To Your Health

Is eating chocolate beneficial to my health?

Q. Is it really true that chocolate is good for you? This sounds like a fairy tale come true!

A. It is true that raw and "minimally processed" chocolate is rich in substances known as flavonols that have antioxidant properties, but unfortunately the chocolate consumed by most Americans is so overly processed that there is little left of these good things. If you can imagine taking a nice, fresh nutritious stalk of broccoli and letting it sit in your refrigerator for a month, then cooking it for an hour or two in a lot of boiling water, you have a situation similar to that of chocolate. The food that started out as an excellent source of nutrients has been reduced to rubbish.

The bitter truth is that flavonols don't taste good, and the chocolate we love most is made from cocoa beans that have been stripped of flavonols during a chemical process that removes both the bitterness and the flavonols. The cocoa beans that started out with 10,000 milligrams of flavonols per 100 grams of beans end up as a chocolate bar that has about 500 milligrams of flavonols in 100 grams, roughly 5% of what it started with. The sad fact is that in the world of food processing these numbers are not that unusual. Routinely 80-95% of nutrients are lost in the process of converting a food crop into table-ready fare.

The darker the chocolate, the higher it is in flavonols. White chocolate doesn't have any, and milk chocolate has one-quarter of what dark chocolate has. Now that everyone is aware that flavonols are nutritionally valuable, companies are rushing to promote their darkest, highest-flavonol chocolate. The Mars corporation is marketing a special cocoa powder that has lost only half of its flavonols, so that it ends up with 5,000 milligrams of flavonols per 100 grams of chocolate.

Research has yet to catch up with publicity, and whether the proposed benefits will translate into real benefits for chocolate lovers is still an open question. Researchers have shown that, in addition to antioxidant effects, flavonols can reduce the risk of blood clots and increase the production of nitric oxide, a key molecule in blood that helps lower blood pressure and increase circulation to the extremities.

The newest fad seems to be adding raw crushed cocoa beans to foods, especially desserts but to nondessert foods also, to add the nutritional qualities of chocolate as well as the delight that chocolate flavor gives. This would get around the major criticism most nutritionists have against chocolate, namely that it is associated with high amounts of saturated fat and refined sugar. If you do this, you should be aware that cocoa beans, since they are fermented for several months, harbor a variety of molds and bacteria that could pose a hazard. Peeling the beans, where the contamination resides, and using only the husk in cooked foods can solve this problem.

The Mayans and Aztecs considered cocoa beans the "food of the gods" and even used the beans as money. Used prudently chocolate can certainly be enjoyed without guilt, which is more than we can say for most of the pleasurable foods in our culture.

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chocolate, cocoa beans, flavonols, Mayans, Aztecs

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