Perryman Column: Chocolate – the Truth and Consequences

Before the Food Guide Pyramid, there were four food groups. The mug I use at work advertises my dietary approach quite clearly: "Chocolate-the Fifth Basic Food Group."

I eat chocolate every day, which may come as a surprising confession. I’m as happy as other chocolate lovers are to learn that chocolate does have a healthy place in our diet, though sometimes the facts do get stretched to fit that chocolate craving.

The next time you get a craving, you can indulge with chocolate facts in mind:

– The most beneficial form of chocolate is dark chocolate with a cocoa content of at least 70 percent. The higher the percentage, the darker the chocolate.

– Cocoa is rich in flavonoids. Flavonoids act as antioxidants and help the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals from environmental contaminants like cigarette smoke. Flavonols in chocolate also have anti-inflammatory and anti-platelet effects. Decreasing clot formation lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke. Dark chocolate, which is less processed than lighter chocolates, retains the highest level of flavonols.

– One study concluded that chocolate is a good source of anti-oxidants–those beneficial compounds that lessen the risk for cancer by reducing cancer cell growth and lowering the LDL cholesterol to help prevent heart disease.

– Usually the news about fat in food is disheartening. However, stearic acid, the main saturated fat in chocolate has a neutral effect on blood cholesterol-neither raising nor lowering LDL cholesterol levels. Chocolate also contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.

– Substances in chocolate trigger mood enhancing chemicals in the brain to create feelings of giddiness, attraction, euphoria and excitement.

– Cocoa butter contains very small amounts of caffeine and theobromine (a metabolite of caffeine) which are chemically related compounds. The levels of caffeine in chocolate are small and range from 2 to 23 milligrams in a typical milk chocolate candy bar, and from 2 to 7 milligrams in an 8 ounce glass of chocolate milk. The same amount of regular brewed coffee contains 184 milligrams of caffeine.

– White chocolate is not the same as dark chocolate because it is made from cocoa butter and does not contain the beneficial flavonols of dark chocolate nor the caffeine stimulants.

– While we can enjoy chocolate treats with health benefits, sharing chocolate with our furry friends is not a good idea. The theobromine naturally present in chocolate, especially dark chocolate, can be toxic to pets, particularly dogs.

– One recent study concluded that eating 30 calories a day of dark chocolate lowered blood pressure, thanks to the high flavonol content. And, there is more good news: The study showed that a 30-calorie indulgence didn’t result in weight gain or elevated blood sugar.

Chocoholics (myself included) will readily admit that eating chocolate makes us feel good and studies show a little dark chocolate may be good for us. As much as I would like to leave you thinking that heart shaped box of chocolates is good for your heart and your overall health, like most indulgences, there is a downside.

Chocolate in any form contains calories and fat-about 150 calories and 8.5 grams of fat per ounce. A little daily chocolate might contribute beneficially to good health, though stopping at 30 calories (about the size of a chocolate candy kiss) is not necessarily easy to do.

If you eat chocolate in moderation and choose dark chocolate most of the time, you needn’t feel guilty. Research hasn’t given us the green light to eat all the chocolate we want, but nutrition, after all, is an evolving science.

Is anyone besides me interested in signing up for the next chocolate study?

by: Shirley Perryman, M.S., R.D.

Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition

Colorado State University

Extension Specialist