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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Jury Still Out on Chocolate’s Benefits

Is chocolate really good for you? It's sensible to be skeptical about claims like this. While there is some evidence that cocoa solids in chocolate offer some health benefits, chocolate also contains a significant amount of fat and sugar (and therefore, calories) which could have health effects that aren't so desirable.

In August 2011, an article in the "News in Health" monthly newsletter from the National Institutes of Health provided a detailed overview of the latest studies on health claims about chocolate. The research findings remain far from clear.

It is true that cocoa solids contain a significant amount of flavonoids, which have powerful antioxidant properties. In fact, there have been ongoing studies of these effects on the Kuna Indians, who live on islands off the coast of Panama and whose primary beverage is made from dried, ground cocoa beans with just a small amount of added sweetener. The Kuna get as much as 900 milligrams of flavonols (a type of flavonoid) daily from this drink -- and they tend to have much lower rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.

But this amount of flavonols is almost unheard of in the American diet. A typical bar of dark chocolate (1.6 ounces) might contain about 250 milligrams of flavonols -- and also offers 9 grams of saturated fat, 21 grams of sugar and 240 calories.

Still, there is some evidence that dark chocolate might provide benefits. A 2004 study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition gave a small group of people a daily dose of a dark-chocolate bar rich in flavonoids for two weeks and compared effects with those who got chocolate with the flavonoids removed. Those who received the chocolate rich in flavonoids had significantly better blood vessel function. Although no difference in blood pressure was observed, other studies indicate that dark chocolate could help decrease hypertension.

Still, research findings are up in the air -- enough so that experts aren't telling people to have a bit of chocolate every day. But, if you do enjoy chocolate now and again, follow these recommendations from National Institute of Health to get the most bang for your buck:
  • Choose as dark a chocolate as you can find. Darker chocolate means more cocoa solids and more flavonoids.
  • Avoid white chocolate, which has no cocoa solids, and milk chocolate, which has just a little.
  • Enjoy hot chocolate? Make your own from unsweetened cocoa, water and nonfat milk, with just a little sugar or sweetener.