Sweet rewards: Chocolate isn't all that bad

Nutritionists concede that treat might have some small benefits


February 11, 2005|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Will guilt make it hard to dig into that box of chocolates this Valentine's Day?

No one says the dark, sweet treat so closely associated with the holiday of love qualifies as health food.

In fact, much of the evidence linking chocolate to better health is based on research financed by the chocolate industry, and reports of its benefits are often greatly exaggerated.

Many studies, for example, used pure cocoa, so their results don't factor in the effects of the additives in most processed chocolate, such as sugar, corn syrup, and tropical and hydrogenated oils.

Bottom line: Nutritionists agree that it's never smart to overindulge in any sweet. But they also say there's no harm in the occasional treat. So if you're looking for excuses to dig in, here are six good reasons to eat chocolate:

1. Chocolate (along with certain teas, red wine and some fruits and vegetables) contains flavonoids, natural antioxidants that can protect the arteries and reduce the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancers. Generally, the darker the chocolate, the higher its flavonoid content. White chocolate has no flavonoids, and thus a higher guilt quotient than the dark stuff.

2. Chocolate may lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of strokes. Dr. Norman Hollenberg, a researcher at the Harvard Medical School, found that members of the indigenous Kuna tribes, who live on isolated islands off Panama and drink five cups of locally brewed cocoa each day, rarely developed high blood pressure. But their blood pressures increased when they left the island and stopped drinking the cocoa.

In a follow-up study published in 2003, Hollenberg and other researchers gave Boston-area volunteers cocoa with the same flavonoid content as the Kunas' and found that 14 people who drank it had higher levels of nitric oxide in their veins - which lowers blood pressure - than 13 people in a control group.

3. Chocolate will not give you acne. Researchers at the University of Missouri fed eight people with mild to moderate acne large amounts of chocolate in 1960 and found that it did not cause any flare-ups. A larger study of 65 people in 1969 produced the same results.

4. Chocolate will not necessarily raise your cholesterol levels. The fat in chocolate comes from three sources: oleic, stearic and palmitic acids. Oleic is the type of heart-healthy fat found in olive oil and is generally considered beneficial. Stearic acid has a neutral effect on cholesterol. And, while palmitic acids can raise cholesterol levels, they account for only a small proportion of the fat in chocolate, according to researchers at the Cleveland Clinic.

5. Chocolate can give you an energy boost. It contains caffeine, and though it's not as concentrated as the caffeine in coffee, some people believe chocolate can give you the same kind of temporary lift you get from a cup of java. Chocolate contains small amounts of other bioactive compounds, as well, such as theobromine, tyramine and phenylethylamine. According to some research, they can provide a mild lift, too.

6. The best reason for eating chocolate: You only live once.

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