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Chocolate, healthy or unhealthy?

A box of chocolate.
Above: A box of chocolate.

As a big chocolate fan, I can’t help but wonder whether chocolate is actually good for health or not. However amidst various claims on the health benefits or the harmfulness of chocolates, I choose to believe that at least dark chocolate is healthy for regular consumption. This possibly biased decision is actually based on my love for chocolate and recently this decision was challenged by my exercise partner for the semester.

Because she had eaten chocolate today, she must go to the gym to exercise in order to shed the cholesterol that she believed she had gained from the chocolate consumption. This is a rule that my friend strictly enforces upon herself. Since, like me, my friend also can’t resist chocolate, she decided to live by her rule in order to eliminate the cholesterol. However, is this exercising really necessary? How much cholesterol is actually in chocolate and is this amount detrimental to health? What about the fat in chocolate? The most important question (for me at least) is whether dark chocolate is included in this category of “bad-for-health chocolates”? What about the studies that suggest dark chocolate is good for the heart? To find accurate answers for these questions, I visited two credible websites: the Mayo Clinic website and the Cleveland Clinic website.

Cleveland Clinic, a premiere medical research, primary care, and education institution devotes an article to the explanation of the health effects of chocolate. According to this article, whether chocolate consumption is beneficial or detrimental to health depends on several factors: the flavonoid content of the chocolate, other components of the chocolate, and how much is consumed.

First, flavonoids are antioxidants found in plant-derived foods like tea, apple, and cranberries, etc. These antioxidants could prevent LDL (bad)-cholesterol oxidation, which hurts the arteries and promotes plaque formation on the arterial wall. Furthermore, these antioxidants could lower both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure, promote blood flow, and prevent clot formation. With all these benefits to health, it is not surprising that consumption of foods with high flavonoid contents, such as berries and tea, is vigorously promoted by health professionals and by the media (the number of times we see commercials boast the antioxidant content of their products. For instance, Snapple claims that they have “The Green Tea with the most EGCG on Earth.” EGCG is a flavonoid antioxidant.).

Snapple poster claiming that they have ‘The Green Tea with the most EGCG on Earth.’
Above: Snapple poster claiming that they have “The Green Tea with the most EGCG on Earth. EGCG is an antioxidant.

Fortunately I can also get some of this flavonoid from chocolate, not just from berries and tea. However, before rushing to purchase enough chocolate to replace berries and tea, it’s important to realize that not all chocolate contain the same amount of flavonoid. According to Cleveland Clinic, chocolate are processed differently and some production methods remove flavonoids. Therefore, it is important to find and consume those chocolate that retained the most flavonoids after processing. This is, however, easier said than done. A simpler way to choose chocolate that contain high levels of flavonoid is to choose dark chocolate over milk and white chocolate. Dark chocolate usually contains 50-80% cocoa (the component of chocolate that actually contains the flavonoids), milk chocolate 15-25%, and white chocolate has almost no flavonoids (Mayo Clinic, 2008). So choosing dark chocolate would mostly likely give you the flavonoids you want.

Despite its benefits, chocolate could have harmful effects on health. This is because 1) chocolate does contain fat and 2) unhealthy substances such as caramel and sugar could be added in large quantities to chocolate, depending on the type of chocolate you purchase. First, chocolate contains three types of fat that come from the cocoa butter used for chocolate production. Two of these fats, stearic and palmitic acids, are saturated fats that could increase LDL(bad)-cholesterol. When consumed in large quantities, these fats do have an unfavorable effect on the cardiovascular system. However, when consumed in lower quantities, these fats do not post a big health hazard. Thus, moderation is the key to gaining the benefits and avoiding the harmful effects of chocolate consumption. Second, chocolate that are not pure chocolate but chocolate “mixtures” with unhealthy components such as caramel and marshmallow definitely elevate the harmful effects of chocolate in comparison to the benefits of chocolate. Therefore it is necessary to avoid these chocolate mixtures. According to the article on the Mayo Clinic website, consuming 6 grams or about a square of pure dark chocolate is the best.

After reading about chocolate from both Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic websites, I am now much more confident in my consumption of dark chocolate. Maybe I consume 3 squares a day, but I’m content that this amount, which does not equal over-consumption , can help to keep my cardiovascular system healthy while not requiring me to burn off the fat and cholesterol every time I eat chocolate. To my friend, and all chocolate enthusiasts out there, this might also be very good news!

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Posted by on April 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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