Chocolate paradox

  • Health
  • Sunday, 22 Jun 2003


CAN chocolate really be good for you? Doesn’t it contain compounds that are good for the heart? Isn’t it true that chocolate won’t raise your cholesterol?  

Yes and no. It’s not that simple.  

Americans consume about three billion pounds of chocolate a year, according to the Chocolate Manufacturers of America, a Virginia-based trade group that has designated the first week of March as American Chocolate Week. So when a Penn State study came out in 2001 showing that the people in the study who consumed chocolate had higher levels of “good” cholesterol, it was big news.  

But doctors caution that you shouldn’t be quick to substitute a candy bar for broccoli.  

“Foods are very complex,” says Steven Horowitz, director of cardiology at Stamford Hospital. “There are many foods that have both positive and negative properties about them, and chocolate is a good example because it contains more than 300 compounds.  

“In our reductionist approach, we isolate compounds and show that ‘this compound does that’ and ‘that compound does this.’ But no one knows what happens when the compounds are working together.”  

Chocolate contains a small amount of caffeine (an ounce contains about the same amount as a cup of decaffeinated coffee), as well as compounds that may affect endorphin levels in the brain. It also includes substances called polyphenol antioxidants, which are also found in tea and red wine.  

Antioxidants in the bloodstream essentially mop up substances called free radicals, small reactive molecules that cause damage to the body, which scientists believe may be the triggers for serious diseases such as cancer and heart disease. They also may be related to cognitive deterioration that comes with ageing. Dark chocolate has more antioxidants than milk chocolate.  

Antioxidants are found in plant-based foods. Chocolate is essentially a plant-based food, derived from the cacao tree, before all the fat and sugar are added to it when it becomes candy. And saturated fat and sugar are unhealthy for your heart, Horowitz says.  

A few studies have shown that chocolate does not increase cholesterol in the blood, he says, and people who ate chocolate still had the ability to lower their cholesterol when they went on a low-animal-fat diet.  

But everything in our lifestyle works in intricate and complex ways. “To assume that we can isolate one of these compounds and correct a lifestyle is naive,” Horowitz says. “We can’t eat cheeseburgers like crazy and be obese and sedentary and think if we pop a couple of pills we suddenly turn into healthy, svelte athletes.”  

So what does he tell his patients?  

“When it comes to chocolate, telling them anything doesn’t mean much,” he says with a laugh. “What I tell people who like to eat chocolate is to have dark chocolate, and maybe the ideal way is surrounded by walnuts or almonds, which have lots of fibre and lenolenic acid,” a substance that studies have shown to be beneficial.  

The key is moderation, he says.  

“Many foods have evidence of both good and bad,” Horowitz says. “Shrimp is very low in fat and has the mostly good omega-3 fat, but is also relatively high in cholesterol.  

Is it good or bad to eat a lot of shrimp? Some studies show that it doesn’t raise cholesterol in the blood all that much, unless you’re eating it like a whale – and some people do.  

“As a physician, it’s hard to make a recommendation because people will twist it and distort it into what suits them.” – LAT-WP 

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