Dark chocolate and wine: Here's to your health

December 06, 2006|By ROB KASPER

I attempted to sin my way to wellness the other day by eating dark chocolate and drinking red wine.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities have recently stated, in two separate studies, that eating dark chocolate and drinking red wine could be good for your heart. I have been waiting a long time for this blissful union of good taste and good health to occur.

Back in the 1980s, I had chewed my way through the oat-bran era. It was the rage to eat oat bran to lower your cholesterol then.

Two forces stopped that craze. One was that it turned out that you would have to eat a mountain of oat bran, a portion roughly the size of Federal Hill, to experience the desired effect. The second downer was that when you were grinding away on a mouthful of oat bran, you felt like a cow chewing her cud.

I also weathered the fish-oil frenzy of the 1990s. Here the idea was to ingest the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, with the payoff being it would be good for your heart. Once again it turned out that portion size was a drawback. As I recall, you had to choke down something like a boatload of salmon a day to save your ticker.

When I read about the chocolate and red-wine findings I sighed, "At last." With progress like this I figured it is only a short journey to the nirvana described by Woody Allen in Sleeper, where pizza is the true health food.

So on a weekday afternoon, when the rest of the world had its nose to the grindstone, I skipped out of the office, looking for some healthful vice. I bought several bars of chocolate: Cafe Tasse Noir from Belgium, Ghirardelli Semi-Sweet, Whole Treat Dark Chocolate and, just for curiosity, some Baker's unsweetened chocolate squares.

A research team led by Diane Becker, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Bloomberg School of Public Health, recently had made news by reporting that a daily dose of as little as two tablespoons of dark chocolate can decrease the tendency of platelets to clot in narrow blood vessels.

Becker, I am told, enjoys a daily snack of the purest type of dark chocolate, made from the dried extract of roasted cocoa beans and low in fat and sugar. (I have been told that the professor actually helps herself to chocolate from a colleague's stash, which adds credence to my view that while the research of public-health types may be solid, you've got to watch those folks when they are in the vicinity of quality chocolate.)

Speaking of sneaking, I felt furtive as I came home the other day and let myself into to an empty house through the back door. I pulled a couple of bottles of red wine from storage and carried them, and the chocolate bars, upstairs to the dining room.

The dining room is a grand space. It has a gilded mirror looming over a fireplace, two floor-to-ceiling windows, a gleaming wood table and a sparkling chandelier. My family rarely eats eat there. It is too grandiose for weeknight spaghetti. But it seemed like the perfect spot for a midday indulgence.

To add to the mood, I put Don Giovanni, an opera about seduction, on our ancient stereo. The theme seemed appropriate.

A silver serving tray held the chocolate and three glasses of wine - Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel from California, Coloma Garnacha Rojo from Spain and Sandeman Tawny Porto from Portugal. This sure was more fun than spooning down broccoli soup in the company cafeteria.

The piece of Ghirardelli tasted too sweet when paired with the zinfandel. It did not get along at all with the tannic Spanish red, but was quite cozy with the port, a beverage with more sugar and alcohol and perhaps a touch less heart-friendly resveratrol than most red wines.

As it turned out, none of these three chocolates hit it off with the Spanish red, but all were quite comfortable with the zinfandel and were positively rapturous with the port.

Researchers feel compelled to point out that eating too much sugary chocolate and drinking too much red wine have drawbacks. Namely, that you can get as big as a house and ruin your liver.

Just for the sake of science, I tried to eat a piece of the unsweetened chocolate - the kind that had virtually none of the "bad stuff," sugar and fat, in it. It was horrible.

It gave me a bad case of cottonmouth, turning my taste buds to mush, even when I washed the bitter chocolate down with glasses of red wine. Instead of afternoon delight, the experience reminded me of an afternoon in the radiologist's office, sipping barium sulfate.

Keeping your body healthy, it seems to me, is like working on an old car: What is good for one part can damage another.

So for my new health regime, I am thinking of going with a glass of zinfandel and a piece of Belgian chocolate, and then a nap.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.

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