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Chocolate as Health Food?

It's a clever marketing pitch from Mars Inc., the maker of the new functional chocolate bar, CocoaVia: Eat not just one, but two bars a day every day for lasting heart-health protection. Stop eating them and the benefits will cease. Mars claims its new products are healthful because they contain chocolate's natural heart-healthy ingredients, along with special added ones. Other chocolate makers are also taking advantage of the latest reports that chocolate is good for you, such as Spa Chocolate, which claims that it's made with health in mind.

Is chocolate really the new health food? While it's true that chocolate contains beneficial substances, most bars and cocoas don't live up to the marketing hype. Here's a look at the potential benefits and drawbacks of chocolate.

A rich history

Chocolate dates back to ancient America when the Mayans, and later the Aztecs, ground the beans of the Theobroma cacao tree into a bitter beverage, which they prized for its mystical and medicinal attributes. Chocolate's name comes from the Aztec word, xocalatl, which means bitter water. Cortés, the conqueror of the Aztecs, brought the beans to Europe in the 1500s, where they were used to treat anemia, fever, gout, hemorrhoids, poor digestion, depression, and heart ailments. Today, chocolate is usually a highly processed blend of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter (all fat), cocoa powder, sugar, emulsifiers, and milkfar different from its origins. White chocolate contains no real chocolate at allit's just cocoa fat, sugar, and flavorings.

Sweet findings

Chocolate may benefit the heart in several ways. First, cocoa (chocolate without the fat) has an aspirin-like effect, helping prevent blood clotsa cause of heart attacks. In a University of California, Davis study, for example, people who drank a cocoa beverage showed a decrease in blood clotting for six hours. Cocoa also helps relax and dilate blood vessels, so blood flows more easily. Dark chocolate may even lower blood pressure, according to several studies, including one from Italy in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in March.

What about chocolate's effect on blood cholesterol? It appears to be neutralor slightly beneficial. Although the fat in chocolate is predominantly saturated, the main saturated fat is stearic acid, which doesn't raise blood cholesterol as other saturated fats do. About one-third of the fat is monounsaturated fat, which slightly lowers cholesterol. Moreover, some studies suggest that chocolate helps prevent the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol and its ensuing damage to coronary arteries.

These potential heart-health benefits are attributed, in part, to chocolate's flavonoids, the same group of phytochemicals found in tea and red wine. Tests have shown that the flavonoids in chocolate are particularly potent antioxidants. Chocolate also contains some plant sterols, B vitamins, magnesium, copper, potassium, and other heart-healthy substances.

Chocolate caveats

Still, there has never been a study showing that chocolate actually prevents heart disease or other disorders. And most of the research largely funded by the chocolate industry has used cocoa or chocolate containing high levels of flavonoids, not the chocolate candy you're likely to eat. Commercial chocolates and cocoas are typically processed (roasted and alkalinized) in ways that destroy much of their phytochemicals; they also often contain milk fat (in milk chocolate) and lots of sugar. White chocolate contains no flavonoids at all. There's also some evidence that the milk in milk chocolate (or drinking milk with dark chocolate) may interfere with the absorption of flavonoids. Plus, you can't ignore chocolate's calories (about 135 to 150 calories per ounce), which can wipe out any health benefits if you gain weight. To get the blood pressure lowering effect seen in the Italian study, the volunteers ate 3.5 ounces of chocolate (about 500 calories) a day! It's unknown if smaller amounts would have had the same effect.

Enjoy chocolate on occasion for pleasure, not as a health food. If you want higher levels of flavonoids, choose dark chocolate (look for a high cocoa content) and cocoa not processed with alkali (that is, not Dutch cocoa). Better yet, eat more fruits and vegetables, which are still the best source of flavonoids in your diet, since they also contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals not found in chocolate. There are mixed feelings about Mars's CocoaVia bars. They're made with special high-flavonoid cocoa, contain added heart-healthy plant sterols, and are nearly fat-free. But such functional foods, with their health claims, occupy a gray area between food and medicine. CocoaVia's benefits are still unproven. Eat it only if you like itand are willing to pay the premium price.

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