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Death - Or Life By Chocolate?


Cacao trees are grown in tropical areas along

the equator throughout the world.  Pictured are

Arriba cacao grown on an organic plantation

in southern Equador.Before being incorporated into wonderfully decadent chocolate treats, cacao was actually first used as medicinal agent for over 100 different ailments.   It wasn’t until it was exported to Europe that people experimented with combining cacao with milk and sugar.

I recently attended some very intriguing research sessions on the health benefits of cacao.   The benefits I had heard before, but I learned something that challenged what my dietitian colleagues and I have long recommended when it comes to using chocolate as a neutraceutical.   Contrary to popular belief, color (dark vs. lighter varieties) nor percent cacao (higher the better) dictate the level of health benefits.   It really depends on the active flavanols that are contained in the product.   You see, flavanols are very easily destroyed in the processing of cacao.   So even if it’s a dark chocolate that is 70% cacao, it may have been processed in a way that has destroyed the flavanol activity in the chocolate.

The problem is that you cannot put flavanol content on a food label of a piece of chocolate.   The tougher labeling laws in the U.S. prohibit a food product like chocolate cannot tout health benefits (listing the flavanol content) due to its high sugar and fat content.     

What Are Flavanols and What Are the Health Benefits?

Flavanols, specifically epicatechin, is a type of polyphenol (basically, it’s a compound that has multiple benefits to the body!) that is best known for promoting endothelial health (i.e., nice dilated arteries and veins) and help in maintaining normal blood pressure.   Some of the research presented looked at smokers that have pre-aged arteries due to the constriction effects of nicotine.   This group that was tested were otherwise healthy people according to baseline lab work, but they did endothelial function testing, their arteries were like 80 year olds.   When they gave them flavanol doeses of 176-185 mg per day, these smokers had significantly improved arterial function.    I don’t know about you, but I have many family members that smoke.   They just might benefit from higher doses of flavanols in these types of supplements.

So that begs the question.   Death or life by chocolate?   A beneficial dosage has not been established, although the study mentioned above was somewhere around 175-185mg of flavanols per day.   Most dietitians and other health professionals would conclude that the negatives would outweigh the positives to eat that much chocolate daily!   Companies such as Mars has developed a dietary supplements that contain potentially beneficial levels active flavanols that can have these benefits.   In populations such as smokers or people with a family history of cardiovascular disease, this supplement may be something to consider taking.

Other Foods Containing Flavanols

As a food therapist, I have to ask the question: why not try and eat these compounds in food throughout the day?   Foods that have decent amount of flavanols include green and black tea (especially Ceylon tea), red wine, sweet cherries, apples, apricots, purple grapes, blackberries, raspberries and broad beans.   (See here amounts in foods)

Bottom Line

Chocolate can be enjoyed and death will not occur if eaten in moderation, you are not “deathly” allergic and you are not certain animals like a dog or cat.   J   Flavanol content dictates the level of health benefit of the chocolate you eat, not the color or percent cacao.   Most dietitians and wellness professionals would probably agree that a piece of dark chocolate with a high percent cacao would still be the preferred chocolate since it generally has a lower content than milk and white chocolate and it has the potential of having the highest flavanol content.   But, you can also eat a wide variety of plant-based foods with high flavanol content to multiply your health benefits of those types of foods.

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