Does chocolate's “antioxidant content” make it healthy for you?
As a self-proclaimed sugar enthusiast I am a true believer in any research that points to even the most tenuous link between health and dessert. So you can imagine my excitement when all of the supposed health benefits of chocolate started popping up around the Web. Lowers your blood pressure, decreases cholesterol, prevents heart attack… this can’t be real, can it?
Well, yes and no. First of all, when we talk about chocolate, it’s important to know we are talking about dark chocolate ONLY, and not milk chocolate, or mint chocolate, or well, anything but DARK chocolate. And while we are all equally disappointed to hear this, dark chocolate does not include Snicker's, M+Ms, Twix... basically anything processed you ever stuffed inside of a pillowcase on Halloween. Technically speaking, dark chocolate is a term used to described both semisweet and bittersweet chocolate. According to the FDA's “standards of identity” (i.e. how you know your chocolate isn't made of mud), bittersweet chocolate must contain chocolate liquor, sugar, and at least 35% cocoa butter. Wait... whaaat?
Basically, chocolate as we know it can be divided into three categories based on the amounts of cocoa product it contains. The cocoa bean has two components essential to chocolate producers: cocoa liquor (or cocoa mass) and cocoa butter. The cocoa liquor is where the bitter chocolate flavor comes from, and the cocoa butter is essentially all fat (mostly monounsaturated).
In so many words, the FDA's description of dark chocolate is letting you in on the fact that bittersweet chocolate contains only the chocolate flavor, sugar, and fat. Milk chocolate must contain at least 12% milk or cream in addition to sugar, flavor, and fat. White chocolate has all the fat and sugar, but NO cocoa liquor whatsoever meaning... white chocolate is technically NOT chocolate!
So, knowing that dark chocolate has more cocoa liquor than its inferior counterparts, let's talk about why that matters. While cocoa butter is almost all fat, cocoa liquor is where all of those antioxidants are hiding! This stuff contains flavonoids, which are also found in berries, teas, and red wine. In plants, flavonoids protect from environmental threats and toxins. In humans, these naturally occurring protectors reduce oxidative cell damage and may help increase blood flow to the brain. They have also been linked to reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, and preventing chronic diseases like stroke, cancer, or heart disease.
Ok, but if other foods contain flavonoids, would I be better off eating those instead?
Believe it or not the answer is no as we can't really conclude that other foods containing flavonoids have the same heart-protective benefits as dark chocolate (didn’t see that one coming, did you?). By definition a flavonoid is a general group of phytochemicals encompassing a whole range of subgroups, which means dark chocolate contains flavonoids as does something like elderberries. However, elderberries contain a huge amount of two types of flavonoids called cyanidin and quercetin, while dark chocolate contains epicatechin and catechin. Yeah, totally confusing, but the point here is that if studies have shown that eating dark chocolate is heart-protective, that can't really be translated to other foods that contain flavonoids, for they all contain different types in different quantities.
So, how much is enough?
Unfortunately, I'm not about to tell you to go out and down a whole box of Hershey's Special Dark. According to the Mayo Clinic, eating 6 grams of dark chocolate each day (about one square) has shown to lower blood pressure by 2 points and LDL cholesterol by 5. When these numbers often hover around 100, the protective effect is not as huge as the guys at Nestle would like us to believe, though it's not exactly a gigantic sacrifice either. The docs at Mayo also recommend choosing a chocolate with at least 60% cocoa (which we now know means cocoa liquor!)
Just remember, as much as we may like to ignore it, chocolate is ridiculously high in calories and fat. At one square a day, you're consuming a negligible 30 cals, but one 100 gram Hershey's Special Dark has around 500 calories and 30 grams of fat.
The takeaway then is, consume dark chocolate in moderation!! Or replace other junk foods with dark chocolate instead. I shouldn't have to remind you that diets high in calories and fat are damaging to your heart and brain in a way that a few flavonoids could not possibly reverse.