Chocolate is Good for You….Maybe!

November 12, 2012

Chocolate is Good for You….Maybe!

The good news is that a medical study has indicated that there may be benefits gained from eating chocolate. However on deeper reading it becomes apparent that the chocolate we eat still has many negative aspects so put your chocolate down and read on.

The first point to make clear is that the chocolate we eat is a refined product made from the unhealthiest parts of the cocoa bean with lots of sugar and full cream milk added. The chocolate that may have some benefits is made with dried cocoa beans which are ground down and made into a drink. The chocolate so common in our culture is made from cocoa beans, but they have been roasted and processed in various other ways and then combined with other ingredients including whole milk. The processing removes two components from the cocoa beans: cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Cocoa powder is made from the solids. Our chocolate is manufactured by cocoa solids and cocoa butter being combined and adding other ingredients. The color of the chocolate relates to the amount of cocoa solids compared to added ingredients, such as milk. The darker the chocolate, the more cocoa solids it contains and researchers believe solids are where the healthy compounds are. White chocolate does not contain cocoa solids.

Presently all research pertaining to the benefits of chocolate is open to critical challenge, there are no conclusive findings, however there are some positive indications. Chocolate being good for you as a research subject all began when the Kuna Indians, who live on islands near Panama began to be studied. Their diet was investigated and found to be conducive to high blood pressure and heart disease. Yet the researchers found there was no increased incidence of these conditions. By checking members of their group who moved away the researchers found that they developed heart disease and high blood pressure at typical rates. This indicated that it was not genetic. So further investigation into their isolated lifestyle took place to find what was keeping the blood pressure from rising. A researcher, specializing in the effect of chocolate on blood pressure from the Medical University of South Carolina stated that, “What was particularly striking about their environment was the amount of cocoa they consumed, which was easily 10 times more than most of us would get in a typical day”.

The cocoa that the Kuna people consumed is not at all similar to the chocolate that most Americans eat. The Kuna do not eat it, they drink it. The drink is made with dried and ground cocoa beans (the seeds of the cocoa tree) along with a little added sweetener.

There have been many research studies undertaken in recent years into health properties that chocolate may contain. There have also been laboratory studies which have discovered that there may be some preventative mechanisms when considering some common health conditions. One big issue when considering findings and the difficulty when trying to interpret these studies is that the definition of chocolate is unclear. Different chocolates are often being investigated and so their ingredients and health effects may vary.

Doctor Luc Djouss of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital says that “We have good science on chocolate, especially about dark chocolate on blood pressure”. His research team carried out a study which suggested that “chocolate may, in fact, lower blood pressure”. The team found that people who eat more chocolate generally had lower blood pressure.

Another issue with these studies is the accuracy of chocolate eaters’ memories because many times people were asked to recall their chocolate eating habits from before. In addition to this all of the clinical trials were fairly short term, they may be able to identify markers that are factors related to health, but not the long term results of such behavior. This means that they can identify things like increased or decreased blood pressure but cannot relate it to an increased or decreased incidence of heart disease or strokes.

Controlling how much chocolate a group of people can eat and tracking them for a longer period of time, as yet has not been feasible. Another issue with any study is that chocolate cannot be considered in isolation. Perhaps someone in the study group started doing a bit more exercise, changed to semi skimmed milk or started to eat whole grain instead of refined foods. Everyone in the group’s lifestyle must also be controlled, an almost impossible task some may say. Unless it is a controlled study then only associations can be concluded, not proven facts about the benefits of chocolate.

Some experts maintain that chocolate contains chemicals which can inhibit cancer. But because of the slow development time of cancer, sometimes over a period of years, actual proof of the beneficial effects of chocolate is still unproven. Researchers tend to address any changes to cancer incidence of chocolate eaters compared to non chocolate eaters and if chocolate eaters have, for example, higher success rates when dealing with cancer.

Presently all findings lack consistency, and evidence that chocolate is beneficial to cancer sufferers will not stand up to scrutiny. However some studies appear to indicate some effect. Diabetes may also be improved by eating chocolate according to some research. But proving this has met with similar problems as before.

Major reasons why these studies are so difficult to interpret include; people eat different types of chocolate, and hence different ingredients, it is very hard to control a group’s life style and the long timescale taken for these diseases to develop. There are always too many uncontrolled factors for proof to be obtained.

Some things are certain though. Chocolate does contain flavanols (so does tea, fruit, vegetables and wine). Flavanols are considered to be responsible for chocolate’s positive properties. But because of its bitter taste chocolate manufacturers remove some or all of the flavanol during the chocolate processing. This produces another unknown. No one knows how much flavanol, if any, is in different brand’s chocolate.

So we know that chocolate is very high in calories, has lots of sugar and very high fat content. That is certain! We have no proof about benefits, but do have pointers carried out by reputable researchers that there may be some health qualities. The decision is yours to make. Keep eating chocolate, whilst being aware of the risks of exceeding a healthy weight or stop eating chocolate and see what happens in the future.

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