are thought to be responsible for many  of chocolate’s beneficial effects. These compounds are also found in tea, wine,  fruits and vegetables. Different chocolates can vary greatly in their flavanol  content. Cocoa beans naturally differ in their flavanol levels. A large portion  of the flavanols can also be removed during processing. In fact, companies  often remove these compounds intentionally because of their bitter taste. The  end result is that there’s no way to know whether the products you’re looking  at contain high flavanol levels.”

So the question is, can you eat chocolate without guilt tripping yourself? Well, chocolate can have a lot of calories,  and the importance of maintaining a healthy weight is obvious. “If you’re eating  chocolate, make sure to watch the calorie content, the fat content and the  sugar content,” Su says.

“For those who are already consuming chocolate, I would advise  them to look for the darker ones,” Djoussé adds, “not the white chocolate or  the milk chocolate. You won’t get any of the benefit. It’s just going to be  unneeded calories.”

But there’s no need to start eating chocolate if you don’t  already. “The science doesn’t allow us to make recommendations because the  evidence is just not there,” Muniyappa says.

Meanwhile,  NIH will continue to fund studies into the health effects of chocolate, and  many other foods. So one day, that scrumptious Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup might be a health food after all!

Source: nih.gov/

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth enjoys teaching and dancing as well as being a violinist in a local orchestra. She loves reading and writing materials that range everywhere from short stories and poetry to medical dictionaries and encyclopedias. She enjoys sharing her talent for the written word by being a regular contributor and test and training editor here at ProTrainings.

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