Chocolate is often on the list of a woman’s favorite foods and why not? We’ve all read stories about how chocolate contains healthful compounds with hard to pronounce chemical names (like polyphenols and flavanols) but does that justify our M&Ms habit by saying it is “good” for us. Are we fooling ourselves and letting our taste buds rule?
Research has shown that cocoa and chocolate have an antioxidant effect, specifically by preventing bad cholesterol accumulation in blood vessels that can clog them up and lead to heart disease. Chocolate has also been found to relax blood vessels by reducing inflammation—that could help blood move more freely through the body thereby decreasing risk of heart attack. Some research even suggests that chocolate can improve our brains—helping increase blood flow to improve concentration.
There is tantalizing evidence that chocolate has positive health effects. A closer look at the research, however, leaves us with more questions than answers. For example, in studies with real people, the amount of chocolate consumed is often more than we would normally eat and would contribute to excess calories and fat. Several studies use 100-grams of chocolate and that is equivalent to slightly less than three 1.3 ounce Dove dark chocolate bars or 4 cups of hot chocolate. (I know what you are thinking, no problem eating 3 candy bars a day, but can you afford the 570 calories, 36 grams of fat, and 21 grams of saturated fat that come along with the candy bars)
Another concern is that it is hard for consumers to know how much of the good compounds are found in their favorite chocolate—processing can remove the healthful compounds. As a general rule, dark chocolate is higher in polyphenols than milk chocolate. White chocolate doesn’t have any heart-healthy benefits. (White chocolate isn’t really chocolate because it doesn’t contain any cocoa). Unfortunately, the amount of cocoa solids (the “in” trend in choosing chocolate) doesn’t help consumers know which chocolate is better. So, look for the word “chocolate” and not “chocolate processed with alkali” or “Dutch chocolate.”
If you are a real chocolate lover and can’t let a day go by without a chocolate treat, consider the following:
- Dark chocolate is more likely to have the heart healthy benefits shown in studies, so stick to dark chocolate with 50-70% cacao
- Limit the portion size to control fat and calories; buy mini-chocolate bars or small pieces of chocolate and limit to one serving
- Chocolate of any kind contains a lot of calories in a small package, so look at the label to know how many calories are in a serving
- Increase your activity to burn the excess calories—to burn off 100 extra calories you need to walk a mile
- Consider chocolate a treat that has potential health benefits, not a health food that should be eaten daily in one-pound portions!
Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN is a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals, 5th ed (2012) and is a contributing writer for several professional and consumer publications.