Chocolates: To eat or not to eat


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Chocolates: To eat or not to eat

By Angelique P. Manalad, Contributor

Smooth, luscious, bittersweet and so much like love, thy name is chocolate. Even just its aroma makes us feel warm. Chocolates mark the fondest days of our lives—cakes for weddings, ice cream for birthdays, chocolate eggs on Easter, chocolate hearts on Valentine’s and a cup of hot tsokolate for Christmas.

Possibly a chocolate lover’s nightmare would be to learn that he has diabetes. Thankfully, the latest scientific studies will put their hearts to rest like a cup of warm cocoa.

Researchers from the University of L’Aquila in Italy have documented that eating 100g of dark chocolate each day for 15 days enabled test subjects to better metabolize sugar—important news for those suffering from diabetes. Dark chocolate has also been shown to lower blood pressure.

Your new best friend, flavanol

These results were from the effect of the antioxidant found in chocolates—flavanol. According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, antioxidants protect the body by neutralizing potentially cell-damaging substances produced by the body known as oxygen free radicals. They also report that flavanol helps cardiovascular health by improving the endothelium—the thin layer of cells that line the interior surface of blood vessels that allow blood to flow smoothly—and by delaying harmful blood clotting. These factors reduce inflammation and improve circulation in the feet, hands and brain.

Other food items such as red wine and tea also contain flavanol. However, studies by the Cornell University in New York have shown that cup of cocoa contains twice the amount of antioxidants as a glass of red wine, three times more than green tea and five times more than black tea.

Flavanol content varies greatly depending on the kind and quality of chocolate. It is important to know if you are just eating mostly sugar and fat or if you’re really getting the good stuff.

Don’t be afraid of the dark

Dark chocolate contains the highest amount of antioxidants, which comes from its cocoa content. The finest dark chocolates possess 70 percent or higher cocoa content. Milk chocolate contains only up to 50 percent cocoa and white chocolate contains only about 33 percent cocoa.

Note that processing cocoa with alkali, such as that used in Dutch chocolate, destroys most of the flavanol. Popular inexpensive chocolates are mostly composed of sugar and may contain as little as 7 percent cocoa. Currently, many chocolate-flavored candies cannot be legally considered true chocolates because they substitute vegetable fat for cocoa butter and may use milk substitutes, sweeteners and artificial vanilla flavoring. Always look at the ingredients and nutritional facts.

Interestingly, two-thirds of the fat in authentic chocolate are composed of a saturated fat called stearic acid and a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. However, unlike other saturated fats, stearic acid does not raise levels of “bad” cholesterol in the bloodstream.

Nonetheless, any excessive calorie intake—be it with good or bad cholesterol, dark or milk chocolate—is harmful and outweighs any health benefits that may be derived from flavonols. Those consuming chocolate must cut back on other high calorie food items. Like everyone, they must balance their diet with fiber and protein and exercise regularly.

Because of the rising awareness of chocolate’s health benefits, many high quality chocolate brands—especially those of dark chocolate—have begun to declare the percentage of cocoa content on their packaging.

An even healthier way of consuming chocolate is drinking it. While a 40g bar of chocolate contains about 8g of saturated fat, a cup of hot cocoa contains only an average of 0.3g.

Love chemicals

Caffeine is the most well known of these chemical ingredients, and while it’s present in chocolate, it can only be found in small quantities. Theobromine, a weak stimulant, is also present, in slightly higher amounts. The combination of these two chemicals (and possibly others) may provide the “lift” that chocolate lovers experience. Theobromine also moistens and soothes the throat.

Phenylethylamine is also found in chocolate. It is related to amphetamines, which are strong stimulants. All of these stimulants increase the activity of neurotransmitters in parts of the brain that control our ability to pay attention and stay alert. Phenylethylamine is also the same chemical produced in the brain when people are in love.

All in sweet moderation

As with love, so too with chocolate. One must appreciate and imbibe, but not besot your self. Sharing multiplies one’s pleasure and tempers one’s health. So go ahead, bite into that bittersweet chocolate, drink up that hot cocoa and spread the love.


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